Paid to play: How some Ottawa gamers are making a living doing what they love
Serious streamers can build a loyal online fan base of thousands thanks to platforms like Twitch
It's 6 p.m. and Robin Lee is booting up her computer and getting down to work. For the next several hours, she'll remain hunkered down in her Nepean living room while people halfway around the world watch her every move.
Lee is a professional streamer on the immensely popular online gaming platform Twitch, where she goes by the moniker HiveQueen_. With over 18,000 dedicated followers from around the world, she describes herself as the queen bee of her own global online community.
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The feedback is instantaneous: viewers interact with comments and animated emojis, so Lee knows when her hive is buzzing. They also pay real money to watch her play.
Before establishing her Twitch channel, Lee taught English in a rural town in South Korea with her husband, Sean Lee.
"My husband suggested I try streaming to make friends," she recalled.
While Lee connected with viewers on camera, her husband worked behind the scenes on graphic design and video editing. In just under two years, the HiveQueen_ channel gained 10,000 followers.
Lee transitioned to full-time streaming once her Twitch earnings surpassed her teacher's salary. She now makes between $35,000 and $45,000 per year, working overnight because that's when her audience logs on to watch her.
Gaming for a cause
Kristy MacPherson hasn't quit her day job yet, but she does spend hours gaming on a competing platform called Mixer as a means of fundraising. Under the screen name KavMac, MacPherson, who lives in Vanier, has raised about $5,000 for CHEO.
For MacPherson, streaming is both a form of entertainment and a way to give back. "I was a CHEO kid," she explained. "I don't need the money, but kids — they need a lot."
Though playing video games full time might appeal to some, Sean Lee actually cautions against pursuing it too seriously.
"Streaming seems like a viable career path, but in reality it's not," he said.
He attributes the success of HiveQueen_ to his wife's bubbly personality, and a whole lot of luck.
"We were so lucky. It's not easy to get noticed when you're starting out," he said.
To pay the streamers on Twitch, viewers donate through a currency called "bits." Sometimes, they're looking for more than games in return.
"Viewers can cash in currency, and I'll have to sing a song or do a silly dance," Robin Lee said.
Once, a subscriber asked her to eat a raw onion — and she did.
MacPherson said she's dyed her hair green, shaved it off and guzzled shots of hot sauce to entice viewers to up their donations.
When streamers hit a specific threshold of viewers, followers and time streamed, they become an official Twitch affiliate and can offer paid subscriptions.
Successful streamers get sponsored. Lee's headset, keyboard and gaming chair were provided by one of her sponsors.
Dealing with negative comments from trolls can be a major challenge for streamers, especially the female ones.
"They have no other purpose than to try to get a reaction out of you by saying something negative," Lee said.
To deal with that, HiveQueen_ designates volunteer moderators, or "mods," to flag rude comments and ban trolls.
The mods do that work for free, and Lee says her livelihood depends on building that kind of loyalty.
"If it adds value to someone's life, they're going to want to ensure that you can continue," she said.
The HiveQueen_channels draws a regular group of fans from as far away as Scotland, Norway and South Korea. Some have followed Lee for over three years.
CBC asked HiveQueen_ viewers why they pay to watch Lee stream.
DoctorBlah: "We give currency because we want to support. We like what she does and the environment she creates."
FrenchMathieu: "We enjoy our streams and by subscribing she can stream more often [on] better equipment."
Lee's viewers also cited the supportive online community as a reason to pay for content.
PandaRiding: "Robin knows each of us individually. And the community exists on Twitch and across much of the Internet."
Villkatten: "Robin's positive and loving vibes and the resounding vibe it has given this community has made me have a safe and loving place to engage for the first time in my life."
LanaKitsune: "The hive is so great. We have the best community. It's everyone. It's not just me."
Going IRL (in real life)
Video gamers may spend hours alone in front of their screens, but they will occasionally emerge to meet up in person to play games. A group called Ottawa Streamers meets on Tuesday nights at the Blurry Pixel bar on Queen Street.
"A lot of people don't understand why you'd watch people play video games, but it's all social," said Ottawa Streamers organizer Kyle Gardner, who streams under the name superRADIKAHL.
"If there are only a few people watching your stream, it could be lonely."
Before he returned to school to study computer science, Gardner said he would stream for up to seven hours a day. Now, he's hoping to one day develop the video games other streamers will play.
While most of Ottawa is sleeping, Robin continues to stream through the night. For seven hours straight, she communes with her fans around the world.
"I can never feel lonely while I'm streaming. I'm surrounded by such wonderful people," she said.