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Burnout turned Twitch streamers' dreams of playing games full time into nightmares

Large desktop computer stands on a desk with a computer monitor. The monitor shows a video game with soldiers attacking. There is a keyboard, mouse and headphones on the desk as well. Digitally generated image.
Mikkel William
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Getty Images

Stephen Flavall makes his living by playing video games to an audience of thousands on Twitch. When he first started streaming, he only had about fifteen people at a time watching him. He liked how he could engage with a small community, cracking jokes while people cheered him on.

Unfortunately, the vibe changed as his popularity grew.

"Around 200 viewers was when it started getting exhausting," says Flavall. "Now I have like 2,000 viewers [at a time] and when that many people are asking you questions and telling you what to do, it becomes absolutely unmanageable. I started having anxiety, bordering on full panic attacks."

Flavall's gotten to a better place now, but his story isn't unique. Burnout is on the rise across the country, even for those whose work is — quite literally — play.

Few breaks, fewer vacations

While professional video gaming can sound like an enviable gig, it's not too different from being a performer. Streamers have an audience, a persona, and act in the same role for long hours.

Stephen Flavall, or "jorbs" on Twitch, with his occasional co-star, Zephyr the cat.
/ Stephen Flavall
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Stephen Flavall
Stephen Flavall, or "jorbs" on Twitch, with his occasional co-star, Zephyr the cat.

Streamers can't really take breaks, either. They risk their fanbase losing interest during a stream and logging off. Since they're self-employed, they can't rely on paid vacation, or sick leave. That leaves streamers wondering how to navigate making an income that isn't an official "job."

"If you have breaks during your stream, how do they work?" asked a reddit user on r/Twitch. "I've been streaming for a little bit, but found it's been difficult for me to go for much longer than two hours."

Another redditor commented on the appropriate length of a break: "20 minutes is way too long. I recommend five minutes because you don't want people to lose interest."

When Flavall, who goes by jorbs on Twitch, first started out, he also wasn't too keen on taking breaks, and that extended to time offline for vacation.

"I would worry about viewers losing interest in my channel if it was offline for a week or two," says Flavall. "But nowadays my content is unique enough and my viewers are long term enough that my viewerbase consistently returns when I come back."

Yet, even now, many of Flavall's "vacations" are really still work.

"Conventions like TwitchCon, opening celebrations for different game studios and production companies, in-person content creation opportunities, and other private chances to schmooze with sponsors or investors, all give the illusion of taking a break while ultimately actually being another work weekend," says Flavall.

Mixing it up and risking it all

Twitch audiences can also demand that streamers play games they may have soured on. Haelian, another Twitch streamer known for playing rogue-likes, got tired of trying to escape the underworld of Hades day-in and day-out. But that game made his stream popular, and his fans weren't pleased.

'Hades' streamer Haelian battles bosses and his own fatigue with the game.
/ Haelian
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Haelian
'Hades' streamer Haelian battles bosses and his own fatigue with the game.

"I was already burnt out from Hades, but I was splitting my time 50% other games and 50% Hades," says Haelian. "You get people that you don't really wanna hear say 'When is he gonna switch to Hades?' 'Why hasn't he started Hades yet?'"

What followed was a different kind of hell. Viewer participation dropped when Haelian started dedicating more time to other games. Fewer people would tune in if he wasn't fighting the Furies or squaring off against the Bull of Minos. That risked his livelihood. "How interactive people are with me and how interactive I am with them, all those things directly hit my wallet," says Haelian.

"Every content creator has gone through this, especially the ones that play games," says Haelian. "They start with this one thing that's popular, and then they try to do something else, and it's a struggle."

Stiff competition and inconsistent support

Twitch's competitive culture also fans the flames. It's not just that a streamer can tire of a game or rude viewers; they can also fall victim to a pervasive "always on" mentality.

Taylor Chou, Director of Talent Management at Evil Geniuses, an esports and gaming entertainment company, says that Twitch can be a pretty toxic work environment.

"When you're a streamer, you truly know that every single second that you are not online, grinding, posting, streaming — somebody [else] is," Chou says. "That's a lot of pressure for people to learn how to manage."

Chou also says that communicating with your audience and having a support system is key to mitigating streamer burnout.

"Most of the best ways to deal with burnout start with a support system," says Chou. "When you're a streamer, make sure that your community has a sense that this is a person they're watching."

That support has helped Stephen Flavall get his mojo back. He still plays his favorite game — Slay the Spire — for his audience every week, and has a small team to help manage sponsorship contracts and interviews.

But that kind of structure can take years to build, and while fans have rallied around streamers, they can just as often stress or even harass them. That leaves many burnt out and on their way to signing off for good.

Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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