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'Couch potato' gamers who make millions

Tim Macrae sets the music for the intro for his gaming broadcast on July 28. Alex Kormann / Charlotte Observer1 / 2
Tim Macrae plays with his daughter Mia before beginning his gaming broadcast on July 28. Macrae is a professional gamer who broadcasts live each night via Twitch, where thousands of people tune in to watch. Alex Kormann / Charlotte Observer2 / 2

WASHINGTON — Think twice before scoffing at someone who sits much of each day playing video games. It might be that the gamer is engaged in a career. Even a lucrative one.

What it takes is a camera, editing skills and, often, a magnetic personality.

YouTube and Twitch, a streaming service that belongs to Amazon, teem with thousands of channels dedicated to electronic gaming, a $30 billion a year industry. And some of the hosts of those channels are breakout stars, giving commentary as they play along to Assassin's Creed, Minecraft or dozens of other game franchises.

An estimated 93 YouTube gaming channels pull in revenue of at least $1 million a year, said Danny Fratella, operations manager of Social Blade, a data company that tracks growth on social media platforms. A handful earn over $12 million a year.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of hosts of other gaming channels toil at a lower level, earning incomes that range from modest to handsome.

They include people like Tyler McVicker, a 20-year college senior from Vienna, Ohio, who quit his job at Wal-Mart once his Valve News Network gaming channel took off on YouTube, eventually reaching 250,000 subscribers.

"I make a decent living," McVicker said. "I support myself and my fiance."

Fans watch live and on-demand gaming videos and channels, and generally chat about shared interests on an adjacent scrolling screen as they tune in.

"There's many different genres of gaming videos," McVicker said. "The type that most people know of is the face of the gamer in a corner of the video while he's playing the game. People call them Let's Plays. That's a booming industry."

Avid gamers spend lots of time in front of their consoles and screens — with nearly half spending 20 hours or more a week — and their average age is creeping up to 30 years old, according to Curse, a gaming network owned by Twitch.

Many successful gaming channel hosts maintain low production values and banter with subscribers as they play. For avid gamers and fans, the channels become social networks.

"Fans aren't really looking for flashy content or the most high-quality production value," Fratella said.

Not everyone who puts in long hours and hard work can make a living at it.

Ash Leavenworth, a 32-year-old Portland, Oregon, host who's gaming channel goes by the name Stumpt, works with three friends. In under four years, they have produced 3,000 videos.

"For quite a while, we were doing two videos a day, sometimes more than that, which is crazy," said Leavenworth, who still holds down a full-time job in information technology.

"It's a full second job. We don't really have proper weekends anymore," he said.

"We remodeled our entire garage to be our studio," Leavenworth said, adding that the group has racked up a quarter million YouTube subscribers, which is not yet enough to cut the cord from the day job. "I'd like to be doing this full time."

But make no mistake, those who break out as gaming hosts, no matter how modest their videos may seem, are huge stars at VidCon, Gamescon and other conventions.

"I've seen them just swarmed by fans," said Dave Klein, a Los Angeles-based former manager for gaming stars, "little screaming girls and things like that, and they actually need security to escort them out."

Forbes Magazine lists at least four YouTube gaming hosts with annual earnings above $12 million. They include Dan Middleton (an Englishman known as DanTDM), Felix Kjellberg (a Swede who is one of YouTube's highest earning personalities and goes by PewDiePie), Mark Fischbach (an former biomedical engineering student known online as Markiplier) and Evan Fong (a Toronto native known as VanossGaming).

When Markiplier would appear at a gaming convention, Klein said, "it was insane how many people would show up."

Several recent incidents have thrown challenges at the online gaming world.

One episode involved a fatality. Disgruntled players arguing over Call of Duty, an online game, contacted a Los Angeles man who allegedly made a hoax emergency call Dec. 28 to police in Wichita, Kansas, saying a family had been taken hostage. Police arrived with guns drawn, and killed a 28-year-old unarmed man.

Kansas police charged the alleged caller, Tyler Raj Barriss, 25, with involuntary manslaughter over the "swatting" incident, so named because it involved a police SWAT team.

While the gaming conflict originated on a non-YouTube website, it was one of several recent incidents that have caused jitters among online advertisers.

A second hurdle for the industry came from the Federal Communications Commission, which in December ruled that internet service providers can set up fast and slow lanes for content, ending what is known as net neutrality.

Twitch chief executive Emmett Shear said last month that his company might not exist without net neutrality, and that Twitch's clients are vulnerable small business owners.

Whether the FCC ruling dents the industry is yet to be seen. YouTube is a subsidiary of Google, and Twitch belongs to Amazon. Both companies are powerhouses, unlikely to take blows from internet service providers lying down.

For hosts seeking to break out on online gaming channels, the times are nerve wracking. Less popular hosts are not always seen as bankable entities.

"What amazes me is that a TV show right now can pull in one million views and pay for an entire production team, a production staff," Klein said. YouTube stars in gaming earn far less. "It feels like there is a discrepancy there."

But others say the rise of niche videos, like electronic gaming, on YouTube and other platforms is biting hard into traditional screen media.

"We are moving far and fast away from models like NBC, CBS, ABC," said Jon Brence, director of talent at Fullscreen Media, a Los Angeles entertainment company focused on YouTube content. "We are moving into hyper-focused small pocket communities."

Brence said one of his YouTube gaming stars, known as PopularMMOs, racks up 200 million views per month on his gaming channel: "He drives more viewership than most series television."

An actor by training, Brence recalled how his mother discouraged his video-game habits, offering comments that probably echoed across millions of U.S. households.

"She was always, like, 'Jon, they will never do anything excerpt hurt your eyes,' " Brence said.

Unlike YouTube, Twitch is primarily a live streaming platform, the world's largest video game ecosystem. It gets 15 million unique viewers a day, and average time spent is 106 minutes per day, said a company spokesman, Chase, who goes only by one name.

How many stars on Twitch are making big bucks is not publicly known, partly because the revenue model is different. Followers receive notifications when hosts go online. Fans often subscribe, paying between $5 and $15 a month for certain perks while watching. Other fans donate directly to the stars. Other revenue streams include merchandise sales.

Even "bad" players who are congenial can become stars, court jesters of the gaming age.

"You can be the best player in the world or the worst player in the world, but if you are engaged with your audience you can still make a living on our service," Chase said.

Advertisers are waking up to the audience potential from video channels.

"In the early days, it was just gaming companies working with us. Now, every industry works with us, every Hollywood studio, automobile company, food, beverage, apparel, you name it," he said.

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