The Pandemic Closed My Small Business. Now I Make A Living Streaming Video Games.
December 31, 2020
One minute I had full-time work at the zero-waste, plant-based street food and catering business my partner founded in late 2018. The next, all of our business was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dozens of people I know also lost their jobs or had to shutter their companies.
I counted my blessings (and savings, which could last me and my partner three to four months at best). I qualified for CERB’s monthly $2,000 payment, and anxiously tried without success to find a new job or contract work in IT. The world suddenly felt very scary and uncertain.
In the meantime, I reconnected with my childhood friend, Alex. We met 16 years ago, two high-school nerds with a shared dream of becoming popular streamers. We launched NotCasuals, a YouTube channel featuring gaming guides, tips, tricks and how-tos, in 2011. Within half a year we had videos at almost a million views, making us about $1,000 apiece — almost unheard of on the relatively new platform.
Over time, we drifted apart as friends and put a hold on our gaming ambitions. I moved to Dubai for work in 2015, and then to Vancouver. Alex followed his dream and started a career in Québec’s video game industry.
During the pandemic, the isolation of working from home was making him unhappy, so we restarted our channel just for fun. Our distraction from the state of the world evolved into a full-time job. The channel has doubled in size to almost 40,000 subscribers, and we’ve expanded to streaming on a promising new, Twitch-like platform called Trovo. While the money we make varies month to month, it’s certainly enough to live on. And I can’t imagine doing anything else. Here’s how we do it.
A normal workday starts by checking social media and gaming news websites for announcements or updates about the games we play — a quick and easy topic for a new Youtube video. Otherwise, Alex and I spend a few hours brainstorming ideas for that week’s videos and guides. We try to script, record, edit and upload at least five videos every week.
Alex focuses on streaming six to 12 (or more) hours every single day, whereas I stream four to five nights a week, for three to five hours at a time. Sometimes it feels like a lot, but we do not want to lose our momentum.
How we make money
In the beginning, we made a few hundred dollars a month on Youtube. It was nice, but not at all enough for two people to live on. The average video can earn anywhere from $0.50 to $15 per thousand views; our gaming videos, geared towards a younger audience, earn a relatively low $1 to $3 per thousand views. We currently make about $100 daily this way.
We have since expanded our revenue streams beyond Youtube. Paid subscriptions on social video platforms can make us about $5 a month each (half of which is taken by the platforms). Some streaming platforms pay content creators regularly, allowing us to make between US$700 and US$6,000 a month depending on the number of hours watched. Recently a game studio paid us a few hundred dollars for a sponsored video, which is how the vast majority of content creators make money.
What makes good content
At first, the fact that we were exceptionally good at the games we played and could discuss them in depth was enough to attract viewers. We would just play and talk off the top of our heads. However, it became clear that the viewers we hoped to attract — committed returning viewers — are always looking for something specific, and they want it fast. We shifted to creating shorter, well-structured and scripted videos focused on a single tip, trick or piece of information. These videos were easier to produce and performed significantly better.
We started with the minimum: a gaming computer, built-in webcam and a headset. But to stand out from the millions of other videos being uploaded every day, often at low quality, we’ve re-invested most of the money we’ve made into upgrading our equipment. We bought a second high-end computer with a top-of-the-line video card for editing our content, as well as a green screen, a high-quality webcam and studio-quality lighting.
We rebooted the channel in June 2020 playing the popular mobile game Rise of Kingdoms. While it is smart to feature games with a large base, we quickly moved onto the beta version of the less-known action roleplaying game, Genshin Impact, before it surged in popularity amid one of the most successful launches of all time. With less competition and more room to grow, our channel saw 1,000-per-cent growth two months in a row. Limiting the number of titles and genres we played also created consistency that enticed viewers to come back.
Building a community
The hardest part of building a gaming channel is growing your audience. Ordinarily that can take months or years, but everyone is suddenly a gamer in the pandemic. Our target audience blew up overnight, and so did our viewers. Streams that previously attracted six viewers now held a captive audience of up to a thousand asking questions, bantering about life and generally staving off the isolation many people are now feeling.
Between our streams and a Discord channel with 3,000 members, we’re constantly connected with our viewers — you wouldn’t believe how many watch our stream while they work. That puts pressure on us to show up every day with new content, as our community looks forward to and expects it. In addition to making work enjoyable, maintaining a loyal community is important to our bottom line, and provides us with real-time feedback that helps us make content that interests them.
One of the biggest challenges is the uncertainty of it all, much like the pandemic itself. You read horror stories of people having accounts shut down over accusations, copyright issues or bugs. You can spend hours and hours on a video that nobody clicks, or spend very little time on a video that goes absolutely viral. You don’t know if a video game you reviewed will lose popularity, or if your content will simply get dropped by the algorithm one day.
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We have not done this long enough to have had a “bad” month yet, but there are weeks when we would see our views dropping closer and closer to zero, with no end in sight. It is times like that that force us to constantly innovate with giveaways, on-stream events or breaking out the cosplay — whatever it takes to stand out and keep our channel afloat in a pandemic.
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