In today’s era of confinement and confusion, it’s fitting that one of the most memorable performances of the year was given by a pair of sitting U.S. congresswomen attempting to destroy each other on board an alien spaceship. No other quarantine moment so effortlessly bridged generations and perspectives as when representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, and Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, joined the streaming platform Twitch in October to play Among Us, the low-fi space-themed multiplayer game that has soared to popularity during the pandemic.
Conceived by Ocasio-Cortez as an impromptu Generation Z voter initiative, the online event ended up being an only-in-2020 slice of high-camp theater. Watching Ocasio-Cortez’s pink AOC astronaut avatar engage in two-dimensional intergalactic carnage while a live video showed the headphone-clad congresswoman dispensing wisecracks (“What kind of futuristic spaceship still runs a combustion engine?”) between musings on health care and the presidential race was a remarkable reminder that livestreaming sites such as Twitch are now some of the most exciting stages on which to witness the zeitgeist unfold. There was even a rare moment of bipartisanship: At one point, Ocasio-Cortez broadcast that Justin Amash, the former Republican representative from Michigan, had just texted her to say that he was “highly entertained” by the surreal spectacle unfolding before him and the more than 430,000 other users who had tuned in.
Much has been said about the fact that the congresswomen’s Among Us event was one of Twitch’s most watched ever. Attendance was just shy of the individual record held by the gaming megastar Richard Tyler Blevins, better known by his online alias, Ninja, for a Fortnite match with Drake in 2018. Yet Ocasio-Cortez and Omar, ever the skilled political actors, understood that on Twitch they had been cast in supporting roles. The real breakout talents of 2020 were the charismatic costars who joined them for the stream, including Benjamin Lupo, aka DrLupo, 33, who is widely recognized as one of the most popular video game players in the world, and Imane “Pokimane” Anys, 24, currently the platform’s most popular female streamer and its highest female earner. “It all spawned from a couple of tweets and replies, which is kind of crazy to think about, but also very in line with how my industry functions,” said Pokimane, who has amassed more than 6 million Twitch followers for her laid-back streams of games like Cyberpunk 2077—not to mention her coquettish cosplayesque charm. “AOC killed me in the game,” she added. “It was an honor to virtually die by her hand.”
More than merely addressing members of Gen Z (and even younger future voters) as valued constituents, AOC’s outreach was a tacit admission that a seismic shift in popular culture has taken place under quarantine. As a result of concerts, live sports, theater, and movies being largely replaced by home confinement for most of 2020, more and more people turned to video games. It’s no secret that gaming has long eclipsed the film and music industries in terms of sales. Twitch, which Amazon purchased in 2014, now hosts close to 30 million average daily visitors, up from 17.5 million before the pandemic hit. This boom has resulted in an entire generation of young people who view DrLupo, Pokimane, Ninja, and Kathleen “Loserfruit” Belsten, a sassy 27-year-old Australian gamer, as mainstream celebrities with the influence and clout typically reserved for professional athletes and pop stars.
“For kids between, say, ages 10 and 20, these streamers have the type of name-brand recognition more associated with someone like LeBron James,” said Gillian Sheldon, a communications strategist who works with Ali “Myth” Kabbani, a Fortnite Battle Royale virtuoso who is currently the fifth-most-followed player on Twitch (and, it should be pointed out, the only Black person ever to have cracked the Top 10). Myth has achieved crossover success through partnerships with brands like Uber Eats and by appearing in a comedic promotional video alongside Samuel L. Jackson for the film Shaft. On a single day in December 2020, more than 100,000 viewers spent a collective 404,502 hours watching Myth play the weapon-based combat game Valorant. That’s the equivalent of 46 years, which is, give or take a few years, the age of the average Twitch streamer’s parents.
There’s no reason to believe this trend will abate even after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. All of those hours spent on Valorant and Fortnite are about more than merely killing time. Technological advances have transformed gaming from a personal hobby into a crucial outlet for shared experiences and human interaction on a global scale. “People wanted more and more to watch people playing video games because it’s a more modern way of social interaction,” DrLupo said. “And it is only becoming more popular among a larger demographic.”
Today, gaming is an experimental hub for music (Grimes voiced the character of Lizzy Wizzy in Cyberpunk 2077 and created a companion DJ mix for the hit game), performance art (Gorillaz and Beck hosted an in-game Animal Crossing performance together in October), and fashion shows (Balenciaga created its own video game, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, to showcase its fall 2021 collection). The big business of gaming has also resulted in an array of commercial opportunities (Ninja has a Red Bull can with his face on it and appeared with Travis Scott in a commercial for Samsung’s Galaxy Note9), outside-the-industry partnerships (Pokimane joined Markiplier and Jacksepticeye’s clothing brand, Cloak, as partner and creative director in June), and even job recruiting (earlier this year, the Army and Navy caused controversy for targeting gamers on Twitch for enlistment). Then there is the entire multibillion-dollar esports industry, in which highly trained “elite” video game professionals compete on teams in championships for games like League of Legends and Overwatch.
The Twitch explosion includes players from all backgrounds. Besides politicians like AOC, James Charles, PewDiePie, and other YouTube and TikTok influencers have tried their hand at Among Us. Hasan Piker, 29, a progressive political vlogger, has become one of the platform’s most-watched streamers, discussing hot-button topics like men’s rights versus feminism and presidential politics. Nigel Sylvester, a professional BMX athlete who has designed his own pair of Nike Air Jordan 1’s, was recently announced as the latest member of XSET, a gaming brand focused on diversity within the esport space. “I believe gaming has the ability to seamlessly bring people and communities together from all walks of life, no matter where you’re based in the world, your race, cultural beliefs, or social status,” Sylvester said. Even chess, an ancient game not typically associated with the Call of Duty crowd, now attracts tens of thousands of viewers to watch high-stakes matches for hours on end. Last August, the grand master Hikaru Nakamura, 33, signed a six-figure contract with Team SoloMid, an elite professional video game organization, in the hope that his online empire will expand to include merchandise and advertising deals. Following chess “can be as fun as watching two top players play Fortnite or -Minecraft or Hearthstone,” Nakamura said, because “there’s a lot of action.” Stay-at-home orders, he added, “set the stage for games that are easy to learn but hard to master.”
Not everyone is a fan of this digital shift, however. In a July episode of his wildly popular podcast, Joe Rogan described modern gaming culture as a “real problem” because titles like Fortnite are so addictive that they “waste your time,” especially when compared with off-line physical hobbies like martial arts. But what critics say Rogan is missing is that the best Twitch performances feel surprisingly intimate; their spectators form tight-knit communities. “Streamers connect with their viewers far more than most online celebrities, because you watch them live and you see inside their homes, and they often reply to your comments in real time in chat,” said Mark R. Johnson, Ph.D., a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney who researches livestreaming and is also an independent game developer. DrLupo, for example, typically livestreams playing Call of Duty and Destiny 2 from the basement of his house for upwards of 11 hours a day. It’s not uncommon to see his 5-year-old son accidentally waddle into view, only to be rescued by his wife, Samantha, whom fans affectionately call “MrsDrLupo.” “A lot of people have been watching me since before my kid was even born, so it can feel like we’re on a journey together,” DrLupo said, jokingly adding that at the age of 33, he is “the old man of gaming.”
It’s not uncommon for these stars to open up emotionally, either. The morning that DrLupo’s father passed away, in 2018, thousands of fans sent their condolences. Pokimane has used Twitch’s chat function—which allows audiences to interact through text chat in real time—to discuss mental health issues and her decision to see a therapist. Alexis “AlexisAyeee” Anderson, an up-and-coming 24-year-old personality attracting a following for her role-playing games, said that the Twitch bubble offered her a life raft while she was enlisted in the military several years ago. “Unfortunately, being a Black gay woman in the military is not the easiest,” Anderson said, “and so streaming was my safe haven. Twitch actually turned into a giant community of people who had really similar experiences or walks of life that I could relate to, and helped me get through what I was going through. I didn’t expect it. It just happened.”
Not that the platform is immune to toxicity. Anderson says she has received plenty of homophobic and racist comments from viewers. “If I’m gonna be honest, I would love to be on the scale that, you know, a Pokimane or a DrLupo is on. But I also know that it’s harder for me because I embrace my Blackness and my queerness all the time,” she said. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, Anderson was heartened to see many top streamers announce their support for the movement. But she noticed that, faced with potential sponsorship backlash and partisan fan culture, some of them slowly quieted their encouragement. Twitch itself was criticized when it posted a video to its Twitter page that included the caption “Working together to make an impact for Black lives” but that overwhelmingly featured white creators. “I’m definitely more cautious about the people I let into my spaces, specifically because of BLM and the chastising that goes along with it,” Anderson said.
Confronted with growing concerns about unsafe environments, in December Twitch unveiled new guidelines aimed at stopping hateful conduct and sexual harassment. (Streamers are now prohibited from displaying the Confederate battle flag, for example.) The updated rules go further than those of competitors like Twitter and Facebook, in part because the in-real-time nature of livestreaming is inherently more personal than writing a tweet or posting a photo. “When it comes to polished, compelling performances on Twitch, the ‘flow’ between audience and performer is a really important part of the story,” said T.L. Taylor, a sociologist and professor at MIT and the author of Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming. “It’s not easy to externalize and articulate the experience of playing video games—an experience that is often in our heads—to others. This kind of closeness to the audience is complicated to navigate, even more so for women streamers, people of color, or other marginalized groups.”
There is also the lingering issue of the gaming industry’s highly male--dominated culture. “There can be instances of it feeling like a boys club, which can be understandably intimidating for women who are considering entering this field,” Pokimane said. Still, she observes increases in female viewership. A case in point: Pokimane’s mother teaches elementary school students, who Pokimane jokes are “definitely the Fortnite audience.” Boys and girls “come in every day and tell my mom, ‘Poki did this, Poki did that.’ She gets a daily update on her daughter at school. It’s really cute.”
But even as Twitch as a whole has had its share of hiccups navigating complex issues surrounding race, gender, and politics, the platform frequently provides an avenue for change. It is common for viewers to send donations to their favorite stars in exchange for additional content or as a way to show their appreciation. Last November, Pokimane put a $5 cap on any financial contributions in the hope that, she said, fans who planned to give to her well-funded channel might instead direct their efforts to newcomers more in need of financial assistance. DrLupo has made philanthropy a large part of his public persona, most noticeably through his inventive use of 24-hour live events to raise millions of dollars for St. Jude -Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. “As video games become more and more mainstream, I want people to know that, as a whole, gaming is a positive thing,” DrLupo said. “Gaming has raised millions of dollars for a ton of different causes. It’s the root of most of the friendships that I hold. It’s been a connector for both my wife and my son, who are actually playing Fallout Shelter as we speak,” he added, referring to the free-to-play simulation game that tasks players with managing their own underground bunker.
He grew increasingly impassioned as he spoke. “Gaming is so much more than it was 10 years ago,” he continued. “And if there are some people still turned off by it, I would encourage them to sit down and just play a game of Tetris, enjoy the music that comes along with it, the game, and savor the whole experience. Because gaming is in an incredible place right now. And it’s only going up from here.”