Livestreaming video games continues its meteoric rise across India, so much so that people are ready to give up their careers to do it full-time — be it a doctor who needs to pay for his medical degree or a financier earning a year’s worth of salary in one month
Total Gaming’s YouTube channel puts a 33-second countdown for Garena Free Fire (a battle royale multiplayer shooter game) live session. On the live chatbox, more than a hundred messages cascade within this half a minute.
Channel owner Ajay (known as Ajjubhai in the gaming world), welcomes his fast-increasing audience, reads out the sponsor’s name and gets down to business. In the four-hour-25-minute livestream, he makes silly jokes, replies to a few messages, gives shout-outs for Super Chat (a feature wherein viewers pay to highlight their message in the chatbox) and sings, as his characters roam, shoot, jump and dive. The stream, within two days, gets two million views on YouTube.
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Ajjubhai is a superstar streamer. He started in October 2018, with just four people watching his videos. Today, Total Gaming channel has over 26 million subscribers and its videos have been watched over four billion times. Ajjubhai, who featured in YouTube’s list of top live streamers for 2020, also owns an eSports team.
But this isn’t just about Ajjubhai. This is the story of Indian streamers like him who thrive in the global gaming industry, which generates US$159 billion a year in revenue (according to Newzoo, a gaming analytics company) — to put this in perspective, Qatar’s annual GDP in 2020 was US$146 billion.
Going by YouTube’s numbers, there has never been a better time for a streamer than last year. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay indoors, crowds for game-streaming surged. Last year saw 100 billion watch time hours, over 40 million active gaming channels, and more than 80,000 YouTube Gaming creators hitting 1,00,000 subscribers.
Show me the money
The bulk of streamers’ revenue come from three main sources: ads on YouTube, features such as Super Chats and Super Stickers, and sponsorship or brand deals. A small portion of gamers are also paid to beta-test video games for bugs and glitches before its launch to help developers iron out any kinks.
It is significantly more than what Hari Raman, a young doctor from Purushanur, a hamlet in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram district, earns through his job at Villupuram Medical College.
Hari’s YouTube channel, PVS Gaming, has close to two million subscribers. He started the channel in 2018 while pursuing his MBBS at a college in North India. “Because I couldn’t speak Hindi very well, I didn’t have a lot of friends at college. Streaming games in Tamil got me a lot of people to interact with online,” he says. His subscribers grew almost exponentially and the channel helped him meet his educational expenses, which, hitherto, was a challenge.
Numbers say it
- The number of gamers grew from 250 million in 2018 to 400 million by 2020, according to a KPMG report. But the biggest vertical that emerged in the last one year is game-streaming. Piyush Kumar, CEO, Rooter, exlains the increased watchtime: “It is probably the only way for users to engage on an Indian platform, as most of these games are made by international companies.”
- The global game livestreaming audience will hit 728.8 million in 2021, predicts Newzoo. By 2024, it is expected to reach over 920 million. The ad revenue is usually based on views and subscribers, so sponsorship deals pay the most. Super Chats are a bit random: you can get anything from ₹20 to ₹20,000. Kaashvi Hiranandani says someone sent her ₹1,00,000 once.
Hari had to overcome odds to be a doctor. He recalls how his village would treat his humble roots with derision — “Why does a coolie’s son want to be a doctor?”, some would ask. He fulfilled his dream early this year, finishing MBBS. But gaming, he says, has given him a bigger identity. Which is why he chose to name his channel after his village, Purushanur, which mocked him. his mother, Vijaya, who helped him realise his dream; and his grandfather, Selvaraj, who disowned him and his parents.
Hari can afford to give up his profession. But he won’t, because it is also his passion. Now, he dispenses medical advice during his streaming sessions. “There was a lot of hesitancy about taking the vaccine this year. I used to dispel the myths and misinformation,” he says.
The trend of tuning into a gamer’s let’s-play took on first life during the golden age of walkthroughs (mid 2010s), which would turn a streamer’s content into a helpful visual guide. For example, certain mission areas have hidden loot or some battles tend to be complex. These are often how many streamers kickstart their career since these queries tend to trend online as soon as a game launches, making their content more discoverable and relevant.
While YouTube still continues to be the most successful platform for game streaming in India, independent platforms such as Twitch, Rooter and Loco have seen ballooning audiences. These platforms serve as alternative sources of revenue for gamers, some of whom enter a contract with them for streaming.
Imagine a pyramid with top, middle and bottom sections, each representing the three categories of gamers: star players with their own clout, up-and-coming gamers with significant following, and novices.
Platforms such as Rooter, which has over 7.5 million active users of which 3.8 million come from their app, primarily target the bottom and middle parts that consist of a sizeable proportion of gamers. “YouTube is not going to support middle players because their algorithm throws them out of the system. These are gamers with potential to go big; we are giving equal opportunity irrespective of size,” says Piyush Kumar, CEO, Rooter.
Selling their personality
Live streaming sessions can go up to four or five hours. There are no time restrictions for streaming on Rooter, says Kumar. In fact, when Kumar got on a call with MetroPlus, a streaming had been on-going on for seven hours and still had over 1,200 followers.
Rooter, especially, has been actively building its brand by signing contracts with star gamers like Gyan Gaming, who has 11 million subscribers on YouTube, and PVS Gaming, with the biggest subscriber base in South India.
How do they hold their audience’s attention for so long?
“It is, in a sense, a performance,” says Kaashvi Hiranandani, who owns YouTube channel Kaash Plays. She has the energy of a Radio Jockey in her streams. “In real life, I am a bit reserved. If a person I am close to offline watches my stream, they will be shocked,” she says, but reckons this change in personality is necessary: “People are investing two or three hours of their time in what I am doing. It is like a TV show for them. So, I try to be as entertaining as possible.”
In a way, these streamers sell a personality — and, it needn’t always be theirs.
Ajjubhai, for instance, does it without even revealing his face. “When a fellow YouTuber gamer revealed his face after a while, people turned up at his house, and college. Fans even called his parents. I get very uncomfortable with such attention,” he says.
The regional connect
Language seems to be an important determiner in gaining followers. Hari reckons audiences prefer regional languages over English. All the Indian streamers featured in YouTube’s list of top live streamers for 2020 speak Hindi in their videos. Kaashvi, who grew up in Singapore, used to stream in English initially. But, upon her audience’s request, she polished her Hindi, which significantly increased her subscribers.
There are also streamers who use abusive language to draw followers, most of whom are adolescents. Scrutiny on such streamers increased in Tamil Nadu after the recent arrest of Madan Kumar Manikkam (known as Madan OP), after complaints on him hosting obscene conversations with minors and women.
This incident, Hari says, got a bad rap for streamers in Tamil Nadu. “Even my parents asked me to reconsider gaming,” he adds, “But streamers like this are in the minority.”
“Kids and young audiences copy our actions. So, I believe all creators online have a responsibility to ‘influence the right things’. No amount of frustration can justify using a cuss word or abusive language online,” says Ajjubhai.
Apart from swearing, Kaashvi avoids mentioning “alcohol, drugs or anything of that sort” because there are a lot of people aged below 18 who are watching. This self-regulation is important on the Internet with often misunderstood laws of free speech.
However, abuse can’t be prevented, especially when it comes from the audience. Kaashvi, as a female streamer, understands this better, explaining, “If I get 100 good comments, there will be 10 bad ones. And, some of them get really nasty. People know how to pick on one’s insecurities. I am fairly new to streaming, so it does bring me down.”
Despite the challenges, she continues to stream because it is as lucrative as it is fun.
Kaashvi works in finance, drawing “a mid-seven-figure salary” a year. But, she once made as much money in a month through streaming. She concludes, “It’s probably a dream job.”