Earlier this year, MacNcheeseP1z tried livestreaming a movie-watch party via Kast for the first time, and she was a bundle of nerves.
“I’m trying something new—is it going to be perceived well, wondering if I’m going to be in there by myself,” she recalls worrying. “Am I going to be a loser watching a movie online by myself?”
But then viewers started trickling in—dozens of friends and online followers. “I can’t say I didn’t have a smile on my face,” she says. “Oh my gosh, they actually are coming in to watch a movie with me. It made me feel special because when I grew up, I was never the popular kid. I was in theater and orchestra, and so being someone that people want to be around and watch movies with is really cool.”
If any group of performers is primed for the instability of quarantine, it’s livestreamers, who have been honing their home-based broadcast skills for years. Seattle has a particularly robust streamer community, and this year has transformed how they work, says Kenley Cheung, director of production & education at the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association. SOBA organizes networking, education, and fundraising events for streamers.
“When the shelter-in-place mandates started happening earlier this year, livestreaming received a massive boost,” Cheung says. “Year-over-year, Twitch has now grown over 100% in terms of hours watched with a record-setting 1.7 billion in November.”
Of that, the “Just Chatting” category comprised 228 million hours, an increase of 246% from last year.
“This entire year has been a complete roller coaster,” says BizSnes, a Seattle streamer whose online persona is a boy trapped in a video game console. “It put a lot of eyes on Twitch and people started to understand it the same way YouTube was understood.”
For many, the growth came as a relief amidst the instability. “It brings a sense that we all have friends,” says MacNCheeseP1z.
What’s more, the lockdowns prompted streamers to experiment with new forms of broadcasting. KarlThePagan hosted outdoor streams that covered the summer’s protests; DSKoopa, owner of Pink Gorilla Games, hosts nightly streams from the store in which he shows off games and fixes vintage consoles. And there’s been a significant focus on multiplayer games like Among Us, the runaway hit from Redmond-based developer InnerSloth. The game was released in 2018, but it shot to popularity this year; recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez livestreamed Among Us matches, playing casually with colleagues while also discussing serious policy.
MacNCheeseP1z saw a huge follower bump when she started playing Among Us. “I play with my community … so that drew people in,” she says. “I was feeling lonely in the beginning when you couldn’t see your friends and it was summertime. So I started Sub Saturday,” a day dedicated to hanging out with subscribers to her channel. “It allows them to talk with their friends and not feel so alone. Because I know how it feels when you feel like you have nobody.”
At the start of the summer, she had 700 people in her Discord; now, they number just over 2,200.
BizSnes was feeling similar frustration at the start of quarantine. An experienced improv comic and former guide at Bill Speidel Tours, he missed having a live audience; so with a friend, he started a program that trained local theater groups to start their own streams, as well as improv classes for streamers.
“The last few months in quarantine really allowed me to see how much of an impact that I can have on my community and audience,” says Kevin Williams, who streams as AlchemistJoker. He developed a motto for his viewers: “Keep those gloves up,” he’d remind them, “and I feel that even in that small way, reminding people that they're not alone (especially when we're all stuck at home and interpersonal contact is at a premium) was my way of helping.”
It’s been a huge year for SOBA, which once hosted frequent in-person events at GameWorks downtown and quickly pivoted to all-online socializing. The group arranged frequent fundraisers throughout the year, raising hundreds of dollars for COVID-19 research, over a thousand dollars for The Bail Project, and nearly $4,000 for Seattle Children’s Hospital through the annual Extra Life fundraising drive.
SOBA also hosted interview and hosting workshops taught by BizSnes and SimplyGabby, brought on additional volunteers to help with fundraising and community engagement, and produced a game expo called Seattle Indies Expo that helped laid-off streamers find employment.
Though it’s impossible to predict what’s ahead in 2021, Seattle streamers are cautiously optimistic. AlchemistJoker is planning to branch out into YouTube; MacNCheeseP1z is growing her Patreon and planning to start cooking streams; and every local streamer I spoke to expressed relief that they were able to find ways to fight the feeling of isolation over the last few months.
“People are realizing it’s a lot easier to stream when you have people to bounce things off of,” BizSnes says. “Even Frasier has Roz.”
This Slog post is part of State of the Arts, a new series that looks at the ways Seattle's arts communities are dealing with our darkest winter. Check Slog daily for fresh updates.