"I'm trying to be an optimistic light in a black sea of negativity. I think that's the contrarian in me going: 'It's not the end of the world, it's just another chapter,'" says Twitch streamer Banlish in the opening moments of his 1,592nd consecutive broadcast. Banlish hasn't missed a stream in the four years since he started on Twitch, but for the past 27 days things have been a little different: Each stream has #CoronaCon2020 in the title, his way of addressing the pandemic as days of isolation stretch into weeks.
"I know it's a stupid name," Banlish tells me over Discord chat, facepalming. But it does reflect his attitude in the face of a scary topic that's on everyone's minds. "I just want to make people laugh," he says.
Banlish avidly follows the news, but doesn't bring too many details of Covid-19's spread into his chat, hoping to give his audience of a hundred-odd average viewers some escape. For the first hour of his daily stream, he just chats with the regulars, letting people trickle in and talk about what's on their mind. As shelter-in-place ordinances across the world send millions of people home from work and school, streamers are in a strange position. Their audience numbers are way up, but those extra eyes come with the added pressure of living out an international crisis on camera.
Viewership on the rise
According to Gamesight analytics, Twitch streaming and viewing are up by 50 percent over the past two months, though it's hard to say how much of that is due to the coronavirus. All the streamers I've talked to have seen major viewership increases.
Kelsie Pelling, who streams under the handle KayPeaLoL and has nearly 750,000 followers, says her audience has increased by 20-30 percent in just the past two weeks. For some other streamers she knows, the bump has been even bigger—40-50 percent.
"You see all these content creators celebrating all these goals like 'man I've never hit these numbers before, this is insane, I can't believe this is happening,' but it's such a sad reason for it to be happening," she says. "You want to hit those numbers because you're killing it yourself." Pelling thinks Twitch is going to continue pulling in more and more viewers in the next few months, filling the void left by delayed TV shows and movies.
"Twitch as a whole has definitely become the new television for kids or our generation," says Minecraft streamer Philza. "[Streams] have a scheduled start and end, so people are more obliged to calendar that into their life." A lot of those increased viewer numbers come from fans watching at times they previously couldn't. Kids can now take online classes while watching Twitch, for example. "Many people have said on my stream 'Hey I'm in maths class right now lol!' and I'm like, 'Stop watching! Do your work!'" he says.
There's a palpable sense of boredom among his audience and a hunger for entertainment while stuck at home, which has caused him to do some longer streams than in the past. "People will message me and donate multiple times during a stream saying how much I've helped them, how it's such a relief to have a stream like this to come to and chill out," Philza says.
Former Counter-Strike pro Stephanie Harvey has noticed that when she's streaming these days, viewers tend to stick around even when she's not playing the game she's known for, which is a change from the past. "I'm seeing regulars come back all the time, which is really good for streamers—to see those regulars and feel like you're doing something that is meaningful for some people," she says.
While business is booming, streamers are grappling with the fact that all these extra eyes come with fears and responsibilities they're not used to dealing with.
The last time I talked to Philza in August 2019, he'd recently become one of the top Minecraft streamers, pulling in an audience of thousands instead of the 5-10 people he'd been streaming to for years. That experience added a great deal of pressure he hadn't had before; streaming during the pandemic, by contrast, hasn't added a ton of weight to his shoulders. But it is in the back of his mind.
"I do have a responsibility to keep people's spirits up and provide some sort of entertainment in these times," he says. His main way of doing that is to carry on as usual, having fun in Minecraft. But he will talk about the virus when viewers bring it up, and use bits of news, like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson being admitted to intensive care, to remind his audience to take Covid-19 seriously. "I try to reinforce the message of: Please stay safe, please stay at home, look after loved ones and family who need it."
The pressure, for him, is helping support other members of his family like his mother, who is still working in a retail store amidst the UK shutdown. Banlish tells me that between asthma and health considerations from his past career as a contractor, Covid-19 could seriously affect him, so he was preparing to shelter-in-place even before his state gave the order. Missharvey says she knows people who have lost family to the virus already.
KayPeaLoL spoke candidly about the challenge of balancing entertainment with the realities of the moment. When someone sent her an article about Covid-19 deaths in Iran while she was streaming, it had a big impact on her mood—and she immediately saw that same change play out in her audience when she told them what she'd read.
Where pre-recorded TV and movies can offer pure escapism, streamers are reading the same news and social media discussions the rest of us are, and then trying to be engaging on camera for hours on end.
"I try to be as positive as I can and make people's days better, help them if they're going through something," KayPeaLoL says. "I stream five days a week, and if I ever take an extra day off, I feel like the worst human being ever. My brain's always been that way … With this coronavirus stuff, if I take an extra day off now, it feels like I'm letting them down so much more than before, just because there's so many people stuck at home with absolute shit-all to do. I am their entertainment. I have people waiting in my chat like 'oh my god I can't wait, when's the stream starting.' To have to tell people that are excited, like you're about to cure their boredom, that you're not streaming just because you need some time for your mental [health]? There's definitely a little more pressure."
For all the added weight of the moment that can make streaming harder, KayPeaLoL says it's a helpful distraction for her, too, keeping her from obsessing over coronavirus stats.
"In general I feel better when I'm streaming than when I'm not, these days," she says. "It's not just for my viewers, but for me, too. It's crazy how much of a coping mechanism it can be."
Even if Twitch is primarily a form of escapism, it's also a hive of communities, each helping one another deal with the anxiety of the moment. All the streamers I talked to have different ways of encouraging that. For Philza, it's giving advice on long-distance relationships to people who are suddenly cut off from partners they're used to seeing all the time. For Banlish, it's encouraging quieter members of his community to talk, just giving them that acknowledgement that he's listening.
Missharvey takes seriously her "civic duty" to talk with her followers thoughtfully. Streamers don't have to talk about serious issues like the coronavirus, she says, but if they choose to, it's their responsibility to make sure they're sharing accurate information. Hopefully that attitude carries over to other streamers as Twitch's viewership numbers continue to grow.
"One of the most beautiful human qualities is being selfless, and helping people with no gain," she says. "I think this is truly a moment where people are going to either utilize that quality and act on it, or learn it."