Last week, some of the biggest names on Twitch got together to play Fortnite as part of a charity marathon to fight children's cancer. In just 24 hours, Streamers like DrLupo and Ninja helped raise just under $340,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Called #Clips4Kids, this competition challenged streamers to see who could tally up the most points by winning a victory royale in Fortnite while also pulling off stylish final kills. It's a part of a larger Tampa Bay-based community event called GuardianCon that, in just three years, has raised over $2 million for St. Jude Children's Hospital. This year, they're aiming to double that.
For most of the big-name streamers participating and the thousands of fans who watch or attend, GuardianCon's fundraisers are a no-brainer: You play some games and raise some money. But for founder and popular Destiny streamer Ben 'ProfessorBroman' Bowman, GuardianCon's mission to give back comes from a more personal place.
Sounds like destiny
If you watch Bowman stream, what you'll find is a boisterous, bald white guy—hardly a rare sight on Twitch. Most days he's streaming Destiny 2 or, more recently, Warframe and is often joined by his brother, TeaWrex, and best friend, KingGothalion—both extremely popular Destiny 2 streamers on their own. But hang around for awhile, and you'll start to see how Bowman differs from a lot of his peers because before long he'll be talking to viewers about their lives, offering advice, and sharing at times brutally honest pieces of his own past. It's a behavior Bowman adopted the first time he started streaming six years ago that has become a core part of his mission to spread positivity. After all, it's what got him started on Twitch in the first place.
"Me and my brother were sitting in our basement using Stumbleupon and it brought us to Twitch and the first thing we saw was a speedrunning marathon to benefit to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. They raised $30,000 in two days. I was like, holy shit. You can play videogames on the internet and raise money for people? I want to be involved in this community."
For someone who now has 662,000 followers on Twitch, it's a surprisingly altruistic reason to get started as a streamer. Bowman says he started speedrunning Saints Row 3 but later switched over to Borderlands 2. While it had a big following, there wasn't much of a presence on Twitch and Bowman started making a name for himself in that niche. "My goal when I started streaming was to get a speedrun into Awesome Games Done Quick because that was like the pinnacle of charity streaming," Bowman tells me. "I managed to do that, we put together a four-player Borderlands 2 speedrun. That moment was really special to me because, inside of the journey to get there, I had gotten partnered [on Twitch] like two or three months before that. After that, I had sort of climbed to a point where I could sort of pay my own bills while streaming."
For Bowman, that was monumental. Though he has two bachelor's degrees, he was working minimum wage at the time and barely scraping by. He even sold his blood plasma occasionally to cover the cost of buying food. "I lived a kind of humble life," he says. "I just sort of stayed in this static space where I didn't need to do anything other than to stream."
When Destiny came out on consoles in 2014, Bowman fell in love with it and began streaming it on his channel. "That was like the turning moment for me," he explains. See, Destiny wasn't received all that warmly at first and bigger Twitch streamers quickly moved on to play the next big game. But Bowman, TeaWrex, and KingGothalion quickly realized there was still a huge fanbase that wanted to see Destiny streamed. So they obliged. "We got together and we were like, okay we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a community and directory on Twitch. We took that responsibility really seriously."
During those years, Bowman was streaming between 12 and 18 hours a day, seven days a week. It was his entire life. He tells me his first real day off from streaming only happened because he and his wife moved to Florida. After that, he felt like maybe streaming only six days a week would be a better balance.
That hustle paid off, however. Bowman's, his brother's, and KingGothalion's channels all grew exponentially during that time as they became the regular faces of Destiny on Twitch. Their audiences grew to such a size that the idea of hosting a small meetup in a bar in Tampa seemed like it might make for a fun idea. They rented out a space for 250 people—far more than they ever thought they'd need—and started talking about it on social media. Bowman and crew were hoping to have one or two notable Destiny personalities there, making it an intimate gathering with whatever fans happened to show up.
"It went from four people doing a meetup to 42 different content creators coming from all over the world," Bowman laughs. "We had rented for a capacity for 250 people and 1,000 showed up and stood outside in the rain waiting to come inside and meet people. It was insane. Amy, my wife, had to run interference for me so I didn't die of dehydration because I basically stood in one place and shook peoples' hands and didn't leave that spot for like five hours because they just kept coming in. It was this really incredible experience."
Despite how disastrously Bowman and the other Destiny creators underestimated the turnout, it was this moment that it the scope of his influence as a streamer began to sink in. For the first time in his life, he finally felt like he was in a position where people listened to what he had to say. Bowman didn't want to squander that responsibility. When they scheduled the next meetup the year after (this time hiring an event organizer to help things go smoother), Bowman took inspiration from Games Done Quick and hosted a marathon charity stream during the event. "That first year we raised $532,000 [for St. Jude] which was really unexpected," Bowman says. "I felt like we could maybe raise $100,000 but that total really blew me away."
That was the first "official" year of GuardianCon, then named the Destiny Community Convention, and even despite their best efforts they still had to turn away 1,600 people at the door because the event was too crowded. "Navigating out of that year, we really realized that we had this great opportunity and we have this wonderful, powerful community," Bowman says. "The year after that we raised $1.3 million and we had, I think, 7,000 people show up to the event which we finally had space for."
GuardianCon 2018 is right around the corner, happening on July 13 and 14 in the Tampa Bay Convention Center. Bowman says they're hoping to raise $2.4 million this year, and they're already well on their way. With streamers like breakout Fortnite sensation Ninja on the roster, the #Clips4Kids fundraiser held on April 28 raised just under $340,000 for a total of $470,000 in total fundraising for 2018.
Gaming does good
At the heart of GuardianCon's mission is Bowman's very personal statement that "gaming does good." As we spoke, he referenced the slogan enough times that it made me curious why it was such a conviction for him. "Because gamers get scapegoated a lot," he says bluntly. "Especially this year. Any time there is gun violence in the United States, gaming has always come up in the conversation in the way that metal music and hip hop has in the past. It's what everyone points to. And I think that part of how we overcome that as gamers and as a society is that we need to have moments that everyone knows about that can drive cultural dialogue."
Those moments, Bowman believes, happen when people come together at events like Games Done Quick and GuardianCon to fundraise for a good cause. According to Bowman, it's the responsibility of people like him, who have a voice on platforms like Twitch, to drive those opportunities. "My deepest conviction is that I have been blessed with this incredible, crazy reality where people give a fuck about what I have to say. It's my responsibility to take the best parts of myself and put them out there everyday and hope that it makes the world a better place."
In a world full of Logan Pauls who exploit their audience to sell merch and inflate egos, it's easy to be cynical about the influence creators have and how they choose to wield it. But Bowman sees his relationship with his audience differently. "I think that you are a leader if people listen to you and that's actually not a choice. It's a reality," Bowman says. "If you have 10 million YouTube subscribers or even if you just have 100 viewers on Twitch, you are a leader for the people who are apart of your community by default. I think that a lot of folks try to shirk that responsibility. They're like, no, I'm just out here trying to do me and make a living. I get that, but when you decide to take the mantle of leadership on yourself and say, ok, I have this platform and I have to do something with it, it means so much more. I think that it is irresponsible to have a massive following and not try to promote positivity. It always makes me sad when I see folks who don't do that."
But it's also something that has to be "authentic," Bowman tells me. And for him, his desire to give back certainly comes from a deeply personal place. Bowman's father is not only a cancer survivor, but illness has always had a presence in his family. His father, an independent IT contractor, suffered two heart attacks a year and a half apart and was later diagnosed with Lyme disease. Both Bowman and his sister were diagnosed Crohn's disease as children. "It financially devastated us [as a family]," Bowman says.
That act of working tirelessly to give back is something that Bowman models from his parents and people in his community who helped support his family. "The people in our life who just decided to just selflessly give knowing that they'd get nothing in return to my family, that meant so much to me," he says. "We'd have pizza night because someone gave us a Dominos gift card." He tells me his mother took a janitor job at a private school for eight years just so he and his sister could attend. "Despite all the financial hardship and medical stuff, [my parents] stayed so focused on taking care of us and making sure that we had the best possible start in our lives. The motivation I have is trying to provide that same start to as many kids as I can."
It's why St. Jude's mission resonates so deeply. The hospital, which requires $2.4 million a day to stay running, provides cancer research and treatment at no cost to the family. Thanks to the research that St. Jude has done, the survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of cancer in children, has climbed to almost 90 percent. It continues to be one of the leading research centers for various forms of cancer in children. "I would love to see GuardianCon grow to the place where it's providing $30 million annually to St. Jude. My long-term crazy, pie in the sky dream would be $100 million a year for them, which is just over 10 percent of their annual budget."
But Bowman is happily taking baby steps to get there. When GuardianCon happens in July, he's hoping to raise just under $2 million to reach his annual goal of $2.4 million. The expected turnout is around 10,000, and some of the biggest streamers, like DrLupo and Ninja, will be there. And of course, the Destiny trio of Bowman, TeaWrex, and KingGothalion that helped start it all—not that any of them are jumping to take credit for it. "I could care less if my name is the first thing out of someone's mouth," Bowman laughs. "I want people to talk about what gamers are doing to make the world a better place."