Being a “gamer” used to mean actually playing video games, but now watching other people play is almost as important. Last year, more than 740m of us watched gaming streams on Twitch, YouTube and other platforms, with superstar streamers such as Ninja, Tfue and Pokimane attracting many millions of adoring fans. But it’s not just about the big names making big bucks. Every month, almost four million people use Twitch to broadcast themselves playing video games and most of them don’t expect to become millionaires as a result. If you or your children are thinking of joining them, here’s a quick guide to getting started.
To help out, I spoke to several highly experienced streamers: Clare Siobhan is a YouTuber with 1.75m subscribers who also streams on Twitch; Nina Freeman is a game developer and Twitch streamer; ex-professional Call of Duty player Ben Perkin presents Xbox On on YouTube and streams as BennyCentral; Gav Murphy is a video editor and presenter with RKG; Mollie plays The Sims on YouTube and Twitch as The EnglishSimmer; and Mary Kish is a streamer and head of community marketing at Twitch.
What is streaming?
Streaming a game means broadcasting yourself via the internet while you play, so that other people can watch you on their computer, phone or games console. The most popular services for game streaming are Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. Streaming is different from making and uploading YouTube videos because the content goes out live and is unedited.
It’s fun! You get to share your love of games, meet other people who like the same things as you and show off a bit, too. “I grew up as a theatre kid, so I’ve always been attracted to the performative aspect of streaming,” says Freeman. “I have a lot of fun playing games in weird and unexpected ways and making people laugh.” Streaming is also a complex technical endeavour that teaches you about broadcasting software, lighting and making lots of different pieces of hardware work together.
Can I stream from just a console?
Yes, if you have an Xbox One or PS4 and a broadband internet connection you can stream games without any other specialist equipment. There are quick guides here and here. The outcome is quite basic in terms of broadcast quality, so you’ll probably want to move on fairly quickly.
What do I need if I’m streaming via a PC?
If you want to stream PC or Nintendo Switch games, or make better quality streams from your PS4 or Xbox, you’ll need a desktop computer or laptop. Twitch recommends at least an Intel Core i5 processor or the AMD equivalent, and 8GB of RAM. If you’re connecting your games console you’ll need a video capture card by a company such as Elgato or AVerMedia. Most of the streamers I spoke to use the Elgato HD60-S or Elgato 4K60 Pro. You then plug in your console and the card sends the video footage to your computer ready for you to broadcast.
A dedicated microphone is also important when streaming via PC to make sure your commentary is crystal clear. “I’ve got a Shure SM7B microphone going into a GoXLR mix amp for my audio,” says Perkin. “Although, I’m looking forward to trying out the new Elgato Wave microphone.” Siobhan already uses an Elgato Wave 3, while Freeman has a Blue Yeti on a microphone arm complete with a shock mount, which isolates the sound from vibrations, and a pop filter, which removes the harsh noise that accompanies words beginning with “t” and “p”.
If you want to be seen on screen while you play, you’ll need a “facecam” – a dedicated camera pointing right at you, streaming footage to your computer. There are lots of models aimed at streamers – I’ve recently been testing the new Razer Kiyo, which is a stylish, easy-to-use camera with a ring light attached, and even a mic. The image quality is excellent and it’s a great option for people who want the benefits of decent lighting without spending more cash on dedicated equipment. Meanwhile, Freeman uses the popular Logitech C920 Pro HD Webcam, Murphy goes for the more high-end Logitech Brio 4k, and Perkin and Siobhan use digital cameras rather than webcams to give them more control over the image (a Sony A7III and Sony Alpha 6300 respectively). They both use an Elgato Cam Link to connect the camera to their computers.
“Also, you will want headphones so that folks won’t be able to hear your game audio secondhand through your speakers,” says Freeman. She has Razer Kraken headphones, while Perkin favours Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2. I use a HyperX Cloud as the sound and mic are both excellent; I’ve also been testing the new Razer Nari Ultimate that is wireless, incredibly comfortable and features haptic feedback technology to translate sounds into vibrations, which is quite a rush. Logitech and Corsair also make excellent products – you may need to try a few to get the right mix of comfort and performance. The appearance of your headset, keyboard and mouse can also be important. As Siobhan says: “I use Turtle Beach for my headset and Roccat accessories – they all look great on camera, which people always love!”
Most streamers use two monitors: one to run the game and one to manage the streaming software. The first should be a decent-sized HD gaming monitor with low response time (below 3ms) and a high refresh rate (at least 144Hz), but the second can be a basic model.
What software should I use?
You’ll need a program on your computer to receive and combine the video and audio components of your stream and then broadcast them. All the streamers I spoke to use Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), which is quite complicated, but free and feature-rich. There is a good tutorial here, and lots more on YouTube. Alternatives include XSplit Gamecaster and Nvidia ShadowPlay, while Twitch has its own version, Twitch Studio, currently in beta testing.
What games should I stream?
You might be tempted to jump on the bandwagon of a popular title such as Fortnite or Overwatch, but that’s not the best approach. “I always recommend that you play what you enjoy and nothing else,” says Kish. “I feel strongly that viewers are there to watch you, and if you play a game you don’t like for views, it won’t get you the results you’re looking for. Stick to what you like to play and you will be more entertaining in the long run. You like speedrunning platformers? Do that. Are you more interested in classic adventures like Myst? Go for it. Big fan of Dota? That’s what you should play.”
Murphy takes this one step further. “Before you even start, you should ask yourself why you want to stream/make videos? Is it because everyone is doing it? Is it because you want to get a brand deal and make money? If it is, you’re probably not doing it for the right reasons.
“I would also start looking at the type of content that isn’t being made right now, a community that isn’t being served, a niche that you can reach. My favourite creators all found an angle that others hadn’t and set themselves apart from everyone else and that’s important right now because there are a lot of people trying to make it on Twitch and YouTube. Think to yourself: what’s the thing you can offer that nobody else can? You should be able to answer that before you start making anything.”
Freeman agrees. “You can come up with a unique concept for a stream. People are looking for new and different things to watch, and there are lots of ways to play games. For example, I loved watching SarahKey play Kingdom Hearts using a DDR mat!” EnglishSimmer adds that this is all stuff you can develop as you go along: “I think unless you have a really distinct and unique brand idea that you want to explore from the very start, it’s fun to discover that along with your viewers. Most streamers I know have built their branding alongside their personality and the people who watch them as they grow.”
How should I present myself?
If you use a facecam during your stream, your appearance is going to be a part of your offering to fans. So does that mean you need to dress up and put on a performance? “People should definitely seek to be themselves and be authentic,” says Siobhban. “Having a community that supports you will drive you to produce content even in times where you are struggling, so it’s so important to build an organic and wholesome base. I can’t see it being as rewarding to build a community around a fake version of yourself. Of course there are exceptions to this rule – creating a fictional character and a whole universe around them (such as Dr DisRespect) is a very different approach, but one that can keep people excited and engaged.”
No matter how you chose to dress or present yourself, you do need to get into the experience and convey that to your viewers through what you say and how you react. As EnglishSimmer puts it, “I always say, if people can see and hear you enjoying a game, it’s likely that they’ll enjoy watching you play.”
How can I grow my audience?
So you’re enjoying what you do and you’re getting a few views, but now you want more. You can start with some promotion: talk about your stream on social media, invite friends to watch, go to forums and Reddit threads dedicated to the games you stream and provide a link. Just be friendly and don’t spam people.
Another key element is consistency. “Having a schedule and sticking to it goes a long way,” says Freeman. “If people have fun watching you, they’ll want to plan on coming back again, so post it in the About section on your channel. You can also benefit from sharing your schedule on multiple platforms. Make a Twitter thread for your schedule that you reply to when you go live. Make a Discord for your community that you post to. These can also be useful venues for sharing when you need to cancel or reschedule a stream, which will inevitably happen. Streamers need sick days too!”
Communicating with your viewers via the chat window is also really important. “Statistically, interactive elements like alerts and channel points give your channel a good boost in terms of views and follows,” says Kish. “Remember that Twitch is meant to be an interactive experience, not passive. Viewers should be involved in your content somehow, whether they use chat to converse with you or each other, use channel points to ask a question, or use bits/subs to get a shout out. The goal is to create a ‘You had to be there’ experience.”
How can I improve the look of my stream?
As you gain experience, there are lots of elements you can add to make your stream look more professional. Designing or commissioning personalised overlays and animations will give your broadcast an individual look – you’ll need to add these via your broadcasting software (game developer Daisy Ein has written an in-depth guide).
“I use Streamlabs for their on-stream Twitch alerts,” says Freeman. “For example, when I get a new subscriber, a fun gif and audio file play on my stream to celebrate. I highly recommend looking to OKAYDRIAN for inspiration – he has some of the coolest animations and stream overlay graphics I’ve seen.”
You can also use chatbots to manage your chat stream and prevent spammers. “I have a Nightbot setup for my Twitch chat,” she adds. “It helps me prevent links from being posted and provides commands users can type to share important stream-related information, etc.” Many streamers also use a stream mixer such as the Elgato Stream Deck to manage and send out their alerts and images while playing.
As for your facecam footage, you might want to invest in specialist softbox or ring lights to present you and your surroundings in a more favourable way. You could also go for a green screen, which will let you choose your own custom background or project your image over the game footage without showing your own surroundings.
However, you don’t have to worry about all these extra elements. “They aren’t necessary to get started or to make successful content!” says Siobhan. “Investing in the initial equipment is far more important.”
How can you stay safe?
When you are streaming to a global audience, anyone can be watching you or leaving comments in your chat window. If that sounds scary, both Twitch and YouTube allow users to make private streams, which are invite-only, if you want to just entertain your friends. Both platforms also offer moderation tools, allowing you some control over the types of message that people can post on your chat (find out more here and here). You can also manually block people from your stream if they say anything upsetting. “I personally have a list of rules in my About section that explain exactly why I might ban a user, so that everyone is on the same page about what kind of language is allowed in my chat,” says Freeman. “I also have granted moderation privileges to a number of friends and volunteers that will keep an eye on my chat when I am too busy to see every message.”
Make sure not to reveal any personal details, such as your address or phone number, and if you have a facecam, ensure there’s nothing in the background that will give away personal information about you (same if you share your PC desktop during your stream). But what you really need to do is spend time nurturing the community you want. As Siobhan says: “There obviously must be boundaries – taking time off for yourself, not revealing every iota of your personal life, etc – but there’s a lot to be said for treating your community as a friendship group and engaging with people as much as possible. My ‘peachy’ community means the world to me and I couldn’t do my job without them.”
Can I make some money?
Yes, you can! Twitch, YouTube and Facebook all provide methods for popular streamers to monetise their broadcasts via ad revenues, viewer donations and subscriptions (where fans agree to pay a monthly fee to you, often in return for perks such as exclusive chat rooms and personalised emoticons). The three platforms have their own partner and creator programs, and they differ in how they let streamers earn revenue – it’s worth researching each one to see which works best for you. Importantly, all rely on you making a commitment to stream regularly and grow your audience. The most successful streamers treat it as a business and work many hours every day.
But remember, money isn’t everything. “The endgame of streaming does not need to be big view counts or financial success – it can just be a fun thing you do,” says Freeman. “Try not to get hung up on not having many viewers, even if you’re months into streaming – it does NOT mean you’ve failed or are a bad streamer. It can take years to build a larger audience – it takes hard and consistent work. If pursuing that and working hard for it is fun to you, then go for it! If you’re happy just streaming to your friends, that is super, super cool as well.”