Most probably know what streaming is but sometimes I do get a strange look and this question. To me streaming is just live broadcast, usually with interactions between the streamer and viewers. It's not a new concept if you think of radio shows or tv shows that have viewers call in. That is a super simplified version. Streaming can be very elaborate with high quality graphics, editing, and effects. If you still don't get it, just imagine YouTube but live (which is a streaming platform already).
This article is going to focus on my time streaming on Twitch, which is the most popular for gaming related streams (but not exclusive to that genre).
I am sure you've heard this from someone or maybe you even think this. I used to think this. Usually I hear it when someone complains that kids would rather watch someone play with toys rather than play with toys! What is going on!?
There are a lot of reasons that people tune in. I will list some of them below because just a simple sentence won't do some of the reasons justice.
You like the entertainment of the streamer. Streamers are entertainers. Compare streaming to a stand-up comic. Every show a comic does there is an audience, and likewise every broadcast a streamer does has an audience (more on that later). Imagine if instead of prescheduled shows the comic had a platform to have shows whenever they pleased and about whatever they want. You might say that would get boring but there are many formats that have daily content (admittedly it's not usually as long, e.g. an early morning radio program) and people tune in every time.
The streamer is a professional at the game and you the viewer can gain insight into how a pro plays and incorporate that into your own game-play. This is kind of like classic sports. Why watch football games when you can just play football? Well, I simply can't play at a professional level. The players that fall in this category generally play at such a level and quite a bit can be learned just from watching how it's done, especially if I am not going to put the effort to study the way they are.
The game is nostalgic or you just want to watch someone play. I remember being a little kid and playing games and my brother would just watch. I would offer to let him play but he just wanted to see me play. I didn't get it but it's the same idea. Video games are different from other entertainment in that you can't just passively enjoy them unless you watch someone else. For many you might have a fond memory and don't want to dig out your old NES and get it hooked up to play a game (or use an emulator). You could just watch someone playing the game in the background while you cook dinner though.
You want to see the game before buying it. This is especially true with new releases but often you can find someone streaming anything you might want. For a game, streaming is basically advertisement. You can see it before you get it yourself. You can ask questions that you might not have found answers for like: "Does this really need ALL the RAM?" and (streamer/community depending) get an answer better than just the computer requirements.
You want to be a part of a community either for a game or a streamer. This is pretty broad. You could be a developer and have interest in the game. You could be just looking for friends that share your interest in a game. Imagine the chat for a streamer as a giant water-cooler conversation. That isn't to say it can't be too big to actually talk but it varies by a streamer and the culture around them.
Speedrunning. I don't know as much about this one really. I do know that it's similar to the pro gamer in that you can see strategies play out. It also acts as video proof if there is a record broken.
Many of the popular streamers occupy multiple spots from the list above (they are entertaining and good at a game, etc). It's almost a given that you fill one of these broad categories if you have viewers. I can't think of a reason to tune into a streamer that have no interest in watching for any reason. You wouldn't watch a show you don't like when you can change the channel and find a show you do like (here you can replace show for streamer).
At the core, the idea is easy. Just get things set up and you can broadcast yourself for others to see. But wait....? Where are the viewers?
The truth is that broadcasting is arguably the easiest part. It's everything else that you can't see that makes it add up to good entertainment. It can be a hobby but if you want to get big you need to treat it like a business. The bigger things are: marketing. How are people going to watch you if they can't find you? Video and audio editing. Maybe you don't actually need a YouTube channel to put old, cut-up streams on, but it's basically free advertising for your stream if you do. Computer and audio set-up. You don't want to stream with a mic that can't hear you or with such bad background noise that you can't be heard clearly.
It's almost paradoxical that you can't start streaming with the intent to make money but you almost need to make money to grow and improve. With a few exceptions the vast majority start for reasons unrelated to monetary gain. If I had to guess I would say entertainment is the biggest reason. Many people want an audience and streaming is a way to grow and have one. The other reason is similar to how I started: "I am already gaming, might as well stream it." In general I think a lot of people also fall in this group but eventually either stop streaming, find a way to grow and expand their reason, or just never stream to a larger audience.
My own reason was neither of those. I actually would hate having a huge audience. Huge is relative though. I kind of did say I was gaming why not stream but the initial big motivator was voice practice. I don't get a lot of practice talking at work or at home. I would get super nervous practicing in those circumstances anyways. On stream there may be people watching but I can't see them (I mean literally) and that relieved a lot of pressure for me. Eventually I expanded that to other forms of voice practice like voice acting and singing.
The other thing that doesn't come naturally for most people is actually talking! Having "dead air" (silence) is not entertaining. Consider other formats again, radio and television. There are very few spots with just silence. I will grant that in a movie there are more but there is also usually a soundtrack and background noise, with the silence being intentional. For a streamer you need to be engaging regardless of how many viewers you have. There are tools to see how many viewers you have but ideally it doesn't matter because they are not accurate to real-time and by the time you see a viewer has come in they may have left. Think of it like an elevator pitch, every viewer decides if they will keep watching you within a minute or two (it's probably far shorter than that). You have to be entertaining enough that they stay and want to keep watching. Many streamers think that they just need to be "given a chance" and they will skyrocket to fame. Considering the number of streamers that statistically might be true but there are many that are just not entertaining. Maybe it's coincidence that you saw the one minute they were silent but there are many who have poor quality overall, whether it's video is choppy, audio is fuzzy, music is drowning out everything, or there is just silence. There are no hard and fast rules though. You can be silent because you are in the middle of intense concentration but when the only thing a viewer sees is you playing a game in silence they don't have very much incentive to stay.
The other thing I mentioned was marketing. I hate marketing. I hate it so much. It is the worst and I am bad at it. I know this because I had to interview for jobs and I am qualified but the employer isn't going to see that because of how poorly I market my skills. Streaming is kind of the same thing. You need a way to get people to your channel. You can rely on chance, hoping that someone finds you through the search tools that filter by game and other available attributes. This is very hit and miss because depending on the game and the attributes people search by you will not even be on screen unless the user scrolls through a large list on the site. This is because the default on Twitch is to sort streams by viewer count descending. They did recently add other options for sorting but I wouldn't rely on most users sorting differently. Part of it is because, as mentioned, there are many bad streamers and they have no viewers, and finding the good among those is a challenge most won't enjoy.
Many people use Twitter or Instagram or YouTube for marketing. Having a social media of some kind is probably the minimum anybody would need. I chose Twitter because it's simple and the least silly to me. Eventually I will get something on YouTube. YouTube is valuable because you can edit the content (maybe a discussion, tutorial, montage) and give the viewer just the highlights. They won't be able to comment live but it's a great way to give a taste of what you offer without the time limitations of having to see it live. After that they can seek you out intentionally rather than by chance.
A big one that people overlook is the time commitment. You don't want to stream for just 30 minutes. That is just such a small window for someone to find your stream. On top of that you need to be marketing, in whatever way you can, and maybe editing old content for YouTube. There is a lot of time sunk and a lot of it isn't on stream.
This is perhaps the hardest part. A lot of people think they are charismatic. Or funny. Or this or that. They are just average though. Among friends they are on fire but then on stream they come across as obnoxious or the jokes fall flat. Maybe none of the stories are entertaining because they only make sense if you have the shared experience ("guess you had to be there").
For me this was an issue, probably still is really. I only recently took the time to think of stories I could tell. Especially because I feel like I have so few but really it's just that I am bad at recalling on the spot. Having a list to jog my memory is a great help compared to just trying to remember from nothing. I mean really...how many stories can you think of to fill 2-4 hours of time?
I went into it knowing that I would have no viewers. I said this wouldn't bother me, I was doing it for myself, for practice, for fun. I would be lying if I said it didn't get to me. I have had streams, so many streams, where nobody saw. I was trying to entertain but nobody came to see. That is a blow to the psyche. It doesn't matter how tough you are or what the reason. Finding out that you just aren't good enough for even a single person to watch sucks. It sucks every time. The isolation will get to you and you will begin to wonder what the point is and if you are the problem.
I try not to do it but like the majority of people I compare myself to others. I see that they have viewers and I don't. I see they started after me and are far ahead of me. I see they are entertaining and I am not. I feel like an outsider. The thing is...their success doesn't have any impact on mine (I mean as individuals, not if we are say part of a collaboration). Many people think that if Streamer A has more viewers than Streamer B they will have to compete for viewers. This isn't completely true. Yes, there is an existing pie that everyone is getting a part of, but anybody who isn't watching a streamer already and comes on the platform to watch is making the pie bigger. Imagine if tomorrow, Brad Pitt started streaming on Twitch. How many of his viewers would be people who were previously watching John Doe play retro games compared to how many people followed his Twitter and signed up to watch? I don't know if it's harder to get existing viewers or convert new people, the point is it's not a zero-sum game. I don't like the idea of "stealing" viewers because there are many factors as to who someone watches. Really it's just changing the channel because you want something else to watch. Why would I stay loyal to NBC when Fox has the show I want to see on!?
So most of the time I lurked, meaning I just watched a stream. I didn't participate. I didn't contribute. I have finally found a core group that I like to contribute to. I still feel like an outsider even though I am definitely part of the community. It is just a weird experience that I personally have. I recently played with a few people on stream. We all started anew game, which we all play together so that nobody is left behind.
The difference in energy on stream is palpable. I had fun the entire time. The stream was amazing and there was a lot of fun for everyone. The biggest hurdle was communication. Having everyone talk to each other, as well as their own streams leads to a lot of overlap. I did find myself being quiet at times because I didn't want to be rude and talk over anybody. That didn't distract from the fun gaming though.
I usually play games solo, but having a group to play with is a breath of fresh air. It really showed me that there is room for improvement and it can get better.
I don't feel like I've improved in most ways. I have made minor, incremental changes. There is still a mountain to climb though. I have gotten better at voicing my thoughts. I have improved my speech so that I don't mumble as much. I can let go and be a little silly. None of these are at the level I would like but comparing from the past to now is showing that there was change. That is the nice thing, I have video proof that things changed, and only because of me. Nobody else controls my content and so it is my own. You have to self-report because there will be limited feedback from viewers, with most of it being having no viewers is the feedback that you need to change something.
I don't have a big conclusion. This got way longer than I anticipated and am used to writing. It was more of a dump of all my thoughts and experiences these last few months. Maybe you'll see this and have some epiphany of your own. For me the main focus is improving myself. Making small changes in the direction I want to head. Recognizing that my self-worth is not tied in any way to how many people want to watch. I would take everything above with a brick of salt. I am not successful by any possible metric. There are no guarantees no matter how many things you do right. It is a unique experience that is very accessible and I'm glad to keep doing it.