LAKELAND, Fla. – From nine to five, seven days a week, Robert Schill plays video games while sitting on a plush, brown sofa in central Florida.
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Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people watch. His web channel has more than 35 million hits in one year.
And Schill gets paid for it.
He's a shift worker, a laborer in a brave and strange new economy that rewards a Big Brother-like existence combined with entrepreneurial pluck.
Schill's not alone in this venture, not even in his own home. When the 26-year-old ginger-haired Schill finishes his shift, he unplugs his game controller and his roommate, 29-year-old Adam Young, sinks into the sofa and plays until 1 a.m. Then a third roommate, Brett Borden, 26, clocks in for his eight-hour shift.
They are the stars of StreamerHouse. They broadcast via Twitch.tv, an online network that attracts tens of millions of visitors, most of whom watch footage of other people playing video games.
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StreamerHouse is set in a 1920s-era Mediterranean-revival home graced with 20 cameras, at least 15 computer screens and two bulldogs (Mister Pig and Baby Pig). It's part reality TV, part talk radio and part performance art. The trio play games, chat with fans and narrate their daily lives into an expensive microphone setup.
They make money from a cut of Twitch advertising, subscriptions, video game sales and from fan donations.
In October, one admirer from the Middle East gave StreamerHouse $6,000.
StreamerHouse capitalizes on a cultural moment that demands engagement and intimacy with everyone from celebrities tweeting pictures of their newborns to friends and family posting Facebook photos of breakfast.
The StreamerHouse guys deliver with an intimate, non-stop show where they interact with fans in real time.
There's something genius about this.
"I live on the internet, man," joked Schill, known as "The Real Deal," and "Rober" online. His fans recently sent him a guitar and a memory foam mattress. Fans routinely send pizzas, candy and t-shirts. All three "streamers" admit their career prospects would be bleak outside the house. None have college degrees and all have been gaming since they were boys.
Twitch has more than 7,000 similar streamers in its affiliate program — which means the game players receive ad revenue and can solicit donations — although StreamerHouse's 24/7 broadcast is unique.
There's an appetite to watch gamers. YouTube's most subscribed channel belongs to Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, a Swede known online as PewDiePie. He is a video game commentator, much like the StreamerHouse guys, and has over 32 million subscribers.
"It has become a very substantial piece of the entertainment landscape," said Matthew Di Pietro, vice president of marketing at Twitch. "We've seen it explode."
And before you dismiss the appeal of watching a guy on a sofa shoot virtual zombies, consider this: people have been watching other people do stuff for millennia. Roman gladiators. Horse races. The Super Bowl.
"There's something enjoyable about watching someone overcome a challenge," said Austin Walker, a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario who is studying the intersection between work and play.
"Gaming content production" — essentially, playing video games — is now a viable career.
"That's the dream we all have at 12 years old," said Walker. "It's a lot of hard work. A lot of preparation, behind the scenes, community issues. At a certain point, once it becomes something that can pay you, it also becomes a responsibility."
Top streamers can make six figures a year, said Di Pietro, while many earn only a few dollars a month. The StreamerHouse guys are reluctant to discuss their take, but say they've earned enough to cover monthly house expenses and not have debt from the tens of thousands of dollars of electronic equipment powering the live broadcasts. They also bought a new Jeep Liberty and had fans vote on their license plate. (It says "VIRGINS.")
StreamerHouse started as an idea between a group of friends, including Ryan Carmichael and Randy Borden. Both grew up in Lakeland in Central Florida and were interested in gaming and television. Carmichael, also known as "Tree," played video games live on Twitch's predecessor, Justin.tv. Borden owned a local community access television studio and the giant Mediterranean home.
Carmichael and Borden initially conceived of the project as a reality TV web series: what would happen if you put a few guys in a house, had them play video games nonstop and videotaped their antics? They offered the gig to three people: Brett Borden, Randy's longhaired cousin from upstate New York; Young, a former ATV aficionado who broke his neck while riding and came from Washington state with his two bulldogs; and Schill, a recovering agoraphobic from Pennsylvania. Only Young and Schill had streamed before; Borden loved video games and was hanging out and helping to get the house ready.
"It was more of a joke at the time," said Carmichael who lives in the home and acts as the house manager, public relations director, IT guy and fill-in gamer.
StreamerHouse went live in September of 2013. The main stream showed the game being played, while smaller windows on the screen showed live video of the on-duty gamer and footage from a handful of the other cameras in the home.
That turned out to be a bit too intimate. "We lost a lot of privacy," said Carmichael.
Now, they broadcast just the game and the gamer. Only on special occasions — when there are visitors or when the roommates gave candy to hundreds of kids on Halloween — they fire up the cameras around the house. They also feature edited videos of their antics on their YouTube site; some non-gaming clips show them cooking, walking around their historic neighborhood and the time a fan sent $2,100 in pizza and other food to the house. (That video received 70,000 views).
Two downstairs rooms are devoted to the stream. One has four desks holding 12 computer screens. The main gaming server is nestled in the stone fireplace and cables snake along the walls. Here the roommates play games when they're not on the stream, interact with fans, check email and social media.
The other room is the studio, where the on-duty gamer sits for eight hour shifts in front of a laptop and two large TV screens. One controls the game, the other shows the Twitch chat feed.
The guys cleaned the house when an Associated Press crew visited recently, but forgot to for an earlier visit when it was casually littered with Mountain Dew cans, bags of candy, pizza on the kitchen counter and overflowing ash trays on the porch (there's no smoking inside and some of the guys are trying to switch to e-cigarettes).
The guys caution they are not "professional-level gamers."
"We're too old," said Young, who has an impish smile and goes by the online nickname of Inigo Montoya, the character from the movie 'Princess Bride.' "It's like martial arts. The younger you start doing it, the better you are."
Yet they have found their niche as entertainers with a talk radio schtick: — jokes about sex, food and farting are commonplace.
StreamerHouse is unique because the trio tries out different games. Lately, the game of choice has been Destiny, an online first-person shooter game in a sci-fi setting. Fans who want a deeper interactive experience can actually play online games with the StreamerHouse guys.
"It really is the first successful example of truly social video," said Di Pietro. "When you really sit down to think about it, it doesn't seem odd anymore."
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