LAKELAND, Fla. — From 9 to 5, seven days a week, Robert Schill plays video games while sitting on a plush, brown sofa in central Florida.
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. 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.
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 movement 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, nonstop show in which 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 8,500 similar streamers in its affiliate program, which means the game players receive ad revenue. All streamers 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 more than 32 million subscribers.
“It has become a very substantial piece of the entertainment landscape,” said Matthew DiPietro, 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.