Written by C.B.W. Caswell
There are few people on the planet who are doing exactly what they want to be doing. There are even fewer who are living the dreams most of us have as children — the dream of being soccer players or rockstars. For a large (sedentary) portion of us, we’ve grown up fantasizing about putting our textbooks down, never writing another cover letter for jobs we don’t really want, and just playing video games all damn day.
Thomas D., of Twitch channel Unsanity Live, does just that.
When he’s done work at 5 o’clock, Tom comes home to live-stream some of his favourite games, his most hated games, and games that barely work. What started as a hobby has become a paid position, has earned him fans around the globe that have bought him games and systems, likely helped to earn him a repeat position as a quality assurance tester at BioWare, and brought his channel over 3 million views.
Here, Tom describes how he got into the field, some of the weirder things he’s received from fans, and what he’s learned from the internet’s brand of unsanity.
When did you start?
I think it was April 2010 or 2009.
Is four years pretty long?
Four years is pretty long, especially in the casting community. A lot of people—especially on Twitch—have just discovered it, so they’ve only been on for a few months.
What inspired you to do this?
There was a community called 4-Player podcast. They had a whole bunch of GTA and Fatal Frame videos up on YouTube. I went from that to two other communities: T-9000 Gaming (they do other things now, not streaming) and another guy, Champion City Gaming. He was just a low-key streamer—four viewers every night. One night he was playing Fall Out 3—and I love Fall Out 3—so we were talking about that when, all of a sudden, my power goes out. Four hours later, I hop back on and he says “Okay, I’m back, my power just went out.” So I asked him where he lived and he said, “South Edmonton.”
With streaming, you have to interact with the people in the stream and you have to do it regularly if you want people to come back. There’s a lot more interactivity.
So you thought he lived in the States or somewhere else?
Yeah, anywhere else, but just the fact that he was a local guy made me think that I could do this. It was nifty.
Do you know much about the scene from when it started? When you were getting into it, was that early on in “Let’s Play”?
It wasn’t very early on in Let’s Play, but it was very early on in streaming, as a sub-category of Let’s Play.
What’s the difference?
It’s how you interact with people, because with videos, you do your spiel, and you post it, and it gains views constantly. With streaming, you have to interact with the people in the stream and you have to do it regularly if you want people to come back. There’s a lot more interactivity.
What was the decision to stream rather than do a Let’s Play?
It was less work, in a way. Most of my work lies in keeping on top of things and talking to people. When it comes to editing, you have this huge pool of competition with YouTube, and you have to know your stuff. I just found my groove with streaming.
When I tuned in last Thursday I was really surprised with how nice everyone was.
Yeah, you got in on a good day.
So on the best day, what’s it like?
On the best day it’s just back and forth with the chat room: no slurs, just nice conversation with me and amongst themselves. On the worst day it would be me streaming a fairly popular game, something like GTA, and you get a whole bunch of people from a completely different crowd and breed coming in just yelling and swearing at you and telling you what to do. With streaming, you get into situations where you meet a lot of people you wouldn’t normally deal with. So it’s always interesting.
Do you have any fans from outside North America?
Oh yeah, from the UK and Japan. I stream 8-11 pm and they’ll tune in at 3 or 5 in the morning.
How does the following system work on Twitch?
Twitch has followers and they have subscribers. Right now, I have 19,265 followers, over 3 million views, which is over the course of four years, and for subscribers I have about 100.
What’s the difference between a follower and a subscriber?
A follower means that you’ve signed up to get an email whenever I start streaming. A subscriber means that a person liked my stream enough to pay $5 dollars so they don’t have any ads on my stream, some silly emoticons, and a badge in the chat-room. But I never play ads anyway. The only reason people would subscribe is because they want the badge in chat or because they like me.
How do you make money from it?
I don’t run any ads, but I do make a little ad revenue because they force videos and I don’t have any control over that. I don’t make too much on it, but with subscribers I make some money. I think they split it 50/50: half to Twitch and half to me. I don’t follow it too much, but I get a bit of money as a bonus to my check every month, which is great because I did this for free for three years, and I enjoyed it, and now I’m getting paid for it.
Were there any specific games you played that brought on a lot of followers?
My computer was one of the craziest things I was ever sent. The same person who sent the computer also sent me an envelope with $300 in American cash to go buy a PS3.
There were a lot of times when it jumped, like back when I played Happy Wheels. It was part of a thing where I would play flash games every Friday. People would just post in chat cool flash games that existed because I used to be really poor and not play consoles and I had a bad laptop so I’d play flash games and I’d still have a lot of fun with them.
Someone had sent in Happy Wheels. I played it non-stop for a while, then that got sent around to YouTube and made it super big. It was amazing at the time. When I was streaming it no one had heard of it, so I was getting 1000 viewers a night and it was non-stop crazy laughter, because I was new to it too and I didn’t know what to expect.
There’s a few other games where I had amazing reception. I think my best received game was Papers, Please. That was when I hit my peak. I had to check statistics afterwards: I hit 2000 people once watching me play this game. It was fantastic because the goal of the game is to find flaws in people’s identities as they pass through the ports on this crazy, communist state with high crazy security, and if you screw up you need to decide if you have five dollars to feed your family or give your uncle medicine. It’s weird moral stuff like that, but when it came to finding flaws in peoples identity, there’s a Twitch delay—the infamous Twitch delay—so I’d be playing the game, going through someone’s ID, and people in the chatroom would see me well before I was going through their ID, and I’d stamp the NPC’s card and send them through, and ten seconds later everyone would be like “ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THAT WAS A MAN, HIS ID WAS FAKE,” and it was the interactivity of them fighting me to find the flaws that for some reason it was really fun. I think that was the best one I’d ever casted.
What are some of the things fans have sent you?
A lot of awesome stuff and a lot of scary stuff. My computer was one of the craziest things I was ever sent. The same person who sent the computer also sent me an envelope with $300 in American cash to go buy a PS3. A guy bought me a Wii and sent it straight over. I’ve gotten a few games, a lot of disc games you can’t send over Steam, and way too many Steam games—like, I can’t play any of them at this point.
On the crazier end of the spectrum, I got a box of pasta that was shaped like penises, I got bacon lube, and one time that was absolutely terrifying, someone sent me a vibrator, which was addressed to my work, and they then sent it to my family who then sent it to me. So it essentially went through the hands of everyone I didn’t want to see it.
Has working at BioWare affected your streaming?
It’s something I love doing, so if I come out of something I love doing and feel bad, it’s the worst thing in the fucking world.
Not really. I don’t talk about it on cast because then everyone will ask what the game’s like, and that’s something I don’t want in my stream because that’s not the focus. And when it comes to at-work, I don’t talk about it too much either, but the two lives will seep together and my manager or my coworkers will go check out the stream.
I’ve had other people that work in the video-game development industry contact me and talk with me. There’s a guy who used to work at BioWare Austin and he moved to Irrational Studios. He watches my stream all the time and we talk and laugh about crazy bad glitches in games.
Do you think doing the stream helped you get in to BioWare?
It might’ve. I did put it on my resume as, “I have experience breaking the hell out of games,” and my dad [Tom’s father also works at BioWare as a programmer] said, “send in eight of your videos of you breaking games,” and so I mentioned it. It never came up after that, but it may have helped a little bit.
What’s the difference to you between a good stream and a bad stream?
The only time I can say if a stream is bad or good is how I feel coming off of it. If I’m in a good mood coming out of a stream, then it was fantastic. If I feel like crap then I’ll want to quit. It’s something I love doing, so if I come out of something I love doing and feel bad, it’s the worst thing in the fucking world.
Do you have any goals?
I’d like to say that I do. I’d like to get better. When I started, I wanted to interact with people and find weird social scenarios. And you’d find out about people from what they’d say or how they’d interact in chat. And everybody’s unique on the internet.
My original goal was just to meet people, and interact and learn from them. I’m still all about that, but I’d like to advance my channel, get more people in, build a community, the basic “I want to get bigger,” but I feel like that’s a really lame goal.
What did you mean by “everyone is unique on the internet”?
Everyone has their own take on things, they have their own opinions, their own styles, like “everyone is unique in their own way, you’re all special” kind of thing. Everybody has access to the internet now, and you don’t limit yourself. When I throw myself out there, I’m not selecting anyone—anyone can come to me. And there’s no limitations: anyone can say “Hi Tom,” or “Fuck you, Tom,” or “I love you Tom,” and any number of things is possible. But in the real world, where everyone isn’t bits and bytes, I’d probably go to a gaming convention or go work at BioWare and that’s one group of people that like video games that have their own traits that are very similar. But on the internet you can meet anyone. There’s no limit.
Is it something you bring up socially?
I don’t ever really bring it up. It’s weird, it’s something I feel I should be really proud of, but at the same time I don’t want to show other people for fear of judgment. And not judgment as in, “you’re a horrible person for doing this,” but as in, “man, your stream isn’t that good.” I take too much pride in it.