THE MOMENT WHEN Leckakay learned that Microsoft was shutting down Mixer, her streaming platform, she was live on camera. “Oh my god, go look at fucking Twitter,” said one of the women she was streaming with. “What are we looking at?” asked Leckakay, scrolling through her feeds. Once she found the official Mixer account’s latest tweet, she threw herself back in her chair and screamed. “Mixer Partners, streamers and community,” it began. “We’ve decided to close the operations side of Mixer.”
At age 23, Leckakay dropped out of college and left her part-time job at a weed dispensary to livestream videogames full time on Mixer. Mixer’s tight-knit community of supportive streamers and overtures toward transparency drew her to the platform over Twitch, YouTube Gaming, or Facebook Gaming. She’d done well there, too, making enough through her streaming and sponsorship incomes to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles and a used car after a year. Yet, just four years into its existence, Mixer’s growth stalled, barely improving between April 2019 and 2020 while Twitch doubled its hours watched. Despite signing marquee talent like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, Mixer had become the butt of the joke in the livestreaming world. On June 22, it announced it would cease operations on July 22. (As part of a new partnership between Microsoft and Facebook, Mixer offered streamers perks to transfer over to competing livestreaming platform Facebook Gaming.)
“We have to start over,” says Leckakay in an interview with WIRED, referring to the crucial numbers attached to her Mixer account: followers, subscribers, financial rewards. “All our hard work, everything we accomplished up to that point, was poof, gone. Everything we did here is no longer valid.”
It’s a very modern problem of digital labor, wrapped up in candy-colored Fortnite graphics. It’s the ultimate funhouse mirror for our modern-day gig economy. Freedom. Fun. Fame. A small cadre of top streamers are said to pull in an unfathomable $50,000 an hour playing videogames. It’s a child’s daydream of independence, smiling to audiences of hundreds or thousands while deftly headshotting a Call of Dutyenemy; gaming for six, eight, or 10 hours a day with no bosses, no masters.
“I felt like my life was not my life anymore, or that my career was not in my control.”
Yet, like Uber drivers and Mechanical Turk workers, livestreamers rely on platforms owned by big tech companies to pay the bills. They don’t write the code, design features, calculate subscription fees, or decide whether the platform lives or dies. Poof. They have no benefits, no guaranteed wages, and little leverage. Their earnings are inexorably linked to hours dedicated to the platform. In the past, that’s led to unhealthy marathon streams, even serious health repercussions. “There are 168 hours in each week. As a full-time Twitch streamer, I’m expected to be live for as many of them as possible,” streamer Ben “Professor Broman” Bowman once wrote in a 2017 essay for Polygon. “The only one who can turn the camera off is the person who benefits the most from keeping it on.”ADVERTISEMENT
“It’s not like a normal job, where you have a reference afterward and you can build on it,” says Miriam Cherry, a professor at Saint Louis University and the codirector of its Center for Employment Law. “That’s what’s tough about some of these digital or gig careers. In most traditional work, you have an upward trajectory—if you learn certain skills you’re gonna advance or get a promotion. You might be able to apply to the next job or get in management. There’s a career path. For many jobs in the gig economy, and it sounds like for the streamers, there is no next thing.”
QueenEliminator, formerly a top Mixer streamer who moved to Facebook Gaming after the announced closure, compares the grind for better stats to an NFL quarterback racking up yards and wins. “Companies look at me and look at my follower number,” she says. QueenEliminator ended on Mixer with 350,000 followers and 5 million views after streaming eight to 14 hours a day with one day off a week. “When those all get ripped away from you, so do the opportunities.” Over at Facebook Gaming, where she immediately received partnership but still had to rebuild her viewership numbers from scratch, she had just 8,800 followers at the time of publication.
Before streaming, QueenEliminator used to bartend. “You know you’re going to make money and more tips on a weekend,” she says. Streaming is far more volatile. On a good day, 30 people might subscribe at $5 a person. One person’s donation might start a train that earns her a plush $500. Other days, she might only get 15 subscriptions and no donations.
“I can stream every single day and every single day is different,” she says.
QueenEliminator says that, in the beginning, Mixer was transparent and communicative. A couple of times a week, she interfaced with her partner manager, an employee assigned to take her feedback and help her use the platform. There were focus groups, too, in a Discord server just for Mixer partners and employees. Over time, though, she and other streamers began to feel less heard.ADVERTISEMENT
“There were so many dead promises. ‘Broken promises’ is the correct term, but these were dead promises,” she says. Mixer streamers wanted fans to be able to buy and gift multiple subscriptions to their friends—a major contributor to Twitch streamers’ income. The feature never came. Streamers wanted better viewership analytics, so they could actually understand who was watching them and how they could improve. That never happened, either. QueenEliminator began to feel discouraged. “I felt like I was stuck there, that I was controlled. I hated it. I had no voice,” she says. “I felt like my life was not my life anymore, or that my career was not in my control.”
Apparently, that sentiment was grounded in reality. In a harrowing Twitlonger postcalling out racism he had experienced at Mixer, former Mixer community acquisition manager Milan Lee detailed an instance in which his boss, who worked with Mixer partners, described the partners as “slaves” and herself as the “slave master” in a meeting. “I own their content. I control their success on our platform,” Lee recalled her saying. (In a reply to his tweet, Mixer wrote, “Our goal is to build a positive, welcoming, and inclusive team and community. To those sharing your stories; it’s unacceptable that we did not provide that for you. We’ll be vigilant in addressing this more diligently in the future.” Microsoft did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment for this story.)
In an interview with WIRED, Lee explained that the racially insensitive comment, and Microsoft’s reticence to hold his boss accountable, is endemic of a value problem. “All these [viewers] are giving, you know, money to these streamers, which essentially is also going into the company’s pockets,” Lee says. “Streamers are putting in 50, 60 hours, streaming every single day of the week … We need to take care of them and make sure we have their best interests at heart.”
Lee says balancing out what streamers wanted and what Mixer execs wanted entailed a fight for resources. Not everybody had the same priorities. Some Mixer employees were focused on getting more big-name streamers on the platform, he says, like Blevins and Grzesick. “What if we took all that budget and resources we had and put them in our own partner base, in the sense of marketing initiatives, growing their channels, making them bigger personalities and rewarding their loyalties?”ADVERTISEMENT
Partnered streamers have front-row insight into some of the platform’s business and are under NDA already—why not show them product roadmaps or share business plans? Thinking bigger, Lee says, why not give them benefits, or at least discounts on benefits? “If they get sick or have kids, it’s all out of pocket, 100 percent.”
Despite all the potential protections—and the fallout of Mixer’s closure—most former Mixer streamers interviewed by WIRED wouldn’t want the streaming companies they work with to consider them employees. Citing control over their content and working hours, they don’t want to feel beholden to some tech giant’s idea of what they should be doing. Also, some streamers get only a portion of their income from streaming, with the rest of their work scattered across YouTube, Patreon, OnlyFans, and other sites. That gets messy fast.
“I definitely feel a disconnection between the term ‘employee’ and what I was as a streamer,” says former Mixer streamer GhostfromTexas. “I hear the word ‘employee,’ I think about somebody who is directly paid by a company to perform a certain task.” Others agreed that while it might be nice to have benefits, more transparency, or a little heads-up before a platform announces its shutdown, the rigidness of official employment could do more harm than good. They don’t want Twitch, YouTube Gaming, or Facebook Gaming to turn into modern-day cable networks. A couple of streamers preferred the term “partner” to “employee.”
“We make the platform money and they allow us to make money on their platform,” says QueenElininator. “You’re in a partnership. In any kind of partnership, we should both have a say-so—even if you have more shares in the company, I still should have a voice, even if it’s small.”
“This old system worked for people who went to an office or into a factory and did their job. It’s no longer working for the new age.”
Some enterprising YouTube creators offer a potential model for other streamers to follow. In 2018, German YouTuber Jörg Sprave, frustrated by seemingly random demonetization and opaque moderation guidelines, formed the so-called YouTubers Union. Not technically a union, the initiative attracted 27,000 members, he says, all in an effort to get more leverage over and better working conditions on the Goliathan video platform. Although European trade union IG Metall lent its strength and expertise in 2019, the YouTubers Union hasn’t made much public headway yet toward its goals. “Most of the streamers that I know and also other content creators don’t want to be employees,” Sprave says. “Actually, they love the fact that they are independent. What they don’t love is that they are not treated as equal partners, and feel like they’re being kicked around.”ADVERTISEMENT
In January, California enacted AB5, a law that aims to classify many gig workers as employees. Companies like Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash have spent millions fighting the bill, and still have not made changes to workers’ employment status. In May, as part of an enforcement effort, California’s attorney general sued Uber and Lyft. But laws like AB5 might have serious consequences for content creators as well, says Sprave, specifically those who don’t earn a full-time living on the platform. Maybe those part-timers get kicked off. A lot of streamers launched their channels as part of a hobby. Most barely earn minimum wage, but grind for years hoping to make it big leagues—a very small and exclusive club of high-earners. “If you’re an employee, you pretty much give up on that,” says Sprave. “There is only so much money you can make.”
Sprave says there needs to be a third employment status—something between “employee” and “not an employee”—that encompasses digital laborers. “This old system worked for people who went to an office or into a factory and did their job. It’s no longer working for the new age. We need something that gives them independence, but on the other hand, a certain amount of security and more rights from their employers, the big platforms. It won’t be an easy job, but it must be done.”
Miriam Cherry has been researching third categories of employment for years, an approach countries like Canada and Italy have experimented with, she says. “I actually like Canada’s third category because it’s similar to being an ‘employee’ and it expanded coverage to more workers in need of protection,” she says. “It ultimately comes down to how the categories are defined.” Definitions of and guidelines for employment aren’t as rigid as they appear. They vary state-by-state, country-by-country. Until the term “employee” encompasses grey-area working conditions, not enough workers will be protected from sudden shutdowns like Mixer’s.
“If the laws were ever reformed to include a hybrid or intermediate category, such as Canada’s dependent contractor, it’s possible that streamers could be included in that category as well,” Cherry says.
Streaming platforms benefit hugely from the gamer-to-Midas pipe dream. It pulls in countless hopefuls young and old, which translate to metrics for advertisers and parent companies. To streaming companies, hours live on the platform are hours live on the platform, but to aspiring full-time streamers, it’s work toward a career—fun, grueling, complicated, or otherwise. It’s the companies’ circus, and for full-time streamers taking a big trapeze swing toward the sky, at the very least a cushion might do.