Becoming a professional streamer is a dream come true for many gamers. Who wouldn’t want to be paid to play games all day? Along with the money comes recognition, adoring fans and, in all honesty, a large dose of negative attention. How realistic is it that you’ll reach that level? If you’re a hard worker, good at games, and have a decent personality, what are the odds that you’ll just “make it”?
The reality is that becoming a professional streamer not only takes a tremendous amount of skill, but a whole lot of luck too. Not to crush your dreams, but before you dedicate a ton of time and money, you should know the reality of the situation. Whether it’s becoming a streamer, a TikTok star, or even a musician, there has been a lot of research around the balance between luck and skill.
One expert in this realm is Duncan Watts, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a computational social scientist, which means he studies human behavior in systems and analyzes large-scale data. He’s conducted numerous experiments to see what makes things popular, and one of his most famous studies in 2006 looked into what made songs popular. Watts and his team used over 14,000 participants to see if there was any way to predict what song would be a hit.
To conduct the experiment, they created a program that hosted a playlist of a variety of songs and let the users rate them. One would expect that if there was an objective way to determine which song would be a hit, you’d see most of the participants rate the same song the highest, but this wasn’t the case. More often than not, the results were completely random. But after this first round of experiments, they tested a few other variables, and there was one in which they found that they could accurately predict which songs would perform the best.
In a variation of the study, they added one additional piece of information aside from the band and the title of the song, and that was the number of downloads. This number of downloads was created by the researchers, and they found that the songs with the highest number of downloads would consistently get rated the highest by the participants. If they took a song that was at the bottom of the ratings and gave it a higher number of downloads, people would rate it higher, and it would stay at the top of the charts.
Why did this happen? We’re a social species, and oftentimes we turn to others to see what’s “good,” which is why these results were so easily manipulated.
Now, it’s important to note that there is a baseline standard required, and popularity isn’t entirely dependent on existing success — if it was, no one would ever get there. On average, there are 7.4 million people streaming each month, so you need to stand out in the first place, whether it’s being incredible at the game you’re playing or having a charismatic personality, separating yourself from the pack is important. And never discount marketing and all the little things you can do to boost your numbers.
But the data shows that luck plays a large role in how things shake out at the top.
In order to better understand what’s happening and why it’s so hard to break out in the streaming world, you need to know about The Matthew Effect. This social phenomenon is named after a biblical verse, Matthew 25:29, which states, “For unto every one that have shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but him that have not shall be taken, even that which he have.” Basically, this means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In the realm of success, it means that bigger streamers get bigger.
Social scientists theorize that The Matthew Effect happens for the same reasons that Watts found in his music study. We turn to others to see what’s good, and we follow their lead. So, when a streamer has hundreds or thousands of people watching them, if someone doesn’t know who to watch, they’ll assume that this person must be great because they have such a large audience. Then the next person comes along and thinks the same thing, and on it goes.
Now, you might be thinking that there’s no chance you’ll ever become a hit streamer, but don’t quit just yet. While it’s impossible to control your luck, you can certainly improve your odds. In his book, The Luck Factor, psychologist Richard Wiseman provides research that explains what makes people lucky.
In one study, researchers gave participants an impossible puzzle to solve, but beforehand, they had the people answer a questionnaire. What they found was that people who said that they perceive themselves as lucky worked on the impossible puzzle longer than those who see themselves as unlucky. Further research that he discusses shows that “lucky” people are always looking for opportunities that they can capitalize on.
If you’re trying to become a hit streamer, you just need to remember to be realistic because there’s only so much that you can do to control your fate. Given the balance between luck and skill, you can do a simple risk analysis to see how much time and money you can put into it without experiencing severe consequences. For many, it would be a bad idea to spend thousands of dollars on high-end streaming equipment, and it’s a lot safer to start out with an affordable webcam and some free software.
Even though it’s difficult to become a full-time streamer, it’s definitely possible. Keep an eye out for opportunities and stay consistent. As we learned from the impossible puzzle study, if you don’t give up before the competition, you’ll increase your chances of getting that lucky break.