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A game developer makes a game on one side of a wall while a streamer plays the game on the other side, showing how both sides rely on one another. Illustration: David Huang for Polygon

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Can anyone survive Fortnite as a job?

It’s easy to ignore the symptoms when the money’s flowing in

“I feel like the majority of my life has been in front of a screen,” Turner “Tfue” Tenney reflected amid tears. A fateful kill against Tyler “Ninja” Blevins back in 2019 had catapulted Tenney to fame, and his audience went on to outgrow that of Twitch’s most mainstream star. Yet in 2022, Fortnite’s golden boy — whose name is synonymous with the battle royale game’s most recognizable character, Jonesy — called it quits. For many, Tenney’s retirement video was a sign of yet another Twitch star grappling with burnout: sad, yet familiar. In essence, though, Tenney walking away from it all cemented the end of an era for the games industry.

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Tenney was the real deal, a perfect nexus of undeniable charisma and tenacious talent on display at least eight hours a day for years. But his ascent was a complicated one that reflected many of gaming’s biggest growing pains during the influencer era. Tenney came up as an early Fortnite esports champion; we now know that esports is a bubble that’s burned millions of dollars. Tenney rode a Fortnite wave that raised billions of dollars for Epic Games; a few years later, the publisher laid off 830 of its employees. When Tenney blew up, everyone was salivating over Drake and what his livestream appearance signaled for Twitch’s future; now both the rapper and many of the platform’s stars are better known for promoting gambling over hits. Tenney spurred headlines after joining FaZe Clan, a gaming lifestyle brand so lucrative it was endorsed by celebrities like Snoop Dogg; FaZe Clan is now an infamous penny stock that tried to rip him off, Tenney says.

Where all these disasters converge is Twitch, the livestreaming platform that’s home to over 30 million daily viewers. Many would say the writing is on the wall for Twitch, after endless headlines about losing top talent, poor management, bad platform policies, and creator burnout. But the idea that Twitch has lost its way after an ostensible golden era is an easy narrative that misses something much starker. If Twitch is in trouble in 2023, it’s not because things have gotten worse. Everything you’re seeing is the natural progression of an unsustainable system. The prognosis has always been terminal; we’ve just refused to see it because it’s been profitable.

It didn’t take long for publishers to see that Twitch could make or break a game. Around 2018, Twitch and its personalities turned Fortnite into a juggernaut so powerful, much of the gaming industry started molding itself in its image. While an approachable aesthetic and surprising gameplay made for good viewing, what kept Fortnite from being a mere fad was the model. Before, content expansions and adjustments could take months, if not years, to hit, and you might have to shell out money to see any of it. Fortnite set a more cutthroat standard: free weekly content updates.

Epic could swing this ceaseless delivery because the bulk of its profits at the time came from its engine, which many games — including Fortnite’s competitors — license. It was these deep pockets that made Fortnite possible in the first place: The bubbly shooter was initially a flop before Epic perfected the formula. The cadence also let Epic quickly adapt Fortnite to whatever was trending or novel, whether that was Among Us or Splatoon. Much like Roblox, Fortnite became a game that could give you anything — and if Epic didn’t emulate it, the players would.

“You can’t replicate Fortnite’s growth from, like, the [content creator] standpoint and also definitely from the developer standpoint,” says a Twitch streamer turned game developer who requested anonymity because he isn’t authorized to discuss the popular AAA live-service shooter that he works on.

The conditions that made everything possible were unique, yet immaterial to publishers who could only imagine profits. Suddenly, “live service” was everywhere — and games like Overwatch, which couldn’t achieve a similar pace, were posed as disappointments by content creators.

Players drop into Fortnite Battle Royale
Players enter a game in Fortnite.
Image: Epic Games

Does an average player truly need their favorite game to give them something new, week in and week out? Developers say getting half of their players to actually finish games is unusual and worth celebrating, because the reality is that most people will never finish a game they start. Twenty-two percent of purchased games on Steam are unplayed outright. A number of things affect these percentages, like being a part of a sale or Game Pass, but the statistics still paint a picture. A reported 25% of players between the ages of 18 and 34 enjoy games between three and six hours a week, 28% play two hours or less, and 19% play between 13 to 24 hours or more, according to Statista. As they get older, fans apparently spend less time in games. In the most engaged age group, half of all players only log a couple of hours or so per week in their favorite games.

A serious Twitch streamer who goes live daily or logs a full workday during their schedule will typically play much, much more than the people who are watching them. Twitch streamers can’t stop; a mere two-day pause might mean losing thousands of paying subscribers. There’s a big incentive to keep up with live-service updates as well. There’s some FOMO involved; while certain events with special prizes happen yearly, other big occasions, like season finales, only happen once. But the numbers don’t lie: Your viewership will definitely be impacted by new patches that float the game in question to Twitch’s front page.

“Multiplayer games will start decreasing in viewership after the first week as the launch hype dies down and then it’s a question of how good the game is perceived to be that will determine its long term fate,” says StreamElements’ public relations director Chase. “With those in for the long haul, viewership tends to plateau and then spike when new content and patches are released or if it is supported by competitive events.”

While the playing habits of a Twitch streamer don’t represent the average player by any means, content creators certainly shape public opinion about games.

“Negative sentiment is very profitable,” says the AAA game developer, who noted that social media platforms are built to highlight popular — and sometimes caustic — content. This dynamic sets up an inherent tension between game developers and hardcore players like Twitch streamers, who are not the main audience of most games but are often some of the most visible players.

“I don’t at all think that streamers are embodying some typical player behaviors, like ‘Brandon,’” the developer continues, posing a name for an imaginary everyday consumer. “There’s definitely a model of consumers nowadays who probably parrot those sentiments. They did not arrive at those conclusions themselves.”

The misinformation will vary, but Twitch both shapes that discourse while also becoming the very metric that people use to make sense of a game’s situation. It’s gotten so bad that people scrutinize Twitch longevity for single-player games, not just live-service or multiplayer ones.

And so, to keep up with expectations, games as a whole are getting longer — and more expensive. It takes multiple studios to keep yearly live-service franchises like Call of Duty afloat, as noted in the CMA’s report on Activision Blizzard. That same report says that the development budget of a AAA game can range anywhere from $80 million to $380 million, and seasonal updates in particular require anywhere from $50 million to $65 million to produce. For publishers, keeping up with the competition requires nearly as much money as making a big-budget game in the first place. For contrast, a modern Tomb Raider game had a budget between $75 million and $100 million, not counting marketing costs.

Marketing by itself has eye-popping numbers as well: A 2018 report noted that the marketing budgets alone for some titles can equal 75% to 100% of what was spent on development, effectively doubling the total production cost. The channels publishers will pursue are varied, but Twitch streamers command a percentage of it. In recent years, we’ve seen a shift toward personality-based promotion, with more and more publishers eschewing traditional press at launch in favor of coverage they can control. Blevins, by himself, apparently commanded a $1 million payday for streaming Apex Legends, a game that’s popularity can be attributed to its enormous Twitch-focused launch.

Who can actually compete in the environment all of these conditions have created? Giant publishers who make live-service games, mostly. All 10 of the most-watched games on Twitch in 2022 were live-service games with regular updates. And the cost goes beyond money. As Fortnite took off, developers at Epic Games said that they experienced months of crunch that required 70-to-100-hour weeks to produce that industry-shaping content despite the publisher’s deep pockets. That’s the model that a lot of this hinges on, an egregious work week that often still requires the cheap benefits of outsourcing and contractors who are routinely laid off. Things haven’t changed much since 2019 at some major studios: Diablo 4’s developers say they also underwent crunch to ship the game. Naturally, the action role-playing game had Twitch integration from the jump, and alongside a detailed content roadmap. There’s little incentive for any of this to change, even as big-budget games buckle under their own weight and studios are closing left and right. Not when publishers know that the longer a player is hooked, the more likely it is that they’ll spend money.

At this point, live-service games need content creators like Twitch streamers to stay solvent. According to the developer speaking to Polygon, streamers help old games transform into new and visible moments. Developers need live-service games to stay in the conversation, because the base experience can worsen without a persistent player base.

It’s “not even from a cost perspective,” the developer says, though obviously more players make profits more viable. “But [if] we don’t have 20,000 players, then matchmaking times are terrible. Or connections will be pretty bad because we can’t mobilize players together in a single match. There’s all these cascading effects.”

While a Twitch streamer’s livelihood depends on having a steady stream of content, the system taxes them, too. Tenney’s goodbye to his fans was a crushing one, because the path that led him there was fueled by lost youth and a dream. Over time, the promise of a dream job — get paid to play games! — became corporatized, and contracts turned things ugly. Tenney said he started feeling trapped, and he didn’t like how much his decisions started being motivated by money. Tenney is hardly alone here now that Twitch has “grown up.”

“There is inherently [a] vicious and negative cycle for everyone involved, for how live service interacts with Twitch as a medium,” the game developer, who also spent years as a serious Twitch streamer, says. It’s been years, but he says he’s still recovering from the burnout of livestreaming all the time.

“There [are] these enormous benefits for some people, but there’s also just, like, a lot of it just really grinds you down on both sides of the table,” he said, referring to game developers and Twitch streamers.

The burnout phenomenon has been at the forefront of Twitch’s public image, in large part because it doesn’t spare even the most successful creators on the platform. Twitch’s most famous woman, Imane “Pokimane” Anys, started streaming while she was still a teen. Then, it was just a hobby. Nearly a decade later, Anys grew to have one of the most impressive stints on the platform. Late in 2022, however, came a big change. She informed fans she would no longer stream all day, nor would games be her primary focus anymore. Instead, she pivoted to being more of a lifestyle and beauty personality who uploads on short-form platforms like TikTok, if and when she feels like it.

The evolution grew from a similar motivation as Tenney’s. In the video where she explains it all, Anys said that during her time as a full-on Twitch streamer, keeping up with the “rat race” often meant playing what was popular while being unable to do “basic human things,” like going grocery shopping. How could she, when streaming all day was the norm and there was always competition around the corner that was younger and more willing to stay live for longer?

It was inevitable, then, for things like sleep streams, uncapped subathons, and randomly generated AI shows to materialize on Twitch; content creators feel like they need to keep going, always. Barring that, live-service games are always at the ready. In her sort-of-goodbye video, Anys spoke frankly while quickly scrolling through her entire game history on Twitch. It was all live-service games like League of Legends and Fortnite.

In 2011, when Twitch first launched, content creation wasn’t fully a career and people still uploaded their photos to Facebook. Normal, everyday teens weren’t yet decrying the hungry maw of the internet, and the generational shift toward work-life balance hadn’t yet taken hold. Twitch happened at the exact right time, benefiting from a cadre of optimistic young users who grew up on the internet, happy to give away as much of themselves as they could. They didn’t even realize it was happening, in many cases, and they couldn’t imagine the unsustainable system it would go on to create. People were just having fun.

Things have changed since then. Twitch has crowned millionaires, like Félix “xQc” Lengyel, who wear thick diamond chains around their necks while streaming. At the same time, viewership is dropping after years of platform growth that was partially bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic, all while top creators are streaming less. The gaming industry, which likes to boast about how much money it makes in comparison to other forms of entertainment, is laying off workers nearly every week at top studios. Meanwhile, the overall gaming market is shrinking. The cracks in the system that produces and promotes big-budget games are getting hard to ignore.

“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Tenney said in his goodbye video, which is overflowing with footage of esports casters and viewers in awe of his Fortnite plays.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, man,” he continued, shaking his head. “I feel like my childhood and even some of my adulthood kind of flushed away. I feel like this is the end of the journey, man.”