During the pandemic, more eyes than ever have been on esports and the wider gaming world. Hours watched on platforms like Twitch and YouTube skyrocketed as new users joined the platforms and dedicated viewers extended time. While the pandemic was a catalyst for change, the trends highlighted in gaming have been in motion for years. Gaming content creators have ascended to a new level of stardom.
Streamers like Ninja work with brands like Walmart and Adidas, professional players turned streamers like Bugha appear in Super Bowl ads and dedicated content creators like CouRage and Valkyrae are being made co-owners of the organizations they stream for due to their immense value.
Digital creators are understanding their power in the business sphere and capitalizing on it en masse for the first time. For almost all of esports history, the primary goal of a streamer or content creator was to get picked up by an organization. Orgs like FaZe Clan, Cloud 9, Team Liquid, TSM, 100 Thieves and many more represent the idea of making it big. (Full disclosure: AFK Creators represents players who are part of Cloud 9, Team Liquid and TSM.)
But as more content creators realize the power they hold, the scales seem to be shifting toward the individual over the collective.
Esports Orgs Are Unique in the Wider Entertainment World
While many other areas of entertainment have conglomerates, be that a union or an agency, esports organizations exist in a unique middle ground. Most were formed to focus on building competitive teams in esports like League of Legends, CS:GO, Call of Duty and more. But organizations have had trouble turning a profit, largely thanks to playing in games where they don’t own the actual intellectual property of the games themselves.
With developers bringing in orgs as marketing, but not divvying up the pie in the way we see in traditional sports, many orgs have begun branching away from a purely competitive focus. Some orgs like FaZe Clan have had content as the core goal for over a decade. Recently, FaZe Clan has become the model, not the exception, among major orgs.
For streamers, a leading organization offers plenty. There’s access to new resources, new opportunities and major brands. Orgs also offer a social trampoline, access to other creators’ audiences and consistent cash. For a young streamer, usually in their late teens or early 20s, an org makes a compelling offer, especially in a world that often deals in clout.
But, with the gaming industry maturing, some of those aspects are no longer exclusive to organizations — leading some major names to go independent.
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The Benefits of Going Independent as a Streamer
With streamers in the spotlight, brands have increased their knowledge of how this ecosystem works. Individual deals are only becoming more common. Ninja is the most notable example of this but independent streamers like Dr Disrespect, Shroud and Pokimane are all commanding big brand deals. Pokimane even turned down a reported $3 million sponsorship as it wasn’t a fit for her brand.
To be picked up by an org, a streamer has to be doing a lot of things right. They should already have a consistent content pipeline, a dedicated audience and a long-term goal. By joining an org, a streamer will go from being the director, EP or host of their own content to just the host. Giving up that creative control can come with risks.
One risk is the choice of the game. Contracts typically require specific hours of streaming certain games. Fortnite helped make streamers household names but after multiple years with Fortnite on top of Twitch, many streamers simply got bored. Contracts pushed streamers to continue to play for weeks on end, even when they didn’t want to.
Gaming is the vehicle, but a streamer’s real job is acting and entertaining the viewers in the stream. The goal is to build a community complete with inside jokes, discussion and history — all centered around the creator’s content. When a streamer isn’t enjoying the game, the content falters and viewers leave. It’s an often unstable profession, especially when giving up creative control.
Orgs and streamers often have a mutually beneficial relationship but sometimes conflicts of interests arise. As more streamers have gone independent, creators are creating their own pseudo-orgs with content houses like OfflineTV, a collection of friends creating a community while keeping creative control. Audiences are fickle. Changes imposed by orgs can be the difference between growth and decline. After signing a contract, creators can struggle to stop a decline in viewers.
But falling off is only one issue, the other is getting too big.
Take Tfue, a relatively small streamer, who started playing Fortnite when the game was at its peak in popularity. Turns out, he’s really good. He got the attention of FaZe Clan, a massive social media machine that connected him with other top players. Less than a year after signing a three-year contract with FaZe Clan, Tfue was one of the biggest streamers in the world, consistently outpacing Ninja in terms of viewers. But he was locked in. It took a lawsuit to get him out.
During that time, he has slipped back down the streaming leaderboards. Much like music, streamers have a short period of time where everything aligns and they can become No. 1. How streamers leverage that point sets the stage for the rest of their career. Ninja grabbed it, held through controversy, and is as close to a household name in gaming. Tfue is still a relatively popular creator, but one embroiled in a legal battle serving a niche of fans.
Simply put, if people in esports and gaming only care about esports and gaming, then being an org is the ultimate accomplishment. If a streamer cares about more, like expanding into other entertainment avenues such as the worlds of music, sports or movies, then streamers will likely need to be in control of their own brands to build their own intellectual property.
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