For the past week and a half, Twitch star Ludwig Ahgren has been on the clock. Whether asleep, awake, or drowsily somewhere between, Ahgren has kept his stream running to fulfill the terms of a “subathon” where every subscription adds ten seconds to a timer. So far, he’s pulled in nearly $500,000. He says, however, that when it’s all said and done, he’ll see only a fraction of that money.
When Ahgren began his subathon, he was already a very successful streamer with over 1.5 million followers. He faced criticism, then, for seemingly wanting to line his already-packed pockets with even more cash by employing a strategy that’s more common among smaller streamers. Since then, he’s walked a contradictory line, giving his marathon stream an event feel in an obvious attempt to garner attention (and subscriptions). But he’s also discouraged viewers from doing things like spending their stimulus checks on him—and even going so far as to outright ban people who gift too many subscriptions in his chat.
Yesterday, he broke down the money element of all this. During his stream, Ahgren pulled up a spreadsheet displaying his total subscription and donation-based earnings over 10 record-breaking days, in which he became the most-subscribed-to streamer on Twitch. The total, according to current estimations, is $471,756.
“However,” Ahgren began, “it’s not that easy. I don’t get to walk away with all this money because there [are] things in life that you have to pay. That is called taxes. But even before we get to taxes, we have to talk about my cut. Because Twitch takes away money, so this isn’t all mine. This is partly Twitch’s.”
Twitch’s cut comes out to a hair over 35% because Ahgren negotiated his current contract in 2020 before he rose to his current level of stardom. That already brings the avalanche of cash careening toward his bank account down to $304,260. That’s still an absurd amount of money! But then, Ahgren factored in a rough estimation of both federal and state taxes, which brought him down to $150,000.
“States require taxes, and I live in California,” he said. “That’s why, if you don’t know, a lot of streamers live in Texas—or maybe YouTubers, too—because Texas doesn’t have any state taxes for income tax. Same with New Hampshire, and same with Florida.”
A viewer then asked him why he doesn’t just move in order to pay less.
“Why not move?” he replied. “I don’t really care. I make enough money. I don’t feel like I need more money. I’m happy to pay my taxes. If they want taxes to do things, I could be [like] Jeff Bezos at Amazon and get up in trying to pay as little taxes as possible to make as much money as possible, but that’s not really my M.O...I’m down to pay my share. That’s the whole point of taxes.”
Next, Ahgren moved on to payments he intends to issue, starting with his moderation team. Many streamers do not pay their mods—which is not a great system because what moderators do is work, and they deserve to be paid by streamers who have the means to do so. Ahgren’s subathon would literally not be possible without his moderation team. Not only have they ensured that his chat remains relatively sane, but a rotating group of 15 moderators has run the stream at night while Ahgren’s been asleep as well. As a result, he pays the team a total of $5,000 per day (plus a base rate) as the team participates in this grueling stunt. As of yesterday, all of that left Ahgren with $83,000—which, as he pointed out, is “still a lot of goddamn money.”
That brought him to the charity aspect of his subathon. For each subscriber he has at the end of it all, he intends to donate $1 to a charity of his choosing, which he has yet to name. Yesterday, he had somewhere in the ballpark of 80,000 subscribers, dwindling his total take down to just $3,000. He went on to clarify, however, that tax write-offs should bring him up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 or $15,000, but he doesn’t know the exact number.
“That’s for my accountant to deal with,” he said.
$10,000 or $15,000 is still—still—a lot of money, though maybe not worth 10 days of hundreds of thousands of eyeballs ceaselessly upon you. However, there are multiple things to keep in mind here: For one, the total amount of money will likely go up even more before the timer frees Ahgren from his Truman Show-like bubble. Currently, it’s at just under 30 hours, and viewers have not stopped subscribing. This also means that Ahgren, despite saying he wants people to chill with the subscriptions, has an incentive to reveal how little he personally stands to make. It provides dedicated fans with a concrete reason to give him more money.
But even if Ahgren only ends up with a small army of Benjamins to show for all of this, he thinks it will have been a good use of his time.
“Even [$150,000] is still less valuable than the increase in viewership, the total follower gain, the New York Times article,” he said. “We got a New York Times article! That’s insane...The amount of attention this has all received is definitely worth it.”
Attention, after all, is what will ultimately translate to more money and opportunities in the long run. Stunts are short-lived, even ones that last longer than any previous attempts of their nature. But making a splash so big that it draws the mainstream eye means pulling in all sorts of new viewers. That’s how Tyler “Ninja” Blevins got big, for example. His dalliance with the mainstream fed into years of deals and longevity despite how quickly the height of his relevance came and went.
This does, however, complicate Ahgren’s relationship with his audience. No matter how much (or how little) he makes off this subathon, Ahgren will remain a rich person who takes a chunk of his money directly from people who are poorer than him. Such is the nature of Twitch. When it comes to big streamers, it’s an accepted part of the culture. But it can still be an awkward dynamic. In this instance, Ahgren can say that he’s not walking away with the lion’s share of what he makes, but that will not be as true of future, post-subathon earnings, at which point he will be a bigger star than ever. Even then, he will presumably still accept subscriptions and donations as part of regular streams.
The fact that people felt weird about Ahgren launching this subathon when he was already wealthy is revealing. Many take Twitch’s basic structure for granted, but as soon as you put a slight twist on the donation/subscription model, they start asking legitimate questions about why big streamers need even more money. Those questions will always be worth asking—even outside subathons and other events—so long as the money keeps flowing.
Update: 3/26/21, 4:30 PM: In the wake of Ahgren’s on-stream finance discussion, many viewers and readers have suggested that he missed the mark on some of his math. For the sake of clarity, Kotaku spoke to Ernest Jones, a CPA who helps Twitch streamers and other new media individuals/businesses with their taxes. He explained that Ahgren did things in the wrong order: Taxes, he said, would come after Twitch’s cut, moderator payments, and the charitable donation, meaning that a significantly smaller portion of the money would ultimately end up getting taxed than Ahgren estimated. Applying that methodology and using the same numbers Ahgren provided on stream, he’d ultimately wind up with around $80,000—not $10,000 or $15,000. So it’s still a fraction of the total, but a bigger fraction.
Jones went on to note, however, that taxes—especially for streamers—are rarely so simple.
“Did he gift subs during that time frame? Did he gift subs to other broadcasters in that time frame? Allocation of home office and rent in that subathon window [would also factor in],” Jones said in a DM. “What if someone gives to charity later? But the reason they felt comfortable doing that is because of the earned money from this type of event that happened earlier? So, do you go back and recalculate what you made from this unique discrete event? Or maybe the business goes forward and takes a risk with another event that actually ends up losing money? When do you establish your cutoff?”
Taxes, in other words, are complicated.