Illustration for article titled Down The Strange, Sometimes Upsetting Rabbit Hole Of Twitch Streamers TikToks
Image: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins

Over the past 72 hours, I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time watching TikToks created by Twitch streamers. It all began with a simple question: Can people whose whole line of work is built around creating the lengthiest, least-filtered form of pop culture possible excel in a medium where minimalism thrives?

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TikTok is a video platform that allows users to share clips no longer than 60 seconds. Most are shorter. Initially, people largely used it to share videos in which they lip-synced along to their favorite songs, but these days it’s more like the second coming of Vine—with a still-substantial lip-syncing component. TikTok users post musical memes, comedy shorts with one person playing multiple characters, jokes, stunts, pranks, and random videos they’ve taken on their phones.

It’s especially big among teenagers, which makes it fertile ground for streamers who specialize in games that draw younger audiences like Fortnite. It’s also more algorithmically driven than just about any other platform out there. You have a feed of people you follow, sure, but the app’s default “For You” page is not that. Instead, it learns from what you’ve liked in the past and encourages you to scroll through an infinite deluge of videos increasingly targeted to your personal tastes.

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On day one of this experiment, my “For You” page was mostly TikToks of weird birds singing popular songs and annoying each other, because that’s what I’ve traditionally used TikTok for (note: I am perhaps not the typical TikTok user). A couple hours in, it was all streamers. Today, it is all hyper-specific brands of streamers, as well as some other deeply weird stuff that I guess TikTok has decided gamers are into.

In my quest to understand how streamers used TikTok, I started with some of the most popular: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, Imane “Pokimane” Anys, Ali “Myth” Kabbani, Turner “Tfue” Tenney, and Jack “CouRage” Dunlop. These streamers are entrenched on Twitch, Mixer, and YouTube, so TikTok is less a main focus for them and more an extension of their iron-fisted multi-million-dollar brand empires.

Though TikTok is no longer social media’s Wild West (albeit one where all the cowboys dance along to “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus) it’s still relatively new. As a result, big streamers aren’t yet following any particular playbook when it comes to posting. Most post occasional edited-down clips of amusing moments from their streams, but beyond that, they do all manner of different things.

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Ninja mostly posts #relatable videos that riff on preexisting musical memes, like one about when your mom tells you to pause an online game. In it, Ninja pretends to hear his mom calling him from downstairs, telling him to pause the game. He reacts with exasperation but ultimately asks his team to protect his in-game character. He then mouths along to the song playing in the background, which says, “I’ll see you after the function.” After that, he leaves the room.

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It’s got a punchy multi-act structure that builds alongside a song that gained TikTok notoriety partially in association with a different gag about somebody’s mom wanting them to do something, which ultimately drives home the joke of Ninja rolling his eyes and going downstairs while his squad defends his uninhabited in-game body.

It’s a perfectly competent TikTok, functional but risk-free, telling a gamer-flavored version of a joke told by countless TikToks that came before. That sums up most of Ninja’s TikToks. Still, thanks to his two-million-strong follower count, his videos regularly get hundreds of thousands of likes. Other Ninja TikToks namedrop famous streamer friends, feature celebrities like makeup artist and model Jeffree Star, and frequently mention stream snipers and hackers, which Ninja is definitely not mad about. It is, on the whole, exactly what you’d expect from a Ninja TikTok account. No surprises, to the point that it feels almost perfunctory.

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Other big streamers are similarly predictable, in their own ways. Pokimane does cutesy dances and lip-syncs, Myth does relatable gamer memes, and TimTheTatman... also does relatable gamer memes. Of the biggest streamers, I was most impressed by CouRage and Tfue. CouRage pulls pranks on his YouTuber and streamer friends in a way I’d normally find obnoxious, but he makes it work with charisma and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Meanwhile, Tfue has only done four TikToks in his entire life and seems to have abandoned his account, but one of them demonstrates admirable commitment to a very dumb (in a good way) sight gag.

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The video, captioned “She caught me ducking somebody else,” is shot from the perspective of Tfue’s then-girlfriend, fellow streamer Corinna Kopf, and sees her happen upon a trail of clothes leading to a bathroom. Faint giggles emerge from within. Kopf forcefully opens the door and pulls back the shower curtain, only to find Tfue and another man sitting in the bathtub, playing with a tiny flock of actual, living ducklings. “Babe, it’s not what it looks like,” says Tfue.

Is it the funniest video ever? No. But is it a full realization of the sort of pun-based comedy short somebody would propose to their friends, only to never follow through on because they don’t have a pile of ducklings lying around? Yes, it is. And you have to respect that.

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I also found that many big streamers were late to the TikTok party. The platform is littered with the detritus of their absence. There are dozens of impostor accounts claiming to be Ninja, Myth, and Pokimane, some of them sporting fake blue checkmarks in their profile pictures so as to really sell the inauthentic authenticity. One of the accounts features a tearful apology note from the kid who was running it after they got found out.

There are also endless unofficial streamer highlight accounts and fan pages that take streamer clips, shave them down, and upload them to TikTok in hopes of breaking off a slice of that sweet viral pie. These accounts aren’t unsuccessful, either, pulling in tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers. Big streamers do not seem to be interfering with this ecosystem, but despite the obvious demand, they don’t seem to be interacting with it much, either. Tfue might be the most extreme example, but most big streamers post to TikTok infrequently, if at all. They might have accrued hundreds of thousands or millions of followers on the platform through name power alone, but they’ve got other business to attend to. Streaming, for example.

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That’s not to say there’s a dearth of streamer content on TikTok. To the contrary: Every time I open the app now, I feel like I’m being sprayed with a fire hose of the stuff. But TikTok is its own alternate streamer universe, where up is down, left is right, and the guy who said “EA Sports: It’s in the game” in all the old Electronic Arts games is a minor celebrity.

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After I spent some time watching bigger streamers, I began to see some streamers I didn’t recognize pop up in my “For You” feed. Sometimes, these streamers’ TikToks focused on topics relevant to the world of Twitch, like a streamer jokingly taking credit for Fortnite champion Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf’s rise to stardom last year while the “I’ve created a monster” line from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” plays in the background. Others seem more concerned with TikTok’s pocket of the video game streamer cinematic universe. For example, Kruzadar, a smaller Twitch streamer who’s achieved much greater success on TikTok, has developed her own TikTok format for stream clips, in which she rearranges them such that a portrait-mode friendly bubble of her face cam is at the top of edited video game footage.

This is a subtle alteration, but one that makes amusing stream moments far more watchable on TikTok than standard 16:9 highlights, which end up looking tiny in portrait mode. Kruzadar’s format also shifts the focus to her face and her snarky reactions, and on a platform where people—not games or other media—make up the bulk of content, that’s key. While some streamers’ clips feel like refuse from other platforms bobbing up and down in TikTok’s endless sea of content, Kruzadar’s are a natural fit.

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TikTok is different from most platforms in another small but overridingly important way: Somewhat ironically, on TikTok—the app named after the sound a clock makes—there is no time. Videos do not have timestamps. Content is algorithmic, so a video that’s weeks or months old will suddenly pop up in your feed, and you’ll be none the wiser. You can tap on a video’s soundtrack to see other popular TikToks that feature it, but again, there are no dates.

This means that TikTok stands in stark contrast to Twitch and other streaming platforms, where everything is live and everybody tunnel-vision fixates on the here and now. This, at least in part, is why successful TikTok videos are more general rather than specific to recent events. Streamer TikTok, as a result, has developed its own sub-genres of content that the algorithm chains together.

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Case in point: Yesterday, I liked a video of a female streamer expressing anger over the way other players treat her when they find out she’s not male set to a frequently-memed song, “Psycho” by MASE. A hypothetical player says she’s good at games “for a girl,” and then the screen goes red while she mouths along to the line “I might just go psycho.”

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Within the next hour, I came across several extremely similar videos featuring the same song, like one about dealing with men talking down to women who build their own PCs.

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This makes sense, because TikTok makes it easy for users to see other TikToks featuring a particular soundtrack and, if they so choose, riff on a song or set of sounds. Before long, however, these videos gave way to an ongoing trickle of TikToks about what female gamers deal with from men online. This is, on one hand, not surprising given, you know, what female gamers deal with from men online. But it is, on the other, a very specific thing for an algorithm to hone in on.

The final form of this algorithmic evolution is stranger, but also somehow more expected. TikTok has now decided I’m a mark for two things: Male streamers talking about how they achieved TikTok or Twitch success even though they’re not women —a pervasive though easily-debunked mindset on Twitch that seems to have made the leap to TikTok—and ads for three different brands of gamer energy drinks that star conventionally attractive female streamers. I now feel as though TikTok has gone from thinking I’m an elderly man who’s obsessed with birds, to a young woman who’s into video games, to a younger guy who’s an asshole.

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I’ve found that TikTok has forced streamers to adapt in other ways, too. Some streamers go the extra mile to stand out in an ecosystem in which the next video is just a split-second swipe away. In my experience, polished fashion sense and even costumes are a common sight, as is the Belle Delphine-esque “egirl” aesthetic. One streamer who caught my eye, Peachyburb, wears a mask, LED sunglasses, and glowing cat ear headphones, giving her videos an instantly recognizable visual signature. Her videos are good, too. She acts out scenes and memes, often with some kind of twist or punchline at the end. In one, she jokes about her friends not being around for game night, dancing along to a version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” until she realizes nobody is online, at which point the song cuts out and she leaps on her chair while mouthing along to a loud clip of someone saying “Where the fuck are you?”

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My personal favorite is a video about standing stock still in front of a Pokémon gym leader in-game because you’re too busy vibing with their theme music IRL. It’s just Peachyburb dancing in different locations across her house while holding her Nintendo DS. Quotes pertaining to the climactic battle to come pop up, but she never stops dancing:

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These TikToks are funny in a wholesome way, and they’ve turned Peachyburb into a TikTok star. Currently, she has nearly 700,000 followers on the platform, and her videos have received 7.5 million likes. This, however, has not translated into Twitch success. Despite describing herself as a “streamer,” Peachyburb has only 1,764 followers on Twitch. I’ve found this to be a common theme. Twitch success can boost your TikTok success, but not vice versa. Some TikTok users who are also Twitch streamers have even made TikToks about that exact phenomenon, like this one where a streamer named Peachy (no relation to Peachyburb) asks if she really made a TikTok to promote her Twitch stream, only for her TikTok to grow “10x bigger,” after which she mouths along to music that says, “Yeah, I did it, yeah, I did it.”

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That has not stopped streamers from trying to jumpstart their sputtering Twitch careers on TikTok, however. In fact, “struggling streamer” is a veritable Yggdrasil on TikTok, a genre tree with countless branches. When I first burrowed into this subdivision of the rabbit hole, I encountered a video captioned “Me streaming to my 1 viewer” set to a piano melody that’s become shorthand for sentimental emotional music on TikTok. The track also includes a clip of popular YouTuber JackSepticEye saying “Thank you for being here,” which the streamer, Tusick, mouths to his “viewer.”

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This video had over 55,000 likes and hundreds of comments. One comment urged Tusick to never “let him go” because “I have 75 followers and 1 viewer who is my best friend,” before adding that “it hurts trying so hard to fail and no one cares.” Another commenter said, “Plot twist: it’s your phone you forgot to exit the stream from.”

A few swipes later, I came across a similar video set to a different song. This one was about streaming to nobody when, suddenly, you finally get your first viewer and strike up “the best conversation of your life” with a new friend. This one had over 140,000 likes and nearly 1,000 comments, hundreds of which the streamer, Legendaley, responded to, in part to tell people the name of his Twitch channel.

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In the following hours, I came across many more TikToks about the struggles of being a small streamer, as well as an entire “small streamer” hashtag with a total of 4.2 million views across all videos with the tag. Many of these lionized the often ill-advised act of quitting jobs or school and ignoring friends’ advice to pursue a career in gaming—all, of course, set to music.

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Then they started getting specific. Weirdly specific. Specific in a way I can only describe as “emotionally troubling.” One after another, TikTok began serving me videos about girlfriends taking care of their boyfriends, who are aspiring Twitch streamers, set to emotional music. These videos usually focused on the boyfriend, but included captions from the girlfriend urging people to check out his channel. This culminated in an entire account dedicated to this TikTok format. It’s called Danny And Aly, and it’s made up of POV videos in which Aly brings or makes Danny, an aspiring streamer, food while he’s streaming. Every video is black and white, and the music is always some flavor of quietly melancholy. Most depict Aly nurturing Danny. A few focus on her going out of her way to do so.

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The account currently has nearly 9,000 followers, but it’s apparently done wonders for Danny’s Twitch channel, which, according to a video from Aly, has gained 86 subscribers and over 1,000 followers since she started her TikTok account. Largely, this can be attributed to one of her early videos going viral on TikTok. As of now, Danny—whose Twitch name is DanBartok—has just a hair under 4,000 followers. One of Aly’s most recent videos depicts the couple hugging and celebrating an influx of subscriptions and donations. “After every sub, Danny goes off camera, and this is why,” says a portion of the video. “We take a moment to thank each other for all that has come out of this.”

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I don’t know how to feel about this TikTok account. On one hand, it’s hard not to root for two people doing their damndest to chase their dreams, even if one of them, at least for now, seems stuck in a more traditionally subservient role. On the other hand, there’s something more than a little dystopian about a series of videos that unquestioningly embrace Twitch’s unrelenting (and increasingly insurmountable) grind—going so far as to romanticize it with wistful emotional tropes and the warmth of a supportive relationship.

Maybe these two will make it. Maybe it’ll all pay off. But for many others who try just as hard, it won’t. Streams can be great fun to watch, and they can facilitate the creation of cool communities, but ultimately, platforms like Twitch aren’t meritocratic paradises that anybody can ascend to if they just do enough good deeds here in the realm of mortals, even if companies like to present them that way. It’s hard to watch these kinds of heartstring-tugging videos made by real people who really do seem to love each other and not feel like, ultimately, the only real winners in all of this are big companies who only care that streamers, whether they succeed or fail, are just more grist for the ad revenue-powered mill.

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Speaking of ads, I believe that, today, I finally hit the bottom of the barrel that is streamer TikTok. By that, I mean that now I keep seeing videos from Kentucky Fried Chicken’s gaming account, which I did not know was a thing, but let’s be real here: Of course it was. It probably always has been. The KFC Gaming TikTok account is a primeval force that’s been lurking in the shadows for eons, tampering with major historic events to ensure TikTok would be invented so that it could achieve its full power.

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Its full power is a video of a man throwing rocks at trash in an alley. He has painted the rock to look like a Pokéball, and the Pokémon theme is playing as he uses the rock to smash a blender and a television. That is, near as I can tell, the full explanation for this TikTok’s connection to streaming, video games, or literally anything. Is it subversive art? An Ouroboros-like ode to the cynical enterprise that led to its own creation? Or did some marketing director just decide one day that he wanted to throw rocks at trash in an alley and get paid for it? Or was he perhaps hoping that the slipshod strangeness of it all would generate this exact kind of reaction, ultimately drawing attention to the brand? It is impossible to say.

Anyway, I think I’m gonna go back to watching videos of weird birds now.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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