Tuning into Byron “Reckful” Bernstein’s recent daily Twitch streams, you wouldn’t immediately suspect something’s amiss. He’s front and center, playing World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, League of Legends, or any number of other games. Fans frequently make playful remarks, use emotes, and laugh at or with him. But the illusion doesn’t last long, nor is it meant to. “Rest in peace, Reckful,” reads each day’s stream title. Chat messages shuffle by like mourners paying respects at a funeral. “Why did he have to die?” asks one. Nobody answers. They’ve all been asking the same question for months.
Bernstein was a top WoW player turned beloved streamer who died by suicide in July. He played video games, hung out with friends, occasionally traveled, and talked to an audience of nearly one million followers. Getting his start back in 2012, he paved the way for countless others by being one of the first truly big streamers on Twitch. Bernstein struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, which he often discussed on his channel and sometimes other people’s, too. His death sent ripples through the Twitch community. Fans and other streamers took to Twitch, Twitter, and Reddit to post stories about what he meant to them. Thousands of players gathered in WoW to pay tribute, and developer Blizzard added a character named after Bernstein to the game to immortalize his contributions to the MMO’s player-vs-player scene, which he once dominated so thoroughly that he purposefully ignored popular character builds of the time and still managed to claim a top rank.
But the livestreaming world stops for no one. Relentlessly in the present, even the greatest of triumphs and bitterest of controversies have a way of fading into the background after a handful of weeks. So it was with Bernstein; slowly but surely, the wider conversation about him tapered off. But grief is not as simple as an online news cycle. It may not remain ever-present, but it is never fully in the past. And on Twitch, it is still, paradoxically, live.
Since the day after Bernstein’s death, his channel editors have cued up daily, chronological reruns of old streams, known as VODs. Multiple streams run back-to-back throughout the day, unfolding in real time just as they did when they first aired. The streams can last for over eight hours, and while they’re not actually live, they can feel like it. In them, Bernstein plays games alone and with friends. He listens to music. He laughs. He rages.
The channel editor who first started the reruns, who goes by the handle MrRalphster, told Kotaku that Bernstein requested this in the event that something ever happened to him. But when the reruns began in July, they were far from unanimously popular. Some fans regarded them as disrespectful or hurtful to those in mourning.
“I got many messages calling me horrible things when I started playing them, which is ironic,” MrRalphster said in a DM, noting that Bernstein’s VODs are readily accessible on the channel for anybody who might want to manually watch them on their own. “You can go through and watch every single one if you want. Putting them on as reruns enables people to watch together... I think that [how they impact people’s grieving process] comes down to a personal decision. I think that they can be helpful for some, but may be painful to others.”
Bernstein’s channel still has paid subscription functionality, but that fact did not motivate members of Bernstein’s channel staff, all of whom are now airing reruns and moderating chat for free. Twitch users who edit or moderate other streamers’ channels have no means of directly logging in and collecting or redirecting money. A Twitch spokesperson told Kotaku that, where possible, the company seeks to give such access to deceased streamers’ families, though the company makes it a policy not to comment on individual streamers’ cases.
“In the unfortunate event that a Twitch streamer passes away, we may work with the family and proceed in accordance with their wishes to the extent possible,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Unlike the prerecorded videos airing in the center of Bernstein’s page, the chat next to the reruns is actually live, and is populated by hundreds of diehard fans every day. Many of these fans used to come to Bernstein’s channel every day, alongside thousands and thousands of others, to watch his latest exploits unfold. Now, they show up to mourn with each other.
A fan who goes by the handle InZense first started watching the reruns because they needed somewhere to go after receiving news of Bernstein’s death. Parasocial relationships with streamers can be intense, even though they’re one-sided. To InZense, losing Bernstein was like losing a close friend.
“I got the news while on vacation, and it broke me,” InZense told Kotaku in a DM. “All I could do was read his friends’ Twitters and check up on Reddit threads and videos where people talked about it. I was in shock, and Reckful was the only thing I could think about for weeks. I spent a lot of time in his chat talking to people and made several friends there. I have the stream open pretty much all day everyday when I’m home... Losing this streamer was like losing my best friend, and these memories have definitely helped me grieve.”
A fan named Peter (who declined to provide a last name) sees the posthumous stream as a chance to spend a few final months with a streamer he cared about from afar while learning about a cause near and dear to him: mental health awareness. Despite the common belief on platforms like Twitch that streamers should stay positive in order to draw in viewers, many of Bernstein’s fans loved him because he didn’t always put up a façade. Some fans saw themselves in that. As one put it in a recent Reddit thread: “He in a way represents what some of us with mental illness want to be like. More successful, very kind, a good person, and someone who kept fighting.” The flipside of that observation, that fan wrote, is more upsetting: “It’s kind of a feeling of ‘Well, if he couldn’t survive mental illness, then how the hell can I?’”
Peter feels like it’s important to take something away from Bernstein’s death—and to be there for those who are struggling.
“I know he’s gone, but I get to catch up on everything,” Peter told Kotaku in a DM. “I feel like he’s spending time with me while I reminisce [about] how serious mental health really can be for some people.”
Despite the heaviness of these subjects, Bernstein’s Twitch chat covers a full spectrum of emotions, from gentle wistfulness to uproarious laughter. But it can take a mournful turn at any moment. Viewers will be joking or fondly reminiscing, only for one to mention how they still miss Bernstein every day, or for somebody who’s out of the loop to drop in and ask if he’s really dead—at which point the conversation inexorably returns to the summer, to incredulous questions of when, how, and why. There is a painful surreality to watching a revered pillar of a community, now passed, dwell in an endless present.
For me, the experience of watching the streams mirrors the whiplash of chat. On multiple occasions over the past few months, I’ve found myself just hanging out with a rerun on, only to suddenly feel my eyes well up with tears for no specific reason. It’s different from watching a TV show rerun or an old movie starring a deceased actor. Bernstein is himself—not some character—just living his life, often in mundane ways that I can easily imagine continuing even now. It’s easy to slip into a headspace of feeling like nothing has changed. But then I remember, and I see others in chat having the same bitter re-realization, and the weight of it is overwhelming.
Regularly spending time in Bernstein’s chat can be a tough emotional balancing act for viewers and moderators. “It was difficult in the beginning, and for the first few weeks I paused the stream and only kept the chat open so I could moderate it, because I couldn’t rewatch all the old streams I grew up with,” said Glassen75, a chat moderator on Bernstein’s channel who ended up becoming his friend, in a DM. “I was also pretty much in denial for a while and didn’t really feel anything, but after it really hit me, I started unpausing the stream and watching with everyone else. I and many others absolutely feel that it is helping with the grieving process, which is why there are still hundreds of us here today.”
“It’s very hard at first to watch because it reminds you of his passing, but little by little it helped me accept the situation,” a fan called Abitol told Kotaku in a DM. “It was also very helpful because at first I felt a bit strange to be that devastated by the passing of someone I’ve never even met in real life, but as I watched the reruns I found hundreds of people feeling like me in the chat... I don’t feel like he’s still there, though I wish he was.” Abitol has been spearheading an effort to have Twitch commemorate Bernstein in the form of a Twitch emote,
While mourning together in chat can help viewers process the loss, other fans question whether it’s healthy or good for people in the long run.
“It’s good to honor him and raise awareness, but I also believe it’s unhealthy being stuck with things from the past (for instance being attached to someone gone, constantly reminding oneself about the loss),” said one viewer in chat last week. “Feel like mentioning it so people can reflect on this subject... No intention of disrespect.”
“It’s weird going on Twitch and seeing his reruns playing,” a fan posted on Bernstein’s subreddit last month. “Half my brain acts like he’s still alive, but the other half knows the facts. I feel like I can’t move on if I keep watching, so I don’t go to his channel anymore.”
But when it comes to grieving, it’s exceptionally difficult to say what is actually “good” for any one person, let alone everybody.
“Ultimately I think moving on from losing someone that could be close to you is a very personal thing, and it’s difficult for anyone to really define the ‘best’ way to do it, because for each person it’s so different,” a popular WoW steamer called Asmongold told Kotaku in a DM. Bernstein’s career helped pave the way for Asmongold, who has paid tribute to Bernstein on his own stream multiple times.
Dr. Jo Bell, a lecturer at the University of Hull who has studied online suicide memorials and their impacts on grieving, agrees with this assessment. “It all depends on how people are grieving,” Bell told Kotaku over a Zoom call. “The most important thing to take from this is that grief is very, very individual. Everyone grieves—it’s a universal experience—but everyone grieves differently. And so for some people, [grieving publicly on social media] is enormously helpful, but for others, it can be quite the opposite.”
Sarah Chavez, executive director at death acceptance organization The Order of the Good Death, pointed out that human beings have consistently created new means of coming to grips with the enormity of death using whatever technology is available. In modern Western society, grief is often stigmatized. We’re supposed to go to a funeral—a ceremony that Chavez said lacks meaning for many outside particular religions and cultures—and then get on with our lives. She contended that the pervasive belief that those in mourning need to move on can be harmful, which gives people further incentive to find new ways to mourn.
“Our grief is stigmatized, medicalized,” Chavez told Kotaku over the phone. “We’re told that if we don’t move on or get over it quick enough, then there’s something wrong with us or we’re morbid or being creepy. But in reality, if there’s love and emotion there, there is also grief. And because we’ve stripped away all of our rituals and meaningful memorializations of how we suffer, we don’t know how to support one another through grief anymore. So people are constantly reaching for ways to cope and be supported.”
In trying to accept death, people sometimes attempt to recreate the sensation that a loved one is still alive. Chavez told me about a woman who saved text messages and emails from her best friend and fed them all into a program of her own making that could, to an extent, reproduce the kind of messages her best friend used to send. Bell relayed an anecdote of a woman who kept her deceased husband’s phone and would call it each day to recreate the routine of him coming home from work. These stories aren’t that far off from continuously visiting a Twitch channel that feels live, even though the streamer is gone. It might seem paradoxical—it’s hard to accept death if you’re continuously fooling yourself into feeling like someone is alive—but Chavez said it makes sense in the broader context of a society that pushes people away when they’re grieving.
“Our society sucks at grief and supporting people going through death and grief,” she said. “Sometimes we end up creating these other rituals, like recreating that phone call from the husband, because our society isn’t supporting us. So we’re grasping at anything.”
Grief leads people to seek more outcomes than just a nebulous notion of closure. Bell explained that meaning making, the practice of creating new understandings from loss and other life events, is a big one.
“Losing someone to suicide does change your life, but you can take something positive from it,” Bell said, citing her research. “Lots of the people we spoke to had, as a result of what they’d been through, changed their lives and were very passionate about campaigning for suicide prevention, suicide awareness, and awareness of mental health problems amongst men and young men in particular.”
Peter has found that kind of purpose in Bernstein’s Twitch chat.
“The chat is a safe space,” he said. “We try to help others who are struggling and come into the chat looking to just talk to someone to vent. I personally have talked to about ten different people in private messages about mental health, and I enjoy chatting with others. Mental health is a tough topic, almost bigger than physical health in its own ways.”
Especially where suicide is concerned, Bell said that feelings of guilt and responsibility frequently guide the grieving process. This, she said, can lead people to relive a specific situation in search of something they could have done to prevent it. On a platform like Twitch, this can be thorny. Bernstein’s friends and fans have expressed regret that, because of streaming and constant connectedness, they saw so much, yet missed the things that mattered most.
Popular chess streamer Hikaru Nakamura frequently spoke to Bernstein through Twitter DM. “I try to be much more understanding of depression and having suicidal thoughts, because I know even from my own interactions with [Bernstein] that, at times, I would think ‘OK, he’s being so emo.’ You wonder why he’s being like that. He has everything he could ask for in life,” Nakamura told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “We truly didn’t understand what he was going through. I wish I could have understood a little bit better and been more supportive... because even when I’ve had the reruns on, you see this guy who doesn’t seem like he’s overly down. He’s interacting very well with chat, but then to understand what was under the surface, it’s just sad.”
Some fans can’t help but wonder if the community is, to some extent, culpable. The internet can be merciless and gang up on people perceived to be vulnerable. Bernstein wore his heart on his sleeve, and in his more heated moments, that led to easily memed outbursts. Bernstein would sometimes get overwhelmingly sad or angry on stream—or even talk about his depression, or cry—and large numbers of viewers would egg him on in chat with waterfalls of spam or turn those moments into memes. Some of his fans aren’t proud of how portions of Bernstein’s audience treated him over the years.
“There are many people on Twitch, and online in general, who have this need to be toxic,” said MrRalphster. “I believe this toxicity, combined with [Bernstein’s] mental state, is ultimately what led to his death.”
This has all come full circle in Bernstein’s reruns. At the tail end of August, Bernstein’s reruns reached a particularly infamous point in the channel’s history: the Christmas 2015 “I’m not a fucking liar” moment. At the time, Bernstein was playing Hearthstone, and a viewer asked him if, in exchange for a lot of money, he’d ever play a game he hated on stream. He said he would not. During this same stream, Bernstein had already discussed a suicide attempt from earlier in his life, and as fans pushed him more and more by saying that he was lying about his refusal to stream a bad game, he repeatedly said he would “kill myself if I’m lying.” Still, they persisted. Eventually, Bernstein erupted.
“It’s not a fucking lie, you fucking cunt. Fuck you! I’m not fucking lying!” he shouted, his voice cracking. “I fucking hate when people think I’m lying, man. I swear I would not do it. Fuck you.”
Between Bernstein’s rage—the funniest form of sincerity to an irony-obsessed internet—and his Christmas hat, it was an easy moment for viewers to laugh at. Fans, YouTubers, and streamers alike immediately turned it into a meme, one that persisted for years to come in videos, quotes, and even an emote Bernstein had added to his own Twitch channel.
Many fans were ecstatic when they realized the “I’m not a fucking liar” moment was about to come up as part of the reruns. When it finally happened, it was a full-on event for Bernstein’s current chat. Explained Glassen75: “The viewership doubled as people were rushing into the stream to witness [the Christmas rage] again and be able to say that they were ‘here, again.’”
“Reliving these moments is unique to anything else I’ve experienced, because they usually have a degree of mythology surrounding them in the community. People feel special that they were ‘there’ for that moment live,” said Glassen75. “It means a lot to people to be able to experience these moments again with other people who loved him... Most of these viewers don’t talk with their friends or families about this, because it’s difficult to understand the Twitch community unless you’re a part of it.”
But upon rewatching the clip, some viewers couldn’t help but feel a tinge of regret while others laughed and reminisced.
“I know people love to meme about this moment, but it honestly just depresses me because I recognize this type of anger,” wrote one fan on Reddit. “It isn’t normal anger. It’s the type that just comes out because you can’t keep coping with your mental illness. All of the frustration from the 24/7 battle just lurks right beneath the surface and comes out with the slightest provocation. Then you feel nothing but shame afterwards, but you can’t stop the cycle from repeating no matter how hard you try.”
Mean-spiritedness has increased, in some ways, in this posthumous iteration of Bernstein’s channel. Glassen75 says that in the wake of Bernstein’s death, trolls have found a new favorite target.
“There has unfortunately been an insane increase in the amount of trolls that come in the chat,” he said. “During my five years as his moderator, I permanently banned maybe 5-10 people total. In the past two months, I personally have banned easily up to 300-400 people... Some come in and say stuff like ‘He deserved to die,’ ‘I hope he is burning in hell,’ etc. Others come in and just say racist slurs or try to stir up chat in some other way, but by far the most common troll is the people who come in and pretend they don’t know that he has passed away. They ask stuff like ‘Are you going to try Valorant?’ or ‘Why aren’t you reading chat?’”
These sorts of behaviors have Nakamura feeling pessimistic about the state of the Twitch community: “I don’t necessarily feel like in general things have changed for the better on Twitch,” he said, since Bernstein’s death. “I feel like it’s one of those things where when it happened, everyone was like ‘OK, we’re gonna be nicer. We’re not gonna have the same negative feelings.’ But now it feels like we’re just right back to where we were before.”
Bernstein’s channel is also facing challenges from Twitch itself. Last week, Twitch abruptly deleted thousands of videos in compliance with copyright complaints from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other music industry entities. Twitch further encouraged streamers to delete all of their clips and VODs to avoid running afoul of DMCA rules.
This leaves Bernstein’s channel in a precarious position. Bernstein played countless copyrighted songs in the background of his streams over the course of his career. Any VODs that included music are now forfeit, should a music company or Twitch’s automated systems detect an offending tune. A handful of strikes is all the channel would need to receive an indefinite suspension. While a backlog of Bernstein’s VODs exists off Twitch, the channel’s editors can only cue VODs up, not log into the channel and upload videos they’ve previously saved. A few songs could be the end of Bernstein’s channel.
Fans who’ve been following the reruns are concerned. “All the VODs of streamers like Reckful are in danger to be gone forever,” read the subject line of a highly upvoted thread on popular Twitch subreddit Livestreamfail last week. The thread resulted in a big viewership boost on Bernstein’s channel, taking it from its usual couple hundred to over a thousand—a pleasant surprise for viewers who regularly lament the fact that just a couple hundred people are left in Bernstein’s chat at any given moment. This slow drain is an inevitability, but Bell observed in her research of Facebook that it can lead to fresh pain for those who remain, giving them the impression that nobody cares anymore. The temporary boost was heartening for those still actively grieving Bernstein, but it also drove home the predicament their online memorial faces: New viewers paid their respects, but also asked questions about what happens now that DMCA strikes are fundamentally altering how Twitch functions.
At this point, it’s unclear, but there are reasons to be hopeful. For one, it’s been a week since Twitch’s new rules went into effect, and so far, Bernstein’s channel remains live. The small memorial operation also has a line in to Twitch: A couple weeks ago, an error on Twitch’s end made it impossible for Bernstein’s channel editors to air VODs. Twitch was initially unresponsive, but Glassen75 said the channel’s staff got in touch with popular streamers Félix “xQc” Lengyel and Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani, both of whom reached out to their Twitch contacts. Twitch fixed the error shortly after. So if anything else comes up, Bernstein’s channel isn’t totally helpless. But for now, Glassen75 and company remain in the dark as to what exactly the future holds.
“Haven’t heard anything from [Twitch] yet,” he said about DMCA warnings. “We currently have no plans to stream somewhere else if the VODs go down, but that might change depending on what people want.”
The situation is a disheartening reminder that on platforms like Twitch, nothing is permanent. The company can make a decision, or a series of decisions, and wipe out mountains of valuable history. Beyond that, a glitch can render said history unwatchable, and if Twitch doesn’t care enough, that’s it: No more regular viewings, no more communal mourning. While the community around Bernstein’s channel might persist in some form, it would be indelibly altered by contoringt itself to fit some other ecosystem. This is on top of other, more common issues that have also plagued Bernstein’s VODs, such as audio muting and data corruption that leave them damaged or incomplete. In the age of mega-companies whose priorities align only with profit, preserving history is nearly as hard as making it.
For now, Glassen75, MrRalphster, and the other members of Bernstein’s channel staff plan to keep the reruns going for as long as they can.
“Whenever I see a VOD isn’t currently running, I will always throw one on,” said MrRalphster. “The library of past streams available is truly Twitch history. Being one of Twitch’s early big streamers, the platform is the way it is today because of Byron.”
Glassen75 says that Bernstein took a chance on him as a YouTube editor with no prior experience back in 2015 and, years later, gave him a glowing referral that helped him get into a prestigious media school in Europe. For him, keeping Bernstein’s memory alive is personal.
“The last conversation I ever had with Byron was in March this year when I found out I had gotten accepted to the school, and I sent a message to him thanking him for everything he had done for me,” Glassen75 said. “I will never forget him.”