The Life of a Professional Gamer
Tim MacRae, a suburban Charlotte dad, kisses his baby girl goodnight. Then he cracks open a Red Bull, sinks into his office chair and begins his workday: Six hours, most nights, of car chases and drug deals.
And as this Friday dusk turns to night, thousands of people across the country begin to go online, to watch him.
More than a quarter-million people follow MacRae, 34, as “Timmac,” on a platform called Twitch. Tonight, he plays a special souped-up version of the video game Grand Theft Auto, and as he plays, it’s as if they’re looking over his shoulder: They watch as he sells pot. They listen as he banters with cops. They make it possible for him to spend half his waking life playing video games – and make an enviable living doing it.
“It’s the jackpot of jobs,” he says, smiling.
His job description would look something like this: Improv actor. Serial drama producer. Radio host. DJ sound mixer. Amateur psychologist. Even those childhood piano lessons are put to work some nights, when he tinkers on a keyboard for background effect.
This night, hundreds of fans have already logged into his channel as he slides headphones over a backward-turned ballcap, flicks on a microphone and tees up Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” on a mixing board. They type messages into “chat” (a field that scrolls down the right side of the screen), conversing among themselves and waiting for MacRae.
When he finally begins, he gives the kind of howdy you’d expect from a buddy who showed up at your house with a case of beer.
“Yo, what’s going on, chat? Chat, what’s up? Welcome back, chat!”
For the next six hours, he will entertain them.
One of the two recurring characters he has created, a crime-prone stoner named Shaggy Dankweed, will try to sell marijuana to an undercover cop and get knocked nearly unconscious in a street fight. His testosterone-fueled New York gangster Timmy Macapone will run scared through the desert and race his sports car through the streets of fictional Los Santos.
Before the night is over, the followers that MacRae calls his “community” will have posted thousands of messages on chat and tipped hundreds of dollars into his PayPal or Twitch accounts. Dozens will start or renew subscriptions to the Timmac Twitch channel, which also puts money in MacRae’s pocket.
These viewers, MacRae says, are the reason he was able to quit his $60,000 per year IT job last fall and start gaming full-time.
In fact, they begged him to do it.
Yes, gaming is a real job
If the idea of spending hours watching people play video games – and maybe even paying them – confounds you, think about all the other things we do in a similar vein, says Twitch spokesman Chase, who goes by only his first name.
“It’s like saying to a chef, ‘Why are you watching the Food Network on TV? Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen cooking?’ ” Chase says, speaking from the San Francisco headquarters of Twitch, which was acquired by Amazon in 2014 for $970 million. “People enjoy watching others who are good at what they do.”
For millions worldwide, especially those in the millennial 18-to-34 age group, Twitch is part of an entertainment revolution. So many people enjoy watching others play video games that the world’s most-followed YouTuber is gamer PewDiePie, who has more than 57 million subscribers. (For comparison, Justin Bieber has 31 million.)
Online gaming is so hot that colleges have e-sports teams and fund scholarships to recruit the top video game players. At some campuses, e-sports are treated like athletic sports because of their popularity as an entertainment form, and top e-sports players are given the same scholarships and attention as athletes.
More than one in five American male millennials watch e-sports, or competitive gaming, according to market research firm NewZoo, which specializes in digital gaming. That puts it at the same level, in that demographic, as baseball and hockey.
Some are there to see competitive e-sports battles. Others get tutorials on how to improve their own skills. Some simply want to watch a player “speed running”: racing through a game as fast as possible.
MacRae’s fans watch him for his “role play” style of gaming – in Grand Theft Auto and the other games he plays, he controls fictional characters in an imaginary world, in a storyline that continues from day to day.
T.L. Taylor, a qualitative sociologist at MIT who works in the field of internet and game studies, says we need to stop thinking of video games as solitary activities for the loner crowd.
“Think of it as one big sofa,” Taylor says. “You’re watching your friend play a game, and you’re weighing in.
“Our idea that games are solitary - that’s an enormous misunderstanding of playing games,” Taylor adds. “They were always social.”
And it’s the social aspect – having people virtually watching over his shoulder and chiming in while he plays, MacRae says, that he finds most fulfilling.
But how exactly does he do it?
MacRae plays Grand Theft Auto (and other games, depending on the day) on a personal computer, on a closed server that allows just 32 players at a time. His is a “modded,” or modified, version of GTA – players can rob banks, manufacture drugs and chop up cars for parts in ways you can’t in the mainstream version. It’s prettier, too – the desert sky is more brilliant; cars have fancier paint jobs and characters’ appearances are customized.
Shaggy and Timmy are just two characters who inhabit this special world, called “TheFamilyRP,” and it’s their interactions with other characters – a therapist, lawyer, judges, cops and love interests – that are where the real entertainment happens. (Some of those characters are created by full-time gamers like MacRae; others are computer-generated.)
“Shaggy puts me in a good mood – he’s such a careless type of character, always getting into random shenanigans,” MacRae says, laughing.
For the mobster Timmy, MacRae draws from a different well. “I’m originally from New York, so I throw that accent in. He’s all about respect, loyalty, family, honesty,” MacRae says, cranking up a James Gandolfini inflection. “If you cross the line or disrespect him he’ll come after you.”
While he plays, his voice ping-pongs out of character and sometimes he’s just Timmac, sharing laughs one minute with his fans on chat about the awkwardness of lingering handshakes, then calling out thanks to fans when a tip rolls in. (Those watching can’t be seen or heard, but they see and hear MacRae, in a live video box at the bottom left corner of their screens.)
Gratitude is big in the Timmac world.
“You guys are insane today!” he exclaims as a flurry of donations flies across the screen from fans with screen names like MittytheKitty and peachy_plant.
MacRae gets a cut of the fee his subscribers pay each month. Anyone can watch his channel for free, but only subscribers, for $4.99 to $24.99 a month, can participate in chat or use special emojis during the broadcast. He also makes money from direct contributions from viewers, merchandise sales, and a cut of the ad revenue Twitch makes from his page.
He’s helped other gamers start on the career path, too: Twitch streamer Wish (who asked not to be named) says MacRae helped her get up the guts to resign from her human resources job and play Grand Theft Auto full time. (She plays a therapist named Avery.)
“He was my mentor all the time,” she says. “He was the one who told me, ‘You can do this.’ ”
The decision to go pro
MacRae started his Timmac channel on Twitch nearly four years ago.
He’d been playing as a hobby after work, and found himself playing a lawyer in a game with the Twitch-famous Lirik (1.7 million followers). MacRae was so engaging, thousands of Lirik’s followers tuned in to MacRae’s channel.
For the next 2 1/2 years, he’d report to his IT job at 8 a.m., race home around 5 p.m. and log into his Twitch channel a few minutes later. He’d play well past midnight.
His wife, Suzana, who works in child care, was growing understandably frustrated, so as a sign that his long hours were bearing fruit, MacRae used Twitch money to splurge on the kitchen of his wife’s dreams.
They named it “the Twitchen.”
But about a year ago, as baby Mia was about to be born, the two decided they needed a change. “It wasn’t even about the money,” MacRae says. “It was about the time.”
The couple did the math: For more than a year, MacRae says, he had made more than double his IT salary with Twitch. Twitch execs were inviting him to conventions and asking for his feedback on the platform. Fans were volunteering to design T-shirts and other merchandise for him to sell on the channel.
MacRae took a few weeks off after Mia was born, then gave notice at his day job.
Telling his tech-savvy mom, who lives down the street, wasn’t hard, he says. It’s trickier with strangers.
“I tell them I’m playing video games but (it’s like) I’m running a radio show, using video games as a visual aid.”
The hardest thing to explain, he says, is what he and his followers mean to each other.
A virtual, actual community
One night, a fan types into chat that Timmac’s show has helped him cope with the suicide of a loved one.
Another, mickbane89, posts this: “@timmac I did want to donate but app won’t let me ... since my car accident and coming out of a coma you’ve helped me keep my mind off the bad things that I’m dealing with.”
MacRae, speeding Shaggy’s car through city streets, says out loud:
“The support from all you guys coming out every day means more than anything. If you guys can throw in a little extra that’s awesome, but believe me, man, you being here is more than enough, dude.”
Then, “Oh s---!” as Shaggy’s car nearly slides off the road.
“You get messages from people all the time that say, ‘I’ve been going through a lot of stuff lately ... and you’ve really helped either distract or make it better or give me a new perspective on life,’ ” MacRae says.
MacRae confided in fans when he was struggling to balance a full-time job and his emerging Twitch career. They celebrated with him when baby Mia was born.
This virtual world? It’s created some actual friendships.
One night about three years ago, Hollywood score composer Steve Jablonsky was watching MacRae fly a pterodactyl in a game called Ark when he realized MacRae was using a song he’d composed for the “Transformers” movie as his background music.
“I was like, ‘This guy is using my music – this is fantastic!’ ” Jablonsky, 46, recalls.
He reached out to MacRae on Twitter, and the two struck up an online friendship that led to frequent interactions via private messages. Jablonsky and his wife sent gifts when Mia was born.
“He puts his life out there and he does it so seamlessly. He plays the game and he talks about his wife and his kid, and you feel like you know this guy you’ve never actually met,” Jablonsky says.
The biggest financial night of MacRae’s career – when he hit 1,000 Twitch subscribers and made $10,000 in a few hours – felt similarly communal, he says.
Among the first people to notice when he hit the 1,000 mark was Jablonsky, who put $1,000 in his Twitch “tip jar” to celebrate.
Another watcher threw in $1,001.
Jablonsky tossed in another $1,002. And on it went, until Jablonsky had donated more than $3,000 and dozens of other followers had tossed in $100s and $50s and $20s. Before the night was over, MacRae had more than $10,000.
He started crying on-camera, and his online community encouraged him to quit his day job.
“We just all so badly wanted him to get the chance to do this full time,” Jablonsky says. “It just seemed like the perfect opportunity to show him that the support is there and we all love him.”
‘People learn a lot about you’
As you’d expect with such a public world, Timmac’s has the occasional downside.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers showed up to his house during a broadcast one evening because someone had reported he was holding a hostage.
He’s gotten pizzas delivered to his door, unpaid, by pranksters who look up his address.
“People learn a lot about you,” MacRae says. “They learn too much about you.”
But on the night a reporter and photographer come to watch him work for several hours, the mood has been light. At 1:30 a.m., with 2,200 watchers online, MacRae slides off his headphones and takes a moment to walk his visitors out.
The cul de sac is quiet. The front rooms of his house are dark, MacRae’s office lit only by his computer and a lamp behind his monitor.
He pauses. Then he heads back to his screens.