To answer the question posed in the title of this article, we need some context. The ecosystem of sites like YouTube and Twitch that host people making content online has created a number of popular figures who go on to appear in more traditional—or “classic”—media, like television and movies.
Gaming YouTuber and streamer Jacksepticeye was on RTE’s The Late Late Show. Another YouTuber in the gaming space, Markiplier, was on Seth Meyers. Online comedy group Smosh’s Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox were in The Angry Birds Movie, and former CollegeHumor comedian and current Twitch streamer Adam Conover not only got his own show on Tru.TV, but a bizarre segment in The Eric Andre Show in which Andre apparently beats him to death.
Some creators have even made their own films, though a lot of them aren’t anything to write home about; Smosh’s Smosh: The Movie! was not exactly well-received, and YouTuber and rap artist KSI’s cinematic debut, Laid in America, also performed badly.
This pipeline of internet stars becoming real-life stars has been active since the early stages of online content creation. Fred, the channel starring the hyperactive child of the same name that was YouTube’s darling over a decade ago, got not one or two but three movies—two featuring wrestling luminary John Cena, somehow.
People who get popular online tend to move on to bigger and shinier things (with higher production value) as their popularity grows. The TV and movie ecosystem, perhaps identifying that these are figures with significant clout amongst potential viewers, are happy to oblige them.
The keys to better-produced content on the professional level are access to funding and distribution. Since these come easier from established companies, it’s easy to see how traditional media could appear more legitimate than its online competition.
This isn’t to say there’s no money to be made online, though.
The question of how much YouTubers are worth always tends to be controversial, but the people on the more popular end are certainly financially comfortable.
The newest setting for the phenomenon of internet stars entering the traditional media ecosystem is the world of video game live-streaming. On the streaming service Twitch, anyone can set up an account and broadcast themselves playing games to an audience. Twitch was one of the big winners of the pandemic: in March and April last year, when most lockdown and shelter-in-place measures were implemented, they saw a massive boost in viewership.
As a result of the service’s popularity, we’re starting to see live video-gaming stars go mainstream. Recently, Twitch star and musical artist Corpse Husband and his fellow streamers Valkyrae and Sykkuno appeared on an episode of Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show, playing hit social deduction game Among Us to raise money for Feeding America.
Meanwhile, video game streaming figures such as Pokimane, Jacksepticeye, and Disguised Toast have rubbed (virtual) shoulders with progressive U.S. congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
We may be seeing a similar kind of process as with internet stars of the past; they start their ascension online and are then beckoned to the glitz—and budget—of classic media.
That isn’t all, though. Twitch is different from most other services of its kind, especially YouTube. While people use YouTube mostly to upload pre-produced videos; Twitch streamers broadcast their shows live, with no time to edit anything.
Though celebrities have used YouTube before, it’s generally been to do the sort of things they were doing already. Talk show hosts use it to post clips from their talk shows, politicians post campaign videos, and Ryan Reynolds posts bizarre (though cleanly produced) advertisements for his gin/mobile company.
The result is a lot more polished than what you would see from the average user; you won’t, for instance, ever get to watch Stephen Colbert unbox loot crates in Rocket League. (You can, however, watch him play Dungeons and Dragons at the Ed Sullivan Theatre opposite DnD heavyweight Matthew Mercer, and you absolutely should.)
In effect, YouTubers have entered the television and movie scene and proceeded to do television and movie things; television and movie personalities have entered YouTube and continued to do television and movie things. YouTube is an extension of classical media power, rather than a replacement for it.
Twitch is different. It’s true that the beckoning call of the “legitimacy” that comes with television has a magnetic effect on popular internet figures, and Twitch stars are no exception. However, more figures from classic media—such as actors, actresses, and even politicians—are giving live-streaming a chance.
AOC, who played alongside some of the Twitch streamers I’ve mentioned, is now a Twitch streamer herself. (She’s incredibly popular, too; the original Among Us stream that started her channel was one of the biggest on the site.) Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Terry Crews has been streaming himself playing through anime murder-solving game Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc.
The streaming service has also been surprisingly popular amongst big players in the professional chess circuit: world champion GM Magnus Carlsen and his fierce rival, five-time U.S. champion GM Hikaru Nakamura, have seen big success on the platform playing and teaching chess (likely riding the coat-tails of late-2020 hit The Queen’s Gambit and since developing communities in their own right).
It’s likely we’ll start to see more and more live-streaming stars make television and film debuts as the industry powers that be take stock of the figures. Millions of people watch content on Twitch, a service whose viewers are mostly 29 or younger. Traditional media needs the support of this demographic, who as time goes on will make up most of their potential audience.
By this same token, we may also see more movement in the opposite direction. When companies and celebrities have made YouTube videos, for instance, they’ve been smooth, well-edited, and ruthlessly focus-tested before uploading; that’s how celebrities and companies operate. Because Twitch is a live broadcast-focused service, that approach simply doesn’t work. There’s no time between producing the content and having it seen by the public. To break into this burgeoning industry, these companies and celebrities may have to start using Twitch in the same way everyone else does in order to compete.
What we’re seeing is certainly something new. Up until now, online stars have entered traditional media and played by their rules; it may be that, as the way we consume content on the internet evolves, classic media finds the tables turned on them.