Most nights, hundreds of people tune in to watch Leah Viathan destroy alien threats or fight as a world war soldier. As a professional live streamer, the 24-year-old tackles some of the most popular video games on the market watched by an audience of people she has never met.

She has built up such a loyal following that within months of launching her stream, she was able to give up her day job thanks to the healthy income it was bringing in.

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“It started as a hobby, and I didn’t realise you could monetise it until people started asking me to put up a link for ‘tips’ about a week after I started,” says Leah, who put out her first live stream in March 2015. “It was in the thousands in that first month. I thought there was no way people would keep giving money like that, but it just kept happening.”

Two months in, she became ‘partnered’ by streaming platform Twitch, a gaming community that attracts 10 million daily visitors. This is the pinnacle for streamers, Leah says, and is unheard of so early on in a user’s Twitch ‘career’. This means that, in addition to the tips, she can earn money through gaining a share of the revenue generated by broadcasts and through subscriptions to her channel.

Leah currently has 1,000 subscribers who pay monthly for ad-free viewing, access to custom badges and subscriber-only chat groups, and unrestricted access to her broadcast archives. Tips, which are separate to subscriptions, are set at a minimum of £2, although viewers can simply watch for free if they prefer.

It’s a far cry from Hampshire-based Leah’s gaming upbringing, when she honed her talents on her dad’s retro consoles and, when it came out, the Nintendo 64. “We didn’t have tons of money and my mum was into retro, so she would buy me old games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario,” Leah says.

At 16, she was bought an Xbox 360 and started playing multi-player games like Call of Duty and Halo. “Because I had old consoles that didn’t have any memory on them, I never really got into story games, like Legend of Zelda, because I never finished them,” Leah says. “I played multi-player games because I could just play them over and over again.”

Always modest, she says she never considered herself ‘good’ at gaming, and even now only sees herself as “slightly above average”. “I found myself getting into weird situations when I played and talking to myself, so I thought why not let everybody hear it?” she says.

At the time, she only had a MacBook Pro and a poor internet connection, so she saved up and convinced a few people around her to help her out. A friend’s dad allowed her to use a desk at his office, and she would turn up after employees had gone home.

Although she has built up to hundreds of followers, getting that first one was the most difficult, she says. “There are hundreds of thousands of people streaming on Twitch who have zero viewers, which places them at the bottom of the directory people use to find a stream,” Leah says. “To have three viewers already pushes you up past these people, so getting the first viewers can be make or break.”

Her other hobby was cosplay, and she decided to wear a new costume she had made during her first stream. A fellow costume maker shared a picture of Leah’s outfit on Twitter, driving more people to her channel, and her first night attracted 20 viewers.

Leah Viathan

“Wearing the costume for a stream wasn’t something people did at that time and that, with the attention I got from social media, pushed me up in the directory,” she says.

For the first year-and-a-half, Leah solely played Destiny, an online-only first-person shooter game where players take on the role of a guardian to protect Earth’s last safe city. She later began to play other games to appeal to more users and protect herself if the game lost popularity.

Generally, she attracts 300-400 viewers between 7pm-11pm, seven days a week. Some stay for the duration and others dip in and out. Consistency is important for would-be streamers. “If people know where and when to find you, they’ll develop a habit of watching your stream,” she says. Collaboration with another stream that’s a similar size to yours can also be useful, as well as streaming in a variety of ways. “Sometimes I stream as I’m making my cosplay so people see me in a different directory, come to my stream and stick around,” she says.

For the entire four hours, Leah will commentate on what she’s doing in the game as well as answering questions from viewers who type them into a chat feed. What has become apparent is the need to keep a balance between games talk and sharing elements of her personal life.

“The most important thing is to keep people interested in you as a person as well as the game because you have something you can transport to other platforms,” she says. “One of the rules in my community is that we’re respectful and we do talk a lot about mental health because that’s a huge part of people’s lives on Twitch.”

Leah herself has battled with depression and anxiety and says playing games helped her escape from her problems, as it does for many of her viewers. “It’s quite a serious conversation and can be tricky to navigate but I do enjoy the fact that I have a platform to talk about these issues,” she says. “My subs (subscribers) aren’t just customers: they all have such distinct personalities that adds flavour to the stream. I spend a lot of time talking to them because it’s important that they see the real me.

“I was going through an awful time with my mental health when I started streaming and I started watching a gaming video on YouTube, which made me laugh every time. It was important that I could put it on and it would be comfortable and familiar. It was the thread that kept me hanging and, for a lot of people, that’s what my stream does for them – it gives them a sense of calm.”

Leah Viathan

While gaming can provide an escape from mental health problems, Leah accepts that the opposite can happen too. With lots of factors affecting whether viewers tune in or not, professional streamers can often work 12 hours-plus every day.

“It’s a self-employed business so if you take a day off you’re losing income,” she says. “If you take a week off people might go to another stream then not come back. There are people who feel like they can’t take a day off, which is really unhealthy because then they risk mental health problems. If you’re playing the same game over and over again for hours a day you can start to feel burned out. I try to combat that by taking a day off or doing creative streams and other things.”

For Leah, that means attending events and networking, giving her a chance to meet fellow streamers and those in the gaming industry. In June, Xbox sent her to check out its new games at E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) in LA and she will attend TwitchCon in California in October. Though she is not paid for these appearances, the games developers cover her expenses. “Games companies are coming around to the idea of subtle rather than overt promotion, where you give a streamer a game and allow them to experience it then share that with their community,” Leah says.

Then there is the chance to give something back by raising money for charity. She was part of a week-long charity event where streamers took a four-hour block each and streamed to raise money for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee. Leah raised $13,000 in her block and a total of $1.2m was raised during the week.

“I’ve done charity events for cancer research, cancer hospitals, mental health facilities, disability services and more in the past and it’s nice being able to use the platform for good,” she says. “The community rallies around a cause and they usually astound me with their generosity.”

Perhaps surprisingly, when you consider that she virtually invites hundreds of people into her home on a nightly basis, Leah reveals that she’s more reserved than some of her counterparts. “There is a disconnect,” she agrees. “Sometimes I look around while streaming and see my chat moving fast while all these people are watching me sitting in my room on my own, and I think ‘this is so weird’. In real life, people listen to you because they want to say something, but on the stream people listen because they want to know.”

Those virtual interactions have turned into real life ones, however. Leah says she has made firm friends through Twitch and even met her boyfriend through her stream.

“I did an advert for PlayStation on Twitch and my boyfriend didn’t have an ad blocker so he kept seeing it,” she says. “One day he clicked on my stream and we got together.”

While it’s mostly positive, there is a dark side to putting yourself out there: it leaves you open to all sorts of abuse. Leah says she has been called “every name under the sun” and is hesitant to talk about it at first as she says this can often lead to another surge of trolling. For this reason, she does not reveal her surname, going only by her username Leah Viathan – a play on the word leviathan, or sea monster, and a nod towards her use of squids in her online persona. She hopes talking about the trolling she has endured will show other victims that they are not alone. “It eventually washes over you because you know that it’s not true,” she says. “You know yourself better than the trolls know you and they’re usually picking the low-hanging fruit to hit you with. It’s important for people who find themselves in this position to know that they’re not alone and that everybody gets this kind of abuse.”

Abuse aside, Leah is enjoying everything else life throws at her as a live streamer, although she accepts it probably won’t be a career with a long lifespan. Outside of her streaming hours, she is developing other skills, such as graphic design and costume-making, and she has been offered opportunities in esports hosting and TV work in the past. Prior to this, she was a freelance videographer covering extreme sports and fashion, including travelling the world following the world motocross championships.

“Streaming is still not something I like to consider a career because it’s so random and weird,” she says, adding that there are often misconceptions that she doesn’t pay tax, for example. As there is no precedent for this new industry, it can often be a case of finding your own way. She is choosy about the many products she is asked to promote for fear of diluting her brand and will only agree to those she would use herself. Asus provides all her hardware but she is happy to point people in their direction because of the quality of the product, she says.

“To play video games and make money is very volatile,” Leah says. “I could probably eke it out for a few more years but there will be a point when I have to grab what I’ve got and move onto the next thing.

“In five years’ time I might be doing something that doesn’t exist yet, because five years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be doing this now.”

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