Remember that woman in South Korea a few years ago who started making thousands of bucks from people paying to watch her eat via a live video stream?
Now, for the first time, gamers can do the same thing, allowing them to rake in money from fans and viewers alike who'll gift them virtual items that can be turned into real cash.
"The top streamers on Kamcord — they now make a few hundred dollars per day," says Aditya Rathnam, co-founder of mobile game live streaming site Kamcord, which last month introduced a system to allow people to give gifts to video creators.
They can make that much money from just a couple of hours of showing off their gaming skills and interacting with the audience. Viewers can see the screen of the phone the expert gamer is playing on — and in some cases, the broadcaster simultaneously turns on their phone's front camera.
Rathnam reckons that these gaming stars will pull in an average of $5,000 a year on his site. For some, they'll be able to quit their day jobs.
A lucky few gamers will make as much as that Korean woman who so many people love to watch eating. At last count, she was earning about $10,000 a month — and that's not including the sponsorships and endorsements that come with being an online celeb.
The era of YouTube stars
With this new feature, the San Francisco start-up is making a big move to create viral megastars in the gaming space and giving top gamers a reason to move over from YouTube, where they can make money only from ads. (Although that's worked out well for PewDiePie.)
The top gamer on Kamcord is Galadon, who has just over 127,000 followers. He mostly plays "Clash of Clans." One recent video by Galadon has had 15,000 views and 9,966 comments, most of which were posted as he was streaming live. Most comments are a single word. Nice. Hi. Sweet. Awesome. So. Heyy.
He's one of nearly 200 gamers that Rathnam's start-up has permitted to receive income from virtual gifts.
Viewers have a choice of gift items. The cheapest is 40 cents; the priciest is what Rathnam calls a "mega star" that fills the screen. That will cost a devoted fan $80 to send. All gifts are sent via in-app purchases on the Android or iPhone app.
Kamcord is one of several gaming-focused streaming apps taking on a behemoth: Amazon.com-owned Twitch.
Which one succeeds might come down to how viewers prefer to pay for content and how big mobile gaming becomes. Twitch streamers, who mostly play computer and console games, can split ad revenue with the company and charge viewers a $5-a-month subscription fee.
Say hello to Gen S
"The primary demographic of our viewers is what some pundits are calling the Gen S demographic," Rathnam said. That stands for Generation Screen. "It's basically middle schoolers and high schoolers. These are people who have grown up in a world where screens are used for everything, from entertainment to communication to shopping."
He believes that these youngsters — already so familiar with viral stars from other hugely popular social apps — are ready to embrace this new way of interacting with the famous people they admire.
"It's a world where YouTube stars and Snapchat and Instagram personalities are actually bigger idols than actors and pop stars even," Rathnam said.
Not only are these new stars more of an influence in their lives than the usual celebs, they're also more accessible. In many ways, they feel more real and authentic.
That's why Gen S members "believe they can reach out to their idols and have a conversation with them," Rathnam said. And that's exactly what they do via Snapchat or in YouTube comments.
Learning from Asian Web culture
The team at Kamcord hopes that fans who want to get noticed will pay up for these gifts, perhaps getting a shout-out in return. That's why one Kamcord star recently received five of the pricey "mega star" gifts during one live stream, netting him hundreds of dollars.
"We see this on Kamcord all the time," Rathnam said. "A famous person comes live, and literally the first five minutes of the chat is say my name, say my name, say my name, PLEASE SAY MY NAME."
This way of paying someone whose stuff you like first started in Korea and China a few years ago. The live streams tend to be simple — just one person in front of a Web camera, talking about stuff or singing karaoke or cracking a few jokes. Or eating dinner. Watching that is a curious mix of voyeurism and companionship, gawking and empathy.
Kamcord is the first to bring this very Asian Web culture to Western markets by launching the virtual gifts. About 20% of the site's viewers are in Korea, 20% in Japan, and the remaining are scattered around the U.S., Mexico, Spain and the rest of the world. Korean viewers are already used to the format, but Rathnam believes U.S. users will get the hang of it very quickly.
"What we found is that the biggest motivation for creators was their desire to make money. And the biggest motivation for viewers was to get recognition from their favorite creator," he said. "And so we felt that a virtual goods-based monetization model would accomplish both of those and actually amplify the interaction between the streamer and the viewer.... When someone gives a huge virtual gift in the chat, that makes everyone in the chat super-excited."
Kamcord's investors include Chinese gaming giant Tencent, Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.
Rathnam said one of the lessons he's learned from visiting Asia is that, although the cultures are very different from that in the U.S., the "underlying human emotions are still so similar."
"People in all these countries are looking for great entertainment, they have a set of idols they're crazy about, and they're willing to go to extraordinary lengths to feel closer to their favorite stars."