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The Trials Of Turning Streamers Into Superstars

Stream Economy

At a meeting in 2012, long before 40-year-old Omeed Dariani became one of the most powerful gamer managers on Earth, he wrote a single, foreboding sentence in his notebook: "Figure out Twitch."

These were the halcyon days of video game influencers, a few short years before Twitch started bringing in as many viewers as MSNBC and CNN, and Dariani was brought on board as a senior global brand manager at Sony Online Entertainment to get the company's massive games library into the hands of an insurgent, enigmatic group of internet creators. Partnerships like that are commonplace in 2019, but in those days, Dariani didn't have a precedent to work from. He remembers sending hundreds of emails to every streamer he could find, with the hope of establishing some inaugural deals in a brave new world. Dariani was stonewalled, receiving around 10 actual responses. Some video game streamers said they'd play Sony games for $25,000, some said they'd do it for free, and some left their emails unanswered. There was no rhyme or reason, no institutions, no rules.

"The [amount of money people were asking to stream games] was completely random. I was like, 'What is going on?'" he remembered. A year later, Dariani set up a mixer at PAX and got his answer.

"That's how I met a couple of our first clients. As I got to know them, they were telling me, 'Look, it's really difficult to connect with the companies we want to work with, we don't know anybody, I'm just a guy who lives in Florida,'" he said. "They didn't know how to review contracts, they weren't lawyers or business people, they didn't know what to charge for anything, they were terrified. ... I was like, holy crap. We started doing more deals with content creators, and I saw how often they were getting massively ripped off. [They were] signing contracts where they lost tons of their rights, with the companies taking huge amounts of the money. It really pissed me off. After I left Sony, a couple of them suggested, 'Hey, maybe you could manage us.'"

Today, Dariani is the owner of the Online Performers Group, which he claims is the first-ever talent management firm explicitly designed for people who record themselves playing video games professionally. Scroll through the clients' page and you'll find movers and shakers like CohhCarnage, Ellohime, and Angry Joe. The company promises to unlock promotional opportunities and sponsorships for anyone under its banner, but services also encompass quality-of-life support with taxes and event scheduling.

Omeed Dariani, Online Performers Group
Omeed Dariani, Online Performers Group

Essentially, Dariani wants to help professional gamers maximize their value while removing as many unnecessary burdens from their plates as possible. The way he talks about it, OPG sounds like a traditional Hollywood power broker. He stocks a huge waiting list of up-and-comers, and many of his new clients are recruited from referrals--just like Creative Artists Agency, William Morris, or any other giant in the representation business.

"Literally five minutes ago I got an email from a content creator looking to be represented," Dariani said. "They're probably way too small, but we get about five to 10 of those a day."

In that sense, Dariani's goal is to add a baseline of stability to the business of influencer marketing in professional gaming, but he'd also be the first one to admit that there's still a long way to go.

Feeding Frenzy

It's been five years since Dariani founded OPG, and today, the idea of "talent management for gamers" has gotten more common and more diversified. The Twitch market is one of the most valuable and desirable bulwarks in stardom; it's why Respawn Entertainment brought in Shroud as a crucial ingredient for their Apex Legends push, and it's why Ninja is booking appearances on Fallon and releasing an album with longstanding record label Astralwerks. It's truly bizarre to live in a world where full-time streamers can be categorized as a part of mainstream pop culture, but what their millions of followers don't know is how much of that momentum is orchestrated from behind the scenes.

For instance, battle royale wunderkinds Shroud and Ninja have two of the highest-trafficked channels on Twitch, and they're represented by Loaded, a talent agency built last year by Brandon Freytag, who also takes the reins for other all-stars like Lirik, Summit1G, and AnneMunition. The aforementioned Creative Artists Agency, a legendary firm that names both Jennifer Aniston and J.J. Abrams among its clients, inked a groundbreaking deal with Dr.Disrespect, an FPS streamer known for performing on Twitch entirely in his own WWE-like character, back in January. What about United Talent Agency? It works with League of Legends pros Aphromoo and sOAZ, as well as Angelina Jolie. William Morris? It has mega-YouTuber JackSepticEye.

The feeding frenzy is on, which is funny because, in so many ways, the mainstream media is still trying to untangle how Twitch stardom actually works. A considerable amount of the heavy lifting done by Twitch and YouTube managers and agencies is the negotiating of brand deals for influencers, but that requires the translation of an entire culture for a third-party company outside of the games industry. It's a problem that Piotr Bombol, the CEO of the Polish gaming marketing agency Gameset, runs into over and over again. His job is to help companies market themselves through gaming influencers, and he's quickly learned that the old-school calculus of marketing simply doesn't work in new media.

It's truly bizarre to live in a world where full-time streamers can be categorized as a part of mainstream pop culture, but what fans don't know is how much of that momentum is orchestrated from behind the scenes.

"When you're a brand, and you're working with an influencer, you're paying for a result. You want your brand exposed to the community for a specific time, and then you get views or clicks," Bombol said. "So if you ask an influencer, 'Okay, let's do a campaign. We want you to do a couple of videos, with one million views, and 10,000 clicks on the link, the influencer will say, 'I can't guarantee you that. I can make the video, but I can't guarantee you that.' There's a risk. And the risk falls on the agency. So the agency says, 'Okay, we'll get these results.' And when you don't get the results, the agency needs to come to the client and say, 'Eh, we didn't make it, but it happens.'"

Dariani reported the same problems. So many brands apply television logic to Twitch; they desperately want to tap into a young, agile scene of gamers, but they have a hard time understanding the value of what they're paying for. The profit propositions of, say, a Tom Cruise product placement spot were decided upon decades ago. Twitch, though? That's the Wild West, and a lot of the offers that come across Dariani's desk are hopelessly out of touch.

"It really comes down to how savvy a company is with Twitch," he said. "There are definitely times where we have to do a hand-holding process for how things work. A lot of times we'll have companies say, 'Can we just have him stream this thing for like 10 minutes?' Well, on Twitch something that happens for 10 minutes isn't very meaningful. Or, 'Could he just tweet about this thing 350 times?' Well, no, that's a lot [of tweets]. … Our clients turn down 90 percent of the things that come in, because the company is asking for things that are basically impossible. If you do it, it's gonna fail, and nobody is going to be happy."

Piotr Bombol, Gameset
Piotr Bombol, Gameset

Bombol said he's searching for a holy grail. Nobody has yet figured out the perfect model to capitalize on Twitch celebrity. Right now, every agency and management firm involved is in an endless troubleshooting phase--figuring out what works, what doesn't, and constructing all the norms on the fly. In many ways, Dariani thinks things haven't come much further from the mixer he threw seven years ago, filled to the brim with newly-minted internet celebrities who had no idea how to organize their affairs. "They tend to be a little sharper [now], a lot more cautious about entering into things, but we still see things all the time that scare me," he said. "We have a contract. It's a pretty liberal, generous contract, and we still tell people, 'Please have your lawyer look at this before you sign it,' ... The amount of times that somebody will say, 'Oh, so-and-so said you were good so I know that you're good.' I'm like, 'Are you kidding? We could've put anything in there!'"

Danotage, a streamer managed by OPG, echoed the same sentiment. He said he's "constantly paranoid about doing something stupid," and values the chance to have the safety net his management team represents that he can bounce off of if anything goes wrong. "I am able to get honest and useful information on whether it’s crazy, or just crazy enough to work," Danotage explained. "This has helped me to drive innovation and mature as a member of the internet video game streaming business in a positive and focused direction."

"This infrastructure for agencies and management offices for streamers is quite bare," he added. "It is getting better, but like Hollywood, this business is extremely terrifying to most. So in order for people to become more comfortable with the business, I think it is incredibly important to have a broad infrastructure because it should allow shady companies to be held under scrutiny by their peers."

Nobody has yet figured out the perfect model to capitalize on Twitch celebrity. Right now, every agency and management firm involved is in an endless troubleshooting phase--figuring out what works, what doesn't, and constructing all the norms on the fly.

Twitch existed for years without a formal network of talent management, so the infrastructure is still racing to catch up. Dariani compares it to the NBA. When a player gets drafted into the league, they're usually already equipped with an agent and a lawyer, they're immediately injected into an ecosystem full of public relations professionals, and they have a coaching staff continually looking over their shoulders. All of those forces are built to catch and temper burgeoning celebrity. Those functions just don't exist for video game influencers yet.

"It even happens in the NBA 2K games!" he exclaimed. "You meet your press handler, you meet your concierge, you meet your support structure that will keep you out of trouble and make sure that you're fine. And that's huge for an 18-year old kid who gets a million-dollar check. It's the same thing if you get cast in a movie. The production company will say to you, 'If you're going to be in this movie, you need a manager. Here are 20 guys.' That hasn't existed in this industry. People are operating in a vacuum."

"Brad Pitt didn't become Brad Pitt all on his own," finishes Dariani. "It's mind-blowing to see somebody who has millions of followers that doesn't have anyone helping them. No matter how good you are, you're just one person."

Luke Winkie on Google+
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