Having people pay to watch you climb in real-time may seem like a privilege afforded only to pros in competitions or films, but on the popular Twitch platform, some amateur climbers are turning board sessions into simultaneous revenue- and live-streams.
Livestreamed climbs are nothing especially new; an ascent of The Old Man of Hoy was televised live on the BBC in 1967; pros such as Manu Cornu have Instagram-livestreamed their projects; concurrent worldwide events such as The Moonboard Masters have taken place, and more recently a live ascent of a new route on Les Drus was streamed on YouTube. The innovation on Twitch lies in the adoption of a livestreaming-specific platform to create new online climbing communities away from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. For many, livestreaming creates a stronger connection in real-time and greater possibilities for instantaneous interaction between streamers and viewers via live chat, without the need for editing.
Typically used by video gamers and eSports fans to stream live gameplay, Amazon-owned Twitch is increasingly being adapted for myriad uses by people with different interests. From cooking to comedy, Crittervision to collaborative crosswords to the downright weird and wonderful, the platform builds online social communities with the bonus of real-time social interaction. Viewers can chat to the host during the stream on a messageboard, and among themselves. The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many have been confined at home looking for human connection, has boosted Twitch's growth; from 2019- 2021, the average number of concurrent viewers has more than doubled and 2 billion hours of content were viewed in February 2021.
Tech giants have struggled to create rival platforms to lure the majority 16-35 demographic away from Twitch, which has a market share of 67% of content hours watched, 90% of content streamed and multi-million dollar deals with top eSports gamers and streaming personalities. Microsoft Mixer and Youtube Gaming have tried and failed to mimic Twitch's appeal. Not even the gaming arms of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter can keep up; the moderation tools, subscriber benefits, and algorithms on these platforms can't compare to Twitch, which is streets ahead in terms of tech and traction.
Climbing was recently gamified in the form of The Climb, a Virtual Reality game by Crytek and seemingly held appeal for mainstream, non-climbing users. As the IOC makes a landmark move into virtual sports with its first-ever mass participation Virtual Olympic Series, involving baseball, cycling, rowing, sailing and car racing in various gaming and simulation forms, could there be potential for climbing's emerging online subcultures to reach a wider audience?
27-year-old My Vo lives in Southern California and works as an adjunct chemistry professor. He's been climbing on and off for 11 years, and more seriously for six years upon graduation from university. When My's local wall closed due to the impact of COVID-19, he decided to build a home board to keep up his training. My started an interactive climbing live-stream on his MyClimbs Twitch channel last September, with the option for viewers to create boulder problems remotely, which he can annotate on screen in the form of circled holds. Alongside his dog Koda and an international virtual audience, My tries problems and enjoys the heckling and support from viewers in-between attempts. 'Follow my journey to create a climbing community on Twitch,' he wrote in his 'About' section.
North Wales-based Dale Shaughnessy is 27 and a full-time professional Twitch streamer under the account name ShnitzCentral. A climber of four years and a keen gamer, he quit his job in 2019 to pursue Twitch full time and he currently has 1K followers and 66 subscribers. Dale's stream is at the more high-tech end of the spectrum: he invested £15K into hardware, high speed internet, set up five 360 degree cameras around Beacon Climbing Centre and live-streams three times per week. He is keen to introduce climbing to new audiences, especially gamers, 'who stereotypically are not known for their fitness,' he says. In his previous career, Dale studied Twitch from a professional perspective. 'YouTube and Facebook are probably greater for traction, interaction, advertising and viewership, but I have a sentimental attachment to Twitch,' he explains. 'I feel I understand it better than other platforms and also feel like the communities on Twitch are much stronger and more supportive.'
22-year-old Ethan Paris lives in Long Island, New York. He's been climbing for five years and works as a routesetter. A video game fanatic since childhood, Ethan was introduced to Twitch in 2014 when Twitch Plays Pokemon launched. At college, Ethan switched to YouTube, but once the pandemic started, he found himself reverting to Twitch. For Ethan it was a means of mixing two passions, streaming games and climbing, while simultaneously giving him time to rest after training. He streams Moonboard sessions from his gym, Island Rock, three times per week as Weasel_Ethan. While stuck in a rut with his climbing, Ethan set a goal to tick all 422 benchmark problems on the 2016 Moonboard. 'The stream was a way to motivate myself, but it also has a Hero's Journey flair to it,' he says. 'It's building a community around climbing, but also bringing people along on my journey to get stronger and achieve goals we can all set.'
My hadn't used Twitch much prior to starting his climbing streams. 'I knew about Twitch and supported some friends on it here and there. The theory of a climbing stream sounded cool,' he says. 'I wanted to give my friends a climbing fix safely during COVID, so this was the idea I came up with.' Climbers - and routesetters in particular - have enjoyed the challenge of inventing problems for My remotely. 'I've had lots of positive responses from people under strict lockdown thanking me,' My adds. His motivation isn't purely one of benevolence, though. My's work as an educator doesn't provide him with sufficient income, so he juggles a few side hustles. While 'follows' on Twitch are free, subscriptions - known as 'subs' - cost viewers around £5.99 on average, most of which goes to the streamer and enables viewers to unlock various Twitch features. 'I'm currently employed at three different places,' My says, 'so I treat Twitch like it's another side job, but a fun one at that. If I end up striking it big, awesome. If not, at least I'm having fun doing it and it keeps me fit.'
MyClimbs is streamed in the health and fitness category, which is a relatively new area that's booming in popularity. 'You can find lots of home workouts, power lifting, Olympic lifting, yoga, Zumba, etc. The most popular category nowadays though is 'Just Chatting',' My says. This category lists streamers who simply want to chat with viewers, more like an interactive YouTube channel, rather than show themselves playing a video game.
Given the rise in the creation and popularity of YouTube channels in the climbing sphere of late, Twitch may seem an odd platform for My to choose. The live-streaming aspect was the main appeal for My, and Twitch's superior viewer experience tipped the balance. Live-streaming is also less labour-intensive. 'I abhor video editing,' My admits, 'so that threw conventional videos out of the question!'
For Dale, the connection between streamers and viewers is intensified by the live aspect, even if he admits that there's an element of vulnerability in exposing others to his failures while working a problem. 'I think the reality of being with someone right in the midst of their climbing and getting live interaction from the broadcaster cannot be matched as the drive of dopamine you can give someone by responding to them is outstanding,' he explains. 'It's the next best thing to going to watch a band live, and the same reason that people call to interact with radio hosts. If you provide input and see its effects take place live in front of your eyes, it can have great mental rewards for the viewers and broadcaster alike.'
Ethan believes that his personality and content works better in the format of a live production. 'It's easier for me to connect with people directly as opposed to via a new media format like YouTube or TikTok,' he says. 'YouTube will always be my first love, I just don't love the way creators on the platform produce "content". Most YouTube videos become formulaic over time, whereas I want to entertain.'
My's Twitch stream is much more about interaction than it is about My actually climbing. Viewers can heckle and support, just like at the wall or crag. 'As most boulderers will know you only spend about 1/10 of your time on the wall, the rest is just hanging out and chatting,' My says. 'I talk to my viewers a lot. I've had multiple new climbers come in and ask for advice.' Viewers are encouraged to like or sub to his stream, which result in forfeits - known as 'redemptions' - for My: a number of pull-ups, press-ups, or clothing changes (shirt on/shirt off, or climbing in a dress). 'It definitely gets excessive when I get lots of new follows at once or gifted subs,' My comments. 'Recently I easily did 100+ pull-ups, 60 of them occurring in the first 30 minutes!'
Integrated into the stream is an overlay enabling viewers to create and follow problems, which My can annotate live on the screen. Viewers can use an app called RetroFlash, or use the grid layout like a Moonboard, to notate holds and moves to send to My. The quality of boulder ideas varies, as My receives suggestions from non-climbers as well as seasoned experts. 'People who enjoy it tend to make three problems at once,' he says. 'Luckily I have some staple climbs and can always repeat them.'
The swapping of problems and virtual climbing sessions became popular in the first global lockdowns as climbers shared photos of their boards for others to screenshot and mark up with problems on Instagram. 'My main issue with problem swapping and regular footage of climbing on a home wall is that there are usually no LEDs to indicate the holds, nor is it colour-coded and easy to follow,' My says. 'I think the format I created kind of emulates a video game and makes it enjoyable to watch and see what moves I have to do.'
Collaborative climbing has helped My to figure out beta and practise styles of climbing that he wouldn't normally gravitate towards. 'Sometimes it's an experienced setter, or someone who just chooses random holds,' he says. 'The audience doesn't particularly change my climbing as I'm pretty self-motivated, but I think it mimics a gym environment, which is social and fun, making climbing itself more enjoyable.'
So far, in just a few months, My has attracted 600 followers to his stream, many of which came from a post he made in the r/climbing subreddit, where nearly one million members post and converse about climbing. Engagement varies on MyClimbs, but the stream is growing, hitting 100 live viewers in one session. It has even been 'raided', which is when a streamer ends their feed, but funnels all of their viewers to another streamer. 'It's a great way to get new eyes on your channel and network on Twitch,' My explains. 'I had to do a plethora of pullups once because a bigger streamer raided me and brought lots of viewers and new follows. I was doing 5 pullups per follow!'
Despite having accrued over 1K followers through his gaming streams, Dale's live bouldering content hasn't picked up just yet. 'I rarely see over 20 live viewers when climbing,' he says. 'This is probably because climbers don't know they can search Twitch for this specifically, or they just don't want to watch. I haven't quite figured this out yet.'
Ethan is a comparative newcomer to the climbing streaming game, having started his project just two months ago and attracted over 200 followers. 'It's going great so far, I now get an average viewer base of 10 and I have had peaks of 40,' Ethan says. This may not sound like many people, but Twitch engagement is different. 'You have to think about Twitch in terms of actual live performances,' he explains. 'Those 10 viewers are 10 actual people watching you live, as opposed to a YouTube video where you only need to click on it once to register. It's like climbing in front of a class and showing people the ropes.'
Like My, Ethan finds the extrinsic motivation of performing to an audience beneficial to his progress. 'It doesn't matter if I have one viewer or a thousand, someone telling me that I can do a problem will make me want to try harder than I normally would,' he says. 'I find it hard to motivate myself to do a lot of things in this world. Showing my passion for climbing and having people receive it positively and return the favour by cheering me on, giving me tips or showing me new problems is the best thing I could ask for as an entertainer and a human.'
Simply connecting with other climbers around the world has kept My happy and motivated in a difficult time. He hopes to meet some of the people he has interacted with in reality, when travel permits. 'I've made good friends in Hawaii, Canada, and Italy,' he says. 'I can't wait until the day I get to climb with them in person.' My also runs a Discord channel for climbers in California, a group-chatting platform originally built for gamers that has since been adopted by many kinds of communities. 'I don't think Discord is popular with climbers yet, but I think it should be,' My explains. 'I started it for California first to make it easier to find people to climb with.'
This global reach of Twitch climbing streams also rings true for Ethan's stream. 'I have viewers in Canada and Lithuania who have varying degrees of COVID restrictions, so everyone has their own personal reasons for joining me,' he says. 'It is really cool too see a climbing community generate from Twitch when I originally wasn't sure if there would be any interest.'
My has put the community element of live-streaming to good use by raising money for charity. 'I did one for Climbing4Change and raised ~$210 and put in $100 myself,' he says. 'I'm considering doing more charity streams.'
Do the streamers think climbing on Twitch will take off? My is unconvinced. 'I don't think so, simply because it's very niche and climbers don't typically think to use Twitch to see climbing,' he explains. As a result, My doesn't think a climbing stream alone would be lucrative. 'You would probably need to dabble in general climbing fitness and other stuff. I think it's a very interesting concept, but in reality, it caters to a weird crowd,' he says. After all, most climbers want to be outdoors, actually climbing things - especially post-lockdown. 'But it does take the system board concept one step further,' My adds. Perhaps there is potential in the future for more simultaneous virtual climbing competitions in locations across the globe, along the lines of the Moonboard Masters event.
Conversely, Dale is focused on transforming his stream into a bigger platform for entertainment and source of income. 'I want to develop from just myself as the broadcaster, entertainer, climber and have the whole broadcast become more of a show, with guests who have stories or brands that want to share their products,' he says. 'I really want to turn it into something great to watch, to be excited to tune into. It's a massive grind right now, getting it noticed.'
Ethan is equally optimistic about the potential for climbers on Twitch. 'People's careers were made on Twitch because of COVID and the numbers seem to be staying as various countries open up,' he says. 'I think the right person doing what they love as well as being a great entertainer or storyteller with the right idea could reach the stars on Twitch.' Ethan mentions a woodcarving streamer broxh_ whose passion has earned him a 1.3M followers and even a meeting with New Zealand's prime minister. 'So who's to say climbing can't make it big?' he asks. In the meantime, Ethan will be aiming to complete his goal of ticking all 422 benchmark Moonboard problems, of which he has currently climbed 239.
For the time being, My is restricted to the limited space of his rented apartment and small back yard. 'I'm waiting until I can afford my own house to build a better wall and stream set-up,' he says. 'Currently I have to set-up and tear down for every stream as I can't leave electronics outdoors.' Eventually, My hopes to create a more sophisticated production with better tech, lighting and more camera angles.
No matter how hard he climbs or how many pull-ups he does, the real star of My's stream is his dog Koda; a bark-happy American Eskimo who watches him climb and generally entertains the audience. 'To be honest, he's the main point of my stream,' My admits. He has designed emojis of Koda's face and printed t-shirts as 'merch' to sell. 'They're popular, definitely more popular than my face on a shirt would be,' he jokes.
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