Many teenagers dream of being paid a fortune to play computer games from the grungy comfort of their own bedrooms. Parents may scoff. But the Twitch video platform has turned that escapist fantasy into an improbable reality.
Launched in 2011, Twitch attracts 15m viewers a day to its site to watch the world’s best players live-streaming their games of Starcraft or Fortnite for others to learn from and enjoy. Some 3m players create content for the site. Tens of thousands of Twitch’s most successful “partners” make money.
“Some of them make millions of dollars streaming video games,” Kevin Lin, Twitch’s co-founder recently told the Slush tech conference in Helsinki. Gaming is “no longer a hidden-in-the-basement nerdy thing. It is something that people socialise over.”
Playing games for a living may sound like fun, but making money from streaming is not for the indolent, says Mr Lin. “Like any other job, it is a huge commitment. You cannot just be the best player in the world and stream. You have to engage with the audience. It is a lot about reliability and content.”
Not so long ago it would have been impossible to imagine that people could earn money this way or that playing computer games could ever be described as a job. Twitch may be an edge case, but its experience goes to the heart of the debate about the labour market of the future. While it is all too easy to see the jobs that will be destroyed by the latest technological revolution, it is hard to foresee the types of jobs that will be created.
The whole computer games industry is an example of changing consumer demand fuelling new employment opportunities. The games market is worth $120bn a year, bigger than the television, music or film industries and growing a lot faster, according to Mr Lin. Streaming has also become a brutal battlefield for Big Tech. Twitch, now owned by Amazon, recently lost a star streamer “Ninja”, and his 41m social media followers, to Microsoft’s rival platform.
The bigger question for society is whether on a net basis more jobs will be created by technology than destroyed. And how can we best prepare the workforce for unforeseeable new roles?
To some extent, the labour market is permanently adjusting and people are spontaneously finding opportunities for themselves, as is the case with Twitch’s streamers. The rise of crowdfunding sites such as Patreon, which allow individual patrons to support their favourite creative artists, is also enabling an emerging workforce to finance their lifestyles in more flexible ways.
Some educational institutions are catering to these changing demands. For example, eCampus, an Italian online university, is offering a three-year programme in social media influencing focusing on fashion psychology, semiotics and information technology. Its students aspire to become the next Chiara Ferragni, the Italian influencer who has 17.8m Instagram followers.
Established companies face a tougher challenge retraining their employees for such a fast-changing world.
Irene Petrick, Intel’s senior director of industrial innovation who has co-written a forthcoming report on employment in the US manufacturing sector, is blunt in her analysis. “The training system is broken in the US,” she says. Ms Petrick, who previously taught information technology at Penn State university, says she used to tell her students: “Here are the top 10 careers for you. Five years ago, six of them were not on the list.”
She argues for increasing the digital dexterity of employees by providing shorter, more snackable learning programmes in formats that appeal to the younger generation, such as YouTube videos and podcasts. That sounds a lot like Twitch for training.
One other intriguing idea to encourage companies to retrain their employees is backed by Henry Chesbrough, a professor at Berkeley Haas business school. He says smarter training programmes are essential to upgrade the soft “innovation infrastructure” in the US, and elsewhere.
His recommendation is to change the accounting rules to encourage companies to treat investment in people as favourably as that in capital stock: “When companies buy equipment they can capitalise it and depreciate it over time and recover their investment. But if I hire you and train you that is a one-time expense.” Allowing companies to amortise their training spending over time would provide a real incentive to invest more in human capital.
Companies routinely argue that their employees are their greatest asset. Perhaps it is time to value them as such.
Follow John Thornhill with myFT