Kids growing up in the ‘90s wanted to dunk like Michael Jordan, sing like Mariah Carey, or loom large on the silver screen like Tom Cruise.
Many kids today harbor a different aspiration — to play video games while thousands watch via live stream on Twitch™. To that end, Ben Bowman is living the dream.
ProfessorBroman streams on Twitch, a billion-dollar streaming platform, every day, usually playing Borderlands™ 3 or Destiny™ 2. With a following of 730,000, thousands of paying subscribers and a cache of advertisers, Bowman is making a comfortable living doing the thing he loves from his home in Tampa, Florida. He’s also raising millions of dollars to fight childhood cancer, the whole reason he took an interest in streaming in the first place. Games are often blamed for the ills of society. Bowman wants to prove that games and gaming communities can be powerful agents for good.
Perhaps that sounds like a cushy gig. It’s not.
Bowman started streaming in 2013. Like many entrepreneurs, Bowman logged 12 to 18 hours every day grinding through some lean times while building his subscriber base. He co-founded a coffee company, Kings Coast Coffee, which he drinks and advertises on camera. He also co-founded and serves as charity director for GuardianCon (now Gaming Community Expo, or GCX), a streaming event that brings people in the gaming community together. GCX has raised more than $3.7 million in 2019 for childhood cancer and pediatric disease research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital®. This research is helping children fight cancer all around the world. In his spare time, he also tends to business with the agency representing him and with partners (including Micron).
Another aspect of ProfessorBroman’s success won’t be obvious to those unfamiliar with Twitch — community building. Bowman is very good at video games, but he’s nowhere near the caliber of professional esport athletes or streamers who are famous for mastery over a single game. That’s OK. ProfessorBroman’s subscribers — “subs”, as they’re known in the community — tune in for his humor. He riffs on game play and whatever else is on his mind, aiming to make at least one person laugh every day. He usually checks that box shortly after logging on! Unlike streamers who are 100% focused on their games, Bowman keeps an eye on chat and maintains a kind of running conversation with his viewers. He says he wants his viewers to feel like they are sitting on the couch playing multiplayer Halo™ rather than yelling from the nosebleed seats in a stadium. He wants them to feel like participants. Engagement is a core part of his appeal, which makes it a core part of his business.
Some of his viewers are paying subscribers who watch most days and form relationships with Bowman and each other. There are plenty of jokes, but the chat gets serious, too, when subscribers share stories about personal victories and tragedies. (More on that later.)
Bowman is all about creating an engaging experience; the last thing he wants in his stream is technical issues that take away from the environment he has worked so hard to create. Viewers don’t care about charm or humor if the audio or video feeds get choppy. To ensure the best spectator experience, many streamers, including ProfessorBroman, run two PCs — one for playing games and a “workhorse” streaming PC packed with at least 64GB of gaming memory to handle the video and audio feeds from the gaming PC, as well as from his consoles. In ProfessorBroman’s specific case, it is 64GB of Crucial® Ballistix® gaming memory, thanks to his sponsorship by Crucial and also to recommendations by his followers.
“Those two PCs are like my lifeline,” he says. “They're how I do everything. And so, anything that goes in them or anything that even touches them has to be of a quality that I can literally back my livelihood on, because that's what I'm doing every single day.”
Bowman still streams almost every day, in part because he’s a workaholic who sees his stream as a work in progress, but also because his subs depend on him to be there.
“If I owned a coffee shop and didn’t feel good, I’d still have to show up to run the coffee shop,” he says. “There are people who [come to my stream] as part of their day, every day, and they’re coming to watch. I owe it to them to put on the best show that I possibly can.”
Rise of the Professor
A relentless pursuit of his craft and the best possible hardware to support his goals aside, ProfessorBroman didn’t build his stream or financial stability overnight.
Bowman grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and remembers playing Contra on the original Nintendo® with his cousin, beating Tetris™ on the Game Boy® and eventually shifting to story-driven role-playing games (RPGs). He still has the Super Nintendo® cartridge for Chrono Trigger™, his all-time favorite game.
As a young adult, he bounced between low-paying jobs and even briefly donated plasma for grocery money. He still enjoyed gaming but never considered streaming until tuning in to a Twitch marathon stream that raised $20,000 for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Bowman says Sandy-Thon, as the event was called, planted the seed that he could stream to raise money to benefit charities. The idea that Twitch streaming could be his livelihood came later.
Bowman also started streaming as a way to connect with friends. At the time, he was into the speedrunning community that celebrates the painstaking process of mapping elaborate routes through games to beat them the fastest. His speedrunning labor of love was Borderlands 2, which has an average play-through time of more than 72 hours, according to gamelengths.com. Bowman has beat it in 2 hours 34 minutes and 21 seconds. (The world record is under two hours, according to speedrun.com.)
Meanwhile, he worked as a social worker in a psychiatric hospital. Being ready for a change, Bowman started researching how streamers monetized their Twitch streams and thought that maybe, just maybe, Twitch could be that lifeline.
“My idea of making it was paying my bills and making sure I could eat,” Bowman says. “I didn’t have huge dreams. I didn’t want to be the most famous person on Twitch. I just wanted to have a job where I got to do what I love.”
Bowman calculated that 400 subscribers would provide an income equivalent to working a full-time, minimum-wage job. He decided to invest more time and focus on his stream and began building his viewership.
“I thought I could entertain 400 people well enough that they’d think, ‘I like being part of your community. Here’s a five-spot [$5],’” he says. “That was the ‘ah-hah’ moment, realizing streaming and entertaining people full-time wasn’t some sort of crazy, pie-in-the-sky dream.”
Bowman started streaming for at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week, playing mostly Destiny. His follower count picked up after he became a Twitch partner by meeting thresholds for streaming hours and concurrent viewers. The partner designation gave ProfessorBroman his subscriber button, a major milestone.
He’s been grinding ever since, growing his audience and sub count.
Through a series of mishaps and serendipitous events, Bowman became friends with fellow streamers and founded Rare Drop Co., the holding company by which he and his partners operate business. Considering that the four partners lived in different parts of the country and had never met each other before Twitch, Bowman says many moons had to align just for the four men to meet, let alone form a business.
“It's pretty convoluted and hard for me to believe sometimes because there's a lot of failure points in that chain where none of this happens,” Bowman says. “I'm very happy that it did.” The four friends not only share a similar passion for gaming but are united under one philanthropical ideal, “Gaming for Good,” which they use as the motto for Rare Drop Co. and the way they build the gaming community.
Community: The Secret Sauce
The professor isn’t for everybody, at least not right away. He says some viewers think he’s acerbic because, well, sometimes he is. But those who stick around see he’s true to himself and he cares about his viewers. That wins them over.
“All the time I hear, ‘the first time I saw your stream, I hated you,’” Bowman says. “I thought you were too loud. I thought you were a jerk. But it turns out you’re just you, and you’re great, and you’re never any different. I didn’t expect that, and I love that.”
Bowman cares about his followers and even leans on them to vet products and sponsors. Once, after signing with a sponsor, viewers were quick to let him know that its products were subpar. Sure enough, the fans were right. Now, when he’s approached by a potential sponsor, he runs it by the chat for approval — which was the case for Crucial Ballistix gaming memory.
“I asked if they knew anything about Ballistix,” Bowman says. “It was unanimous, in my chat, like, ‘Holy crap, I love those people.’“
Bowman doesn’t claim to have a relationship with every follower who comes to the stream and leaves a few comments. But he absolutely knows some of the longtime subscribers who hang out in the stream every day. Some share details about the ups and downs of their lives. ProfessorBroman and other regulars take those opportunities to celebrate or encourage each other, a welcome point of care and validation when people need it most.
“I try my hardest to read as much as I can so that I know what’s going on in peoples’ lives,” he says. “If they tell me they’re going to have a kid, then nine months later they have that kid, I want to be part of that cycle. I know I’m a part of their lives. For my regulars, I definitely take a pretty deep interest in their personal success. I want to know they are happy and healthy and really feeling like they’re winning at life.”
After a longtime viewer passed away from cancer, his family members got in touch with Bowman and said the viewer watched the stream while receiving treatment. The stream became a peaceful diversion after the treatments stopped working. Bowman was touched and embraces being a positive force in viewers’ lives, in part because he could have used a supportive community when he was a kid.
“I didn’t have anybody other than family who did that for me,” Bowman says. “Every sort of external factor in my life told me I sucked all the time, whether that was getting bullied at school or anything else. I was a weird kid. I didn’t have a lot of friends. And now I have an opportunity to make a home for somebody online where they feel like they’re safe and have an encouraging place where they can feel restored before they go out into the world.”
Whether building community, fundraising for charity, pursuing entrepreneurial ventures or simply being a bright spot in someone’s day, Ben Bowman has shown that streaming really can do good.
Crucial® and Ballistix® is a registered trademark of Micron Technology, Inc. All other trademarks and registered trademarks referenced in this article are the property of their respective owners.