IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (2024)

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (2)

As controversial YouTuber IShowSpeed, Darren Watkins shares an estimated 70 per cent of his life with his millions of fans –but how does it feel to grow up online in today’s 24/7 streaming culture?

The Summer 2024 Issue

TextNicolaia Rips

Taken from the spring 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issuehere.

“I’M LIVE EVERY DAY” reads the header on one of IShowSpeed’s YouTube channels. The phrase could be confusing – ‘live’ versus ‘live’; different words with the same spelling. Live, a verb, to be alive. Live, an adjective, to occur currently, a show happening as it is broadcast. For Ohio-born streamer Darren Watkins Jr, there is no difference between the two. He is live every day.

At the time of writing, Watkins has 24.2 million followers on his main YouTube account (plus another 11 million and change on his auxiliary accounts, Speedy Boykins and Live Speedy), 16.2 million on Instagram and 25 million on Tiktok. He has 1,300 videos on his main YouTube. By his own estimate, Watkins livestreams 70 per cent of his life. He’s the most subscribed-to English-speaking streamer on YouTube. He is also just 19 years of age.

A streamer is a catch-all, someone who performs live online. There are esports streamers who play competitive video games. There are p*rnographic streamers, like camgirls. Then there are ‘just chatting’ streamers like Watkins, known as variety show-like entertainers. Sometimes Watkins plays games like Fifa or Grand Theft Auto. Sometimes he watches other videos online. Two of his recent videos: Irl stream buying a cat (3:30:29, 2.2 million views), and NOTHING can stop me (4:15:06, 1.6 million views).

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Watkins grew up in the American midwest. His childhood was spent playing video games, riding bikes, “being a dumbass”. As he’s travelled, he’s become aware of other versions of life. “I’m like, damn. What if I grew up around all of this?” says Watkins. “The midwest, where I’m from, [is] really not a lot. But when I go to Cali they got stuff there. What if I grew up with a... I don’t know... a park that looks like that, and knew all these different types of people.” Though technically a teenager, Watkins talks about his childhood with the haziness of someone much older. Anything before he started streaming is vague. His family is the one thing he is truly reserved about, though it’s difficult to keep anything private. He has several siblings. He is closer to his dad than his mum; he speaks about his dad with adoration, his mom with hesitation. When he was 15, COVID hit.

For Zoomers, COVID was a coming-of-age interrupted. Watkins turned his attention to YouTube. “I’ll be honest, I just stopped going to school and was streaming every day,” he says. “COVID really messed my mental up. Streaming really helped out my mental.” A clip of Watkins “raging at a game” was posted to WorldstarHipHop’s Instagram. According to Watkins, his mum kicked him out after reading the negative comments. “My mom got mad, [like], ‘Stop, stop, what are you doing, why are people talking about my son like this?’” She wanted him to quit YouTube; instead, he says, he switched schools and moved in with his dad in Detroit.

On his first day there, he shared a room with his uncle who happened to have a PS4. “That’s all you needed to stream,” he says. “Luckily, I brought my PS4 camera. I connected my camera and I just kept streaming. I just kept going. And [my mom] couldn’t tell me not to do it. I didn’t live there any more.” Now, he explains, he has a good relationship with his parents. “I exceeded their expectations.” The name IShowSpeed – or Speed, as he sometimes goes by – comes from a childhood sports nickname: “They used to call me Speedy because I was fast.” Online he’s the same, moving at the pace of the internet. He created the handle as his gamertag when he was 12 and started streaming seriously at the age of 15.

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (14)

There’s plenty of confusion about Watkins’ real age. Like most things about him you can read online, the misinformation was spread by Watkins himself. “Everybody around me was older and I didn’t want nobody to know my real age,” he says. “I thought people would think I was a kid and I didn’t like that. I wanted to talk to girls who [were] older.” Then, there were his concerns about getting kicked off the platforms for violating age regulations and acting wild.

When he was 16, Watkins was banned from Twitch for making sexually threatening comments towards model Ash Kash. He had said that if they were the last two people on Earth and she didn’t consent to having sex with him, well, “Who’s gonna stop me?” The apology came soon after: “I’m 17 years old. I was 16 when that happened and made a huge mistake. It was stupid and immature. I immediately realised and apologised. I will continue to work on myself as I navigate the world, growing up online I recognise that I have a responsibility to set an example to those who follow and support me.” It wasn’t the last time Watkins would have to atone for his actions. In 2022, he made an apology after going on a sexist rant against a female gamer and, later the same year, apologised for racist comments directed at a Chinese football fan. He tells me, “I made a lot of mistakes streaming, there’s a lot of stuff I wish I could take back. When I was 16, I said some stuff I wish I’d never said, but that was me being a kid and I really gotta learn from my mistakes. Me growing up as a kid, my whole life is on the internet. Things happen. People change.”

Part of what makes a Twitch streamer successful is their ability to entertain, to punctuate the stream with a moment that will live on, a bite-sized clip to disseminate around the web. How do you make someone tune in for five hours of talking? Ramp up the stunts, the shock factor, constantly come up with new things to do. There’s an adrenaline rush watching Watkins’ streams. His humour alternates between bloviating, barking and freaking out. He uses everything as content – IShowSpeed gets 2 New Cats (Slave & Master), IShowSpeed Makes Kid Cough from His Smell, IShowSpeed Ends Stream After Racist Comedy Night. He’s an incredibly physical comic, with similar capabilities to his favourite actor, Jim Carrey – a malleable face that he crumples and flares in unsettling ways. Watkins fills up any screen he is placed in.

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (16)

It’s hard to tell what Watkins really feels about the other incidents, if the apologies come from a sense of regret or surrender. Possibly his biggest scandal was when he accidentally flashed his penis on a stream. The incident was dubbed IShowMeat. “I cried,” says Watkins. “That was always my biggest fear. When that happened I immediately deleted the stream. I went into my mom’s room, she didn’t really care. I called my manager, my friend, they were telling me to calm down. And this all happened because I didn’t have any clean underwear! I put on pyjamas and you know how pyjamas have that little slit...” He drifts off, lost in the life-changing mistake of not doing the laundry. “It’s crazy how something so little can cause something so crazy. People made it into a joke but it doesn’t really get to me that much any more. But, like, dang. You saw a video of my meat. What the hell.” He shakes his head. “It is what it is.”

Creator Logan Paul, a Vine star turned YouTuber, boxer, wrestler and energy drink salesman, is a fan. At 29, Paul is an elder in the world of content creation. Paul says of Watkins, “He’s a phenom, point blank. There’s so much content created on the internet each day but he understands how to cut through the noise, and he does most of it on a live stream. His instincts for entertaining the masses are second to none.” Paul recently signed Watkins to represent his energy drink, Prime.

“I have a super close connection to my fanbase,” says Watkins. “I can relate to them. They can relate to me.” That relatability stems from the fact that Watkins and his fans are literally living the life of Speed together, frame by frame. For followers used to perpetual access, any reluctance to share is met with irritation. “They just hate when I don’t stream. They do riots and stuff. They say I’m lazy and I don’t care and I lost motivation.” At my alarm, Watkins clarifies that they’re not threatening real riots, just trolling – though, in August of last year, fellow streamer Kai Cenat was charged with inciting an actual riot, after promising a PS5 giveaway in New York’s Union Square. In addition to restless fans, Watkins also has “super trolls” who watch him everyday. “Say my IP gets leaked; they’re the first to boot me. Say my address gets leaked; they’re the first to swat me.” Aside from being swatted (where a literal Swat team, guns drawn, are called as a prank), Watkins has had his bank details stolen. He’s been on the receiving end of internet jokes and theft.

“As a streamer I have to be aware of the time. When I’m doing this, when I’m doing that. That’s all my memories now. All my memories are streaming”– IShowSpeed

Eric Arzoian, a producer specialising in esports, got into the business after noticing he was spending more time watching Twitch than Netflix. “I found that the communities were more engaging from an entertainment perspective,” he says. “It was very interesting seeing people tip live. The idea that you’re watching someone and you’re giving your own or your parents’ money to an entertainer in the form of tips or subscriptions was really cool. That’s what got me excited about it... people’s willingness to spend money.” The various platforms operate differently regarding creator payment, through a combination of ad revenue, subscription, sponsorship and tips. On Twitch, users can buy ‘bits’, a virtual currency you can use to support creators. Each live donation demands attention; some come attached to requests for the streamer, like a shoutout or question. According to Time magazine, a streamer with more than 50,000+ viewers on Twitch could make $100,000-$200,000 (£60-80k) a month. The reason traditional forms of media are faltering, Arzoian feels, is that the scope of entertainment has expanded. “Everyone is competing with each other for attention,” he explains, “whether it’s a book or a movie or an Instagram feed or a Twitch stream. It’s all competition.” I asked my 13-year-old cousin if he had any questions for Watkins (he’s a fan) and he said, “What are your tips for kids who want to start streaming?”

If the difference between a fan and a troll seems disturbingly slippery, that’s because on these streaming platforms it can be. Streamers, especially ones like Watkins, are famous for having fans and interacting with them. They are reachable idols. On a stream there is a constantly regenerating chat with fans fiending for airtime, their handles ticking one after another: Speed are you coming to Srilanka? W W W W. Parttime streamer. YOOOO SPEED! Stfu. IShowmeat. Stop acting like you have Rizz. It’s an intense connection. There’s a possessiveness that comes from knowing that you, the fan, are the arbiter of fame. There is also jealousy because these streamers are ‘regular guys’, people who spend most of their time online – just like you. Young men, who make up the bulk of the streaming community (as of 2023, approximately two thirds of Twitch users are male, 41% are between 16 and 24), have a relationship with high-profile streamers that surpasses the everyday parasocial relationship one might develop with a celebrity, or the faux-friendship of listening to your favourite podcaster. Streaming, which really hit its stride during Covid, is a vulnerable medium shaped by the loneliest time in recent history. For teenagers like Speed, the instability of Covid arrived at a point in life essential to social development. The relationship between streamer and fan is a sometimes toxic, parasocial best-friendship.

Initially my interview with Watkins was to be held in person but his schedule, as a very polite manager explained to me, was changing quickly. Every day, I checked up on his YouTube, having the surreal experience of watching exactly what he was doing, not being interviewed by me. There he was in a costume at WWE Wrestlemania, getting put in a headlock. There he was in a publicity stunt where he was signed to Manchester United. This is his first interview.

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (18)

On our call Watkins is shirtless, reclining in his bed, the camera aimed up his nose. For someone who lives on the screen, he is incapable of connecting through it. His gaze is fixed elsewhere. Watkins feels he was born to stream. “When I’m live, I’m just... live. Boom. It feels amazing. That’s why I love to be a streamer. That’s why I prefer to do lives. It kicks something in my body.” He is of the generation that feels completely at ease brain-draining into a front-facing camera for hours.

But Speed is no self-protective Jekyll to Watkins’ Hyde. “People think it’s a character, but nah. It’s part of me,” says Watkins. “It’s just who I am. I’m an entertaining, crazy, funny guy. That’s what I always am. There’s no such thing as [in] character and out of character. When I’m streaming on YouTube, it glimmers and comes out, but yeah. I am Speed.”

The clip that changed Watkins’ life was a $1.79 donation from a fan attached to the question, “What soccer/football team do you support?” In the seven-second clip, part of a larger stream, Watkins sits in the corner of the screen like a talking head. He plays a video game where his avatar rides a flying playing card. There are 40,268 people watching. An automated female voice reads out the question. He takes a breath and responds, “Christian Ronaldo, SUIEE. Simple as that, bro.” His intonation is bizarre, his pronunciation of Ronaldo’s name even more so (it’s Cristiano). There is no telling where the next pitch of his voice will go next.

The clip resulted in Watkins focusing mostly on European football-related content – now, he has sat on the locker room bench Ronaldo used to sit on, played with Ronaldo’s son, and moved to Florida to be closer to the heart of American football. He has a Ronaldo Lamborghini. He has a tattoo of Ronaldo’s face on his arm. As with everything Watkins does, the clip leaves us wondering if he’s in control of the joke, whether it’s deliberate or a fumble that he picked up after. And what exactly is the joke? Does it resonate with people because it’s just funny?

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (20)

Ronaldo inspires him, says Watkins, because “he went through a lot of hate, he went through a lot of stuff and he’s the best football player in the world. It just makes me want to keep going. I really look up to him. Hopefully one day I can get near his level. Not near his level. Obviously not a football player. But become somebody like him. He’s a good man. Has a nice family. He really achieved life.” Ronaldo, it’s worth noting, has faced allegations of his own.

To be a good man, Watkins says wistfully, is to achieve a lot, to be respected, and to respect. “That’s what Ronaldo did. [He’s someone who] helps people’s lives. Who motivates people’s lives. That’s what I really feel like is a good man – that’s what I see in Ronaldo.” At 30, says Watkins, “I will be a good man, have a good family. Hopefully.” As if, at 30, you can wake up and change who you are entirely – as if becoming a good man makes it OK to be who you are now, a bad boy. Watkins currently has a huge impact – does he feel a responsibility to his audience, the majority of whom are teenage boys? “I’ll say yes and no. Yes, I think I have a responsibility. I always try to show respect to people, to show people the knee. But at the end of the day, I’m a content creator. My content is not really for kids. I think I’m like... an adult content creator. People watch me to be entertained and that’s what I do. Entertain.”

As an entertainer, Watkins wants to act in a big movie and maybe become a WWE character. One day he wants to do a whole 30-minute video with Cristiano Ronaldo. He imagines it for me: “I’d have all the questions ready – the first eight to 10 minutes of us talking, the next 15 is us playing football and then, this is kind of on the spot, maybe us dancing? Singing songs?” I imagine him dancing with Ronaldo and think of something he said earlier about his childhood dreams: “I started streaming at 15, so I didn’t really have much thought on what I wanted to be.”

IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (22)

Watkins has a knack for remembering dates – or at least, the ones that happened after his streaming career got underway. Following every anecdote, he tells me the date it happened. The temporal reminder, delivered in monotone, is rarely if ever relevant to the story, and his compulsion to identify the exact moment within his life is striking. When I ask him about it, he tells me he is pretty good at knowing what he did around what time: “As a streamer I have to be aware of the time. When I’m doing this, when I’m doing that. That’s all my memories now. All my memories are streaming. It’s so hard for me to remember stuff that I did before streaming. I feel like my memory box is so full of my YouTube career...” When you stream the majority of your life, time is everything. You are always aware of its passing, aware of how you’re spending it (on the computer), and when the stream is done and uploaded, there it is, sorted neatly on YouTube with its date and time. If you wanted, you could sort through Watkins’ life in thumbnails as if walking through a museum devoted to Speed – there, on this date, Speed did this; on this day Speed did that. For a journalist it is daunting. His entire life is already out there, I just have to watch it in real time.

It’s a set-up similar to that in Watkins’ favourite film, The Truman Show (“the best movie ever”), which he watched in his first year of high school. I draw the parallel with his own life, and he sounds a little hesitant. “A bit,” he concedes. “People watch me sleep sometimes; my whole life is people watching me. They track my life, they know what planes I’m getting on sometimes, someone is always watching me. It is kind of similar. But I just like the movie because it’s a great movie.” Truman, though, has no control, I say. Watkins rolls his eyes. “No sh*t. If I want to stream me sleeping” – which he has – “that’s my decision. [With] Jim [Carrey] it was just on him. That’s what I mean by different. I press the go-live button. Him, it’s always the go-live button.” He chews on a blue bottle cap as he answers the question. “I got a bad habit of doing that.” I watch him work the cap in his jaw.

“Streaming can only get you so far. And it got me far. But I want to do it all” – IShowSpeed

Part of what makes streaming culture so prone to hostility is that it is thoughtless. Information is processed and shared at the speed it comes in. There is no time for reflection, for consideration of feeling or impact. Operating in this context leaves little room for interiority and requires, simultaneously, a total, almost monastic, devotion to the medium, and a distance from the final product. There will be x hours of streaming, x minutes, x seconds, and who knows what will happen in them, who knows who will watch them? When the stream is over it is never rewatched in its entirety, especially not by Watkins. “I never rewatch,” he tells me. “I try to forget about it. I always try to keep going, not reminisce on the content I did already.” To rewatch any of this content would divest it of its relevance. The day has passed. It starts again tomorrow. Is this wildly popular medium the future of entertainment?

Since the creation of modern computing in the 1940s, technology has changed quickly. The speed of change has caused link rot, data degradation and useless devices with our information trapped inside. The result is a ‘digital dark age’, a term created by information specialist Terry Kuny referring to the impermanent nature of digital content. Besides, there’s too much to even preserve. We have taken more photographs than we can remember, tweeted more, posted more. Using social media to augment reality means many of us are living ‘live’, aware of the expectation to share in everything we do. We have created these social technologies to abate our loneliness and trick ourselves into thinking we can have immortality through digital preservation, but what will a life lived entirely online amount to? For a civilisation so meticulously recorded, we have no memory. Speed, of information, has gotten the best of us.

Speed, the person, however, doesn’t think he’ll be streaming 20 years from now. “Streaming can only get you so far. And it got me far.” Looking somewhere off the computer, he says, “But I want to do it all.”

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IShowSpeed: ‘Streaming can only get you so far. I want to do it all’ (2024)

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