Behind the scenes with Austin Twitch streamers

Some are making a living, or close to it, broadcasting to an audience of game-loving fans online
"We have 10 seconds. All right. I'm ready, let's do it."

The swiped launch sequence is from NASA and it introduces Ashley Ford, an Austinite better known to her online viewers as "Crasskitty." There's a rocket taking off, funny cat GIFs superimposed onto the video and Crasskitty herself, green-screened in from her apartment on a Friday afternoon.

She's shot into orbit and out of a cannon, purple-haired and fast-talking, as the webcam and studio microphone transmit her show over Twitch, a popular home for 1.7 million "Streamers" like her and about 9.6 million daily active users, many of whom watch streams like Ford's.

Twitch started in 2011 as a spinoff of a popular live-streaming site In 2014, it was acquired by Amazon for $970 million, a testament to what a juggernaut it had become within a global gaming community glued to so-called "Let's Play" videos. In them, players comment along as they play video games and stream the videos publicly, engaging in chat with viewers. Broadcasters can stream their gameplay off a PC, some mobile devices and from game consoles such as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The company, based in San Francisco, plans to open an Austin office in July.

"Hi guys, how are you, what's your day like, what's your life like?" Crasskitty fires into the mic and the response is immediate. Someone named "Cold Phoenix" subscribes to her stream for five months at $4.99 a month, bringing additional income to her collection of about 150 subscribers.

When that happens, it deserves a salute.

"Cold Phoenix," Crasskitty says over more space footage, "Five long, hard, delicious, thick months. Five months you've been strapped to your chair ready to go, ready to penetrate the catmosphere with your rocket behind you! You are a true crasstronaut."

About 10 minutes later, she's playing "EVE Online," a complex and political space simulator game that's been around since 2003. She dived into it in March, joined an online company within the game. She began doing some embedded reporting, at one point attracting about 1,800 viewers at a time to her Twitch channel.

"That was an amazing feeling," Ford says. "I saw an opportunity and decided to do something the community needed."

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of people playing "EVE Online" and streaming it online for others to watch. But unlike most of them, Ford has been able to make a living doing it, partnering up with sponsors such as and using subscriber and tip jar money from viewers to upgrade her hardware (three monitors, a powerful gaming PC, studio lighting and more).

She started broadcasting in August 2014 with some basic equipment she already had. "It's been this ongoing process. What can I do to slowly and steadily make my stream better?"

About a year into it, she was able to leave a job managing a bar, which she was juggling with part time Twitch streaming. As one of about 15,000 Twitch Partners, the top tier of the site's broadcasters, she's able to draw income while playing games, giving her real-life cat Oxana screen time, or just chatting with her viewers.

"I was unhappy with my situation. I was realizing when I stream was the only time I felt happy," she says.

The stream is full of cat puns, crass talk and innuendo, ways she's found to combat annoying or abusive trolls and win them over to her side. Her community, she says, is full of positive people who want to change their lives and support each other.

Another subscriber, Voltage Fatso, signs on for two months. A viewer drops $2 in her tip jar. Players transfer chat currency to watch Oxana the cat give high fives for treats. Ford never stops talking, even as she's playing the game, keeping an eye on the chat stream, and making adjustments to her feed. She's high-energy, bouncing in her chair as her image appears superimposed on a roam mission in "EVE." Another subscriber signs on. Then another, Legendary Muffins.

Crasskitty's delight is obvious as she riffs. "You, sir are legendary. And made of muffins! These are two great things in space."

PhallofPhariss: dad who streams

Three years ago, Brandon Phariss was a manager working at a Home Depot.

But in his free time, he was spending time playing games on his Xbox One and becoming fascinated with Team V Gaming, a group of streamers that raises charitable donations for organizations such as St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

He started his own stream, playing games such as "Titanfall" and becoming friends with streamers from Team V, some of whom sent their spillover traffic to him as he established himself.

"It was a really entry-level stream," he says now. "There weren't that many people watching at first. It was something I enjoyed doing."

Phariss, who goes by the Twitch handle PhallofPhariss, did a cinnamon challenge, struggled and raged over difficult games such as "Trials Fusion." After his daughter, Brynlee, was born two years ago, he was starting to earn sponsorships. A year after that, he left his job to stream full time.

"It outweighed the childcare costs and going to work. I was able to survive on that," he says.

Phariss is the first to say that he's not a great gamer. He doesn't compete in tournaments, earning money or prizes as a competitive professional player of video games. But he's friendly, funny, and willing to experiment on camera

He's played songs on his stream. He's incorporated his daughter into the feed, to the delight of his viewers. He's even found a talent for painting, which he does on his channel as part of Twitch's new "Creative" section and has sold some of the work he's done.

Phariss, who lives in Hutto with his wife and daughter, isn't making millions. With only about 90 subscribers (he makes the rest in tips from viewers), he's still had to consider looking for a job even as he keeps streaming to help cover some family medical bills. But he's found a niche, especially playing mobile games such as "Vainglory," which he captures in his man cave, outfitted with a pair of 32-inch HDTVs, a sound mixer, microphone and several tablets and game systems along with his San Francisco Giants baseball memorabilia.

Phariss says  he's been thrilled to raise money for charity doing something he loves and would be doing even if he weren't being paid: playing video games. His wife is not a gamer and hasn't had great experiences appearing online; it can be tough for women who don't play to avoid harassment and rude comments on gaming streams.

"Since I've partnered (with Twitch), it's made it easier for her to go along with it," Phariss says. "It's actually been enough income to survive off of, which is nice. It's not much, but I'm going to be playing games anyway."

He streams from about 9 p.m. to as late as 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. on most nights, usually just taking Sundays off. For those who want to make a living at Twitch, Phariss says, you should start small and avoid breaking the bank with expensive equipment.

Streamers who are consistent, even broadcasting just once a week, can grow an audience, and for those starting out, it's useful to play a video game all the way through, he said..

"And," he advises, "make sure it's a game you enjoy."

Avajaijai's scream stream

Amanda Myddleton is a great screamer. Whether she's being attacked in the "Hunger Games"-like online game "The Culling" or facing down a roach in her apartment, her piercing cries and frequent laughter are hallmarks of her online Twitch persona, "Avajaijai."

By day, she works with autistic children as a behavioral therapist. The day job has cut into her streaming time this year, but she had already built a following since she began on Twitch three years ago playing the online shooter "Call of Duty." She has about 150,000 followers, 4 million views on Twitch and about 433 subscribers who help provide her with computer upgrades and broadcasting equipment.

"I've done it for fun and to help pay the bills. It's entertaining when you're by yourself and bored," Myddleton says. "It's scary to do something like this full time. If you do it 9-5, it's like any other job."

As Avajaijai, she's known for "Raging" online, getting so frustrated with a game that she delivers a stream of anger for viewers. On a recent night playing "The Culling," which has yet to be released but is playable in an alpha version, she bounces back and forth between ecstatic victory joy and annoyed defeat.

"Dammit!" she screams when a glitch causes a player to pass right through her in-game character. "I f***ing hit him dead on! That was so stupid! That's why I hate this game," she sighs, slumping in her chair. "I can't even rage at that, that was clearly just lame."

Like Crasskitty and PhallofPhariss, Avajaijai has a talent for keeping the conversation going with a continuing stream of chatter, unless she's deep in concentration playing a game.

"It's hard," she says, "I'll do really good on a game when I'm really focused on the game. Or I'll do badly because I'm focused on the chat."

She's met other streamers at gaming events such as the PAX South conference in San Antonio and subscribes to other streamers in an ecosystem where viewers often keep multiple windows open to keep track of what their favorite personalities are up to.

Avajaijai has taken drink shots to meet fund-raising goals, baked cookies and sent them to viewers ("Some people got burnt cookies in the mail; but they were made with love," she says), and in one memorable moment, confronted a giant cockroach, jumping out of her chair and scrambling away from the camera. There was lots of screaming. It earned her record views and is a fixture of her YouTube channel, where she collects some of her Twitch streams.

In three years, Avajaijai has gone from awkward, with about 10 to 30 viewers at a time, to more polished for several thousand, many of whom also follow her on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

"I've always been pretty comfortable talking to people," she says. "I built up my confidence and grew from there."

Cover image: Ashley Ford, known on Twitch as Crasskitty, plays with her cat Oxana while streaming a video feed to viewers. Tamir Kalifa for AMERICAN-STATESMAN