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Monday, April 15, 2024

Pokimane Has Done Enough—and Has So Much Left to Do

Imane Anys was curled up in a high-backed gamer chair, live on camera, when a therapist began comparing her to Buddha.

Anys had everything, at least on paper. Brains, beauty, and—when it came to League of Legends virtual arena—brawn. Seven years into her career as the Twitch streamer Pokimane, she had reached rarefied heights of success. She was among the most beloved internet stars of all time, attended by nearly 5 million Twitch followers and an army of ardent superfans who zealously watch her play video games. She had the highest-end gaming PC, a vanity stacked with expensive beauty products, the master bedroom of a Los Angeles mansion she shared with gaming luminaries. An impossible being living an impossible existence, like a visitation from a better future.

But Anys was sad. She didn’t want to be. Couldn’t be. Look at her life. How could she feel anything but gratitude? “I literally just say ‘hello’ and I feel like crying,” she told Alok Kanojia, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and mental health coach to celebrity gamers who streamed their session last May. She moved a neat curl of hair out of the way and dabbed her eye. “Do you know how I prevent myself from crying?”

Seventeen thousand viewers watched along as Anys confided to Kanojia. Cheers of “Queen” appeared in Twitch chat. “That’s bizarre,” Kanojia said, noticing the audience’s response. “That’s exactly what Buddha was.” Kanojia went on to tell the story of the aristocrat who became an ascetic, who taught that life is suffering. Despite Buddha’s privilege, Kanojia said, nothing could fill his emptiness. “I think he actually woke up one day and felt exactly the way you do. He cried, and then the next day he cried, and then the next day he cried, and then the next day, and he didn’t know why it wouldn’t stop. Things are supposed to make this better.”

Thousands of years later, Anys was troubleshooting exactly that question: how to absorb fleeting moments of happiness in a life defined by upward movement. “It was always about problem-solving, min-maxing,” she explained to Kanojia, borrowing a term gamers use to describe optimizing character stats. “Trying to be as productive as possible, doing my best in all aspects.” In school, that meant earning 90 or above on assignments. When she started streaming on Twitch, she targeted her concurrent viewership numbers, her engagement metrics. For so long, the compulsion to apply herself had served her well. She was the queen of Twitch—and by proxy, pop culture royalty in the increasingly mainstream world of video games. The problem, though, was that she couldn’t turn it off.

“The numbers don’t stop. There is no ‘You’ve done enough,’” she said. “I’m doubly frustrated with myself because it’s something I’ve known for a long time, but it’s not a problem I know how to solve.”

Kanojia responded with another analogy. Humans are buildings, he said, not architectural diagrams that can be revised. They are what they are. It’s like Buddha teaches—to mitigate suffering, accept everything as it is. Anys was unhappy, Kanojia determined, because she yearned to shape herself into a different form. “You don’t view yourself as a fact. You view yourself as a fiction.”

Upon hearing this diagnosis, Anys dabbed her eyes with the tissue and smiled pensively. “I feel like I am a building, but also the architect of the building that is me.”

Anys, 25, is uniquely good at being a Twitch star. So good, in fact, that her followers—8 million as of July 2021—have a meme about it: She is not a doe-eyed gamer girl but instead “Twitch AI,”⁠ designed from birth to succeed on the game-streaming platform with machine-like efficiency. Pokimane’s persona is so polished, and Anys’ success so complete, that this origin story does feel almost plausible.

Anys grew up in Ontario, Canada, the only daughter of two academics who emigrated from Morocco when she was 4 years old. As a kid, Anys was driven and studious, she told WIRED in a phone interview earlier this year. And as the child of immigrant parents, she has previously said that she felt a strong responsibility to succeed in their eyes. She needed to get straight As. She needed to master her extracurriculars, like student council. She needed to be dependable and self-sufficient. She needed to min-max her time.

To get her hands on games she wanted, Anys struck deals with her parents. When she asked for Pokémon HeartGold, her father said, OK, but we have to bike to the store and back so we’re exercising too. Otherwise, she’d graciously accept hand-me-down Mario and Zelda cartridges from her older brother.

After school, she would hurry home to log into massively multiplayer online role-playing games like Maple Story. In lieu of pummeling goblins, though, Anys focused on making in-game friends, selling and trading items, and dressing up her avatar. (She was Type-A in cyberspace too.) On Endless Online, a niche, old-school 2D MMO, Anys exercised her extroversion through her little anime avatar, chatting with strangers and figuring out what sort of person she was, or wanted to be. “It was probably the first time I really felt like I was part of a community that had very similar interests to me,” she says.

“I don’t even know how to explain the magic of MMOs to kids nowadays who only grew up with Fortnite. MMOs were truly like a second life.”

Games never serve just one purpose; they’re designed to sate several needs at once, like “method-acting your id on a low-stakes platform” and “being known without being seen.” MMOs gave Anys a rapidly expanding digital social sphere where she could practice performing her best self. League of Legends, which she encountered late in high school, clicked for a different reason. The competitive multiplayer game pits two teams of five against each other for control of a map; winning demands big-brain strategy, sharp reflexes, and a Sisyphean determination to succeed against snowballing chances of failure. League gave Anys a space to optimize everything, from character builds to timing mouse clicks, while simultaneously letting loose her more fiery, competitive side. “That kind of just took over my world,” she says.

Anys’ new obsession wasn’t isolated; League had spread like wildfire across the gamer-internet in the early 2010s, eventually buoying the rise of a new livestreaming website called Twitch.tv. Launched in 2011, Twitch was already attracting the attention of top gamers around the globe, who broadcast on the site for hours and hours. Call of Duty trick shots and military-grade Starcraft 2 plays drew in a dedicated, capital-g Gamer viewership that, by 2013, hovered at just about 200,000 average viewers across the platform. A live chat scrolled alongside each broadcast, where fans spammed emotes and newbies asked FAQ-style questions to the burgeoning class of micro-celebrities.

Always the extrovert, Anys approached Twitch as an opportunity to make more gaming friends, specifically with other women. (There weren’t many in her high school.) She signed up in June 2013 and picked the handle Pokimane, a portmanteau of Pokémon and Imane, as she would later tell viewers, sarcastically tapping her forehead. She felt she'd earned the right to stream herself only when she hit the platinum tier of League’s competitive ladder later that year. She bought a $250 desktop PC off a classifieds website, went on Twitch, and hit Go Live.

In one early clip from her channel, Anys’ face appears in a small box adjacent to her League window. Her character, Jinx, shouldering a rocket launcher, is defending her team’s nexus against five enemies. Anys is hyper-focused, her cheeks puffed out, as she snares one enemy and rockets them, rockets a second, lures a third into her base and rockets them, chases a fleeing fourth and rockets them, and finally, at low health but bloodthirsty, even a little arrogant, yelling, “Aw, give me the penta, dude!” teases the fifth deeper into her team’s base before rocketing them too. Anys dissolves into a fit of giggles.

On stream, Anys was bright, peppy, genial—totally unlike the stoical Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive streamers hunched over glowing black keyboards mumbling salty obscenities. She was a good gamer, obviously. And, obviously, gorgeous. But she also possesses enormous range as a human being, one moment screeching “FUUUUUUUUCK” into the microphone after dying to a turret in League, and the next demurely advising her viewers on how to contour with bronzer. She was aspirational, a not-yet-mainstream but natural balance between femininity and gamerhood, internet shitlord and anime magical girl.

At the time, Anys had enrolled in Ontario’s McMaster University and was studying chemical engineering. Freshman year, she balanced a 120 percent course load with a semi-regular Twitch streaming schedule, packing her classes into just a couple of 10- to 12-hour days and streaming in the afternoons or evenings three days a week.

It wasn’t just about making friends anymore; Twitch, for Anys, had become a part-time job. And it was beginning to give back what she put in: To pay for college, she had taken out over $20,000 in student loans. The more she streamed, the sooner she could pay off her debt. Viewers donated small amounts of money—$5 or $10 or $25—attached to messages (“sick play!!!!” “cute outfit!!!” “fuck u!!”), which she gamely acknowledged and responded to. Behind her, in view of her webcam, was a whiteboard filled to the brim with rainbow-written usernames, an ersatz donor wall for the dorm room set.

Many Twitch streamers cultivated patrons this way, earning a few bucks every hour to invest in a new graphics card, a professional microphone, maybe even an IRL bill or two. Select top streamers also benefited from sponsorships, at the time, largely from gaming-specific brands. These companies didn’t mind being associated with guys—and they were almost always guys—who sometimes shouted slurs in frustration in what are now euphemistically called “heated gamer moments,” or who wrote off their female counterparts as “titty streamers,” regardless of how well the women gamed. Culturally, Twitch was the pits. A lot of it certainly wasn’t brand-friendly.

But around 2013, mainstream corporations, sensing an opportunity to spread their reach among young people, had begun sniffing around the gaming world. They couldn’t have wished for someone more fitting than Anys. She was at once nested in gaming culture while also appearing trustworthy as a business partner. Soon enough, the brands came calling. Soylent. Audible. In one month during her sophomore year of college, Anys made over $10,000 from sponsorships. On weekends, she’d fly from Ontario to Los Angeles for a sponsored gaming convention, and then return for engineering classes Monday. “I remember studying for, like, my calculus exams the next day on the plane,” Anys says. “Scheduling was an art form. I was really trying to squeeze as much efficiency as possible into every hour of my day.”

“That was a very tough time in my life,” she adds. Anys says she only attended one or two college parties, and maybe a little of freshman week.

The next year, Anys struck one last deal with her parents over gaming: Let her drop out of college, for just one year, to pursue Twitch full-time. If she made it work, maybe, she could keep going. “I put together a presentation where I showcased my growth, my revenue increase,” she says. “I told them about how I was able to pay off half my student loans in a month.” Everything was coming together. She just had to keep trying.

“Please next guy have a mic, please next guy have a mic!” Anys prays to the chat. She is sitting in a Fortnite lobby waiting for her randomly selected teammate, Osamaonyourmama, to ready up. Anys’ chat had begged her to queue up with a rando, and they were about to get exactly what they wanted. “For the memes,” Anys says. After a pause, Osamaonyourmama confirms he does in fact have a microphone: “What, you fucking annoying little turd?” Anys squeaks out a laugh and looks at the camera with a face of, Get ready for this guy.

Anys possesses a quick, understated wit. Tossed into the unpredictable churn of random gamer teammates, her improvisation abilities are nothing short of athletic. As her avatar descends onto the Fortnite map with Osamaonyourmama, he asks her, “Do you have a big boob?” It was exactly the sort of chaos Anys’ chat craved. “One,” Anys responds, setting this guy up. Anys would later make a bet with Osamaonyourmama. Every time he gets a kill, he could call her “one-boob.” “I’m about to get 15 kills, baby,” he says. Anys, now in a triceratops costume, had created an engine of amusement, in which each kill brought her closer to winning while simultaneously making her cringe. It was a content machine, amassing 15.9 million views on YouTube.

Fortnite launched in 2017, and within a year it was everywhere on Twitch, usurping League of Legends’ years-long dominance. Epic Games’ cartoony survival shooter was exceptionally watchable, especially among kids, naturally building and releasing tension over short bursts of time as 100 competitors, armed with weapons, winnowed down to just one. Games oscillated wildly between goofy (astronaut costumes, bunny onesies) and dead serious (shotgun headshots, impossible snipes). As Fortnite grew more popular, it rocketed Twitch into the mainstream too. Suddenly, Drake was playing Fortnite with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, and Blevins was averaging 100,000 live viewers per stream. Everyone from The New York Times to The Ellen DeGeneres Show became curious about the new gamer youth culture, and to study it took a crowbar to the roof over Twitch’s little community of edgelords and weirdos to peer inside.

“I would be in the car driving somewhere with my dad and the radio host would be talking about Fortnite,” Anys says. He would turn to her and ask, What’s up with Fortnite?

Anys bet on Fortnite’s appeal early on, streaming the game nonstop as it took off. It was her first shooter, and while she was good enough to get the hype plays and clutch wins, that isn’t what set her apart from other streamers. Fortnite was just the canvas. Anys was the show.

Between September 2017, when Fortnite launched, and April 2018, her viewership tripled. Twelve thousand people were tuning in at a time. Anys knew; she studied her metrics. (But she tries not to look at her view count while live, to stay grounded.) Anys sometimes streamed as many as seven days a week for anywhere between one and nine hours, between operating her brand as a business. A small entertainment industrial complex sprung up around her: managers, agents, sponsors, collaborators, video editors, moderators. She was a main character in Offline TV, a content-creator collective that had taken up residence in Los Angeles. Anys came up with the name.

Everything had become a gear in her optimization engine: her Offline TV collaborators’ fans translated into her own Twitch followers; her Twitch followers into her YouTube subscribers; her YouTube subscribers into Instagram simps; her Instagram simps into customers for her new merch brand.

“She’s very organized,” says Lily Ki, another top streamer with Offline TV known as LilyPichu. Ki first met Anys at TwitchCon in 2016 and found her “intimidating.” “She knew what she was doing, like, regarding all of her content. She knew what she was going to do that day, she knew what videos were going to be made,” Ki recalls. “I was so shocked that she was younger than me because she just gave off a very professional aura.”

Anys spent years building her Pokimane brand on Twitch, and she remains relevant by quickly adapting to new trends—from shooters like Fortnite and Valorant to the social deception game Among Us, which she has played with US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The biggest key to Anys’ success, though, might just be that people want to hang out with her online. Vectoring her personality off games, Anys gives viewers the feeling of knowing her, of sitting on the couch with her, like she sat on the couch with her older brother, watching him beat Zelda. Before games, Anys spends time vibing with her chat, mouthing the lyrics to hip hop songs as dozens of messages churn through every minute, asking about her day, what she ate for breakfast, whether she saw the latest subreddit drama. Her bed is visible behind her, and sometimes her fluffy, blue-eyed cat Mimi paces into the frame.

“We’re all smiling together,” Anys said while filming a “day in my life” YouTube video to celebrate 4 million subscribers on the platform. “I think I just really like the feeling of being able to impact someone’s day, hopefully positively … In this day and age, we’re all just looking for ways to feel a little bit less lonely, and I think livestreaming does that really well.” She glanced over to her chat. “You know it’s true when the entire chat is spamming ‘TRUE.’”

Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, another top Twitch streamer and a friend of Anys’, calls this her “Dr. Poki stuff.” That’s when she sympathizes with chat, interviews people on stream, gets to know them. “It always leads to them asking to marry her,” he says, sort of joking. When we were chatting about Anys, Rinaudo was getting his second Covid vaccine dose in an Austin, Texas, Walgreens. A vaccine practitioner handed him some paperwork, which he filled out while continuing our conversation on the phone.

Rinaudo and Anys have a funny relationship. For a while, they played World of Warcraft together on Twitch. Now, they mostly co-stream in Twitch’s Just Chatting section, talking shit and playing “Dr. Poki.” Rinaudo’s abrasive persona brings out Anys’ sassy side. Watching her clown on Rinaudo is like witnessing a college softball player throw fastballs at a dunk tank. “That’s why I keep crawling back,” says Rinaudo. “Every time she talks to me, I’m like, damn, I want more of that. You know, especially with her viewer count.” Again—sort of joking.

Asked about what misconceptions people have about Anys, Rinaudo quickly responds, “That she’s funny. Put that in there.” He follows up with a more honest answer: “That she is only, you know, just her face.”

“I don’t want to get sappy with this crap,” Rinaudo concludes. “Just say that I think she sucks.”

In this new passion economy, where digital creators do what they love and are what they do, there is no “off.” In her free time, Anys is still playing Valorant. She’s still brunching with other Twitch streamers. She’s still testing out beauty products, reading Reddit, and watching cringe YouTube videos. Anys herself maintains that she’s been going through the same motions, more or less, since she was a relatively new streamer. Recently, in an interview with WIRED, she says she still has a hard time considering herself famous. “Perhaps that comes down to the fact that what I’m doing now is kind of the same thing I was doing five, six years ago, when I wasn’t well known: talking to my camera, talking to chat, talking to people online,” she tells WIRED.

Only now, those same motions are micro-investments in the business of Pokimane.

There is, then, a large swath of the gamer internet that views Anys as if she were the Twitch AI she jokes about—a human brand optimized for success. There has been a considerable and concerted effort among nobodies and e-celebrities alike to prove Anys is fake. Not fake as in “fake nice,” or fake as in “fake pretty,” or even fake as in “fake gamer girl.” Fake as in trying to be the most palatable and likable version of herself at all times. That trait seems like a natural byproduct of the modern entertainment industry, only exacerbated by the livestreaming business's suggestion of total authenticity and Anys' particular drive toward perfection. Regardless, YouTube creators with followings ranging from tens of people to millions have accused Anys of violating some unspoken rules of digital influencer morality.

The accusers are overwhelmingly men. Calling her “not a real person,” they rate her attractiveness on a scale out of 10, argue that she's not funny, not good at games, that she's lying about her relationship status. They hashtag their unfounded theories into Twitter's trending bar. They also accused her of filing copyright claims against YouTubers who criticized her, trying to take their videos down. The caricature of Anys as a buttoned-up internet idol—balancing relatability with professional opacity—has taken on its own narrative.

“Dude, shittalking Pokimane on YouTube is like printing money,” a top streamer said after a particularly brutal wave of personal attacks last year. He claimed on a livestream to have made between $5,000 and $10,000 from ads on one video about her.

“It could have broken down any person,” says Lily Ki. “Imagine having all of the hate videos made about you and endless comments when your life is pretty much all online and you're dependent on streaming online for a living. That is very, very difficult.”

This is how “drama YouTube” works, though: There is some controversy, spurred by the collision of celebrity solar systems or by a drama YouTuber’s bullhook. Borrowing a term from journalism, the drama YouTubers “cover” it. The subjects are forced to react, or even reengage with the controversy, which forms the basis for a second or third round of content. More videos by other YouTubers. Articles from digital culture reporters. Twitch streams dissecting the news.

Internet celebrities sometimes use the drama circus as vehicles for branding, or rebranding, themselves; it boosts engagement, refreshes relevance. As a master reactor, Anys knows the rules of manufactured controversies over manufactured selves. She could have engaged the drama YouTubers who went after her in mid-2020, taking ownership of her centrality in that day’s attention economy. She could have immediately made a response video and clocked a couple million YouTube views. She could have used the opportunity to reassert her brand. She did not. Instead, she went on Twitch to make a pizza. Wearing a floral blue dress and listening to pop music, Anys, whose stream had attracted 16,000 viewers, took a bite out of her pineapple slice. “I’ll give it a 2 out of 10.”

Publicly, Anys played it perfectly. (In an apology video, she would later repent for the copyright strikes; viewers felt it was so unwarranted that they filled the comments with banal facts about the Eiffel Tower.) Privately, says Janet “xChocoBars” Rose, another streamer and close friend of Anys who was living with her at the time, Anys had reached a breaking point. Not because of the dummy chuds on YouTube. “She just gets so much shit,” says Rose. Talking about it, Rose herself begins to choke up.

Over the last couple years, digital content creators have started to speak publicly about the pressure they feel to constantly work, and the toll the industry can take on their mental health. In 2018, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins tweeted that, during his two-day visit to the gaming convention E3, he lost 40,000 subscribers. Hell, Blevins said he lost 300 subscribers in the time he took to interview with The New York Times. On Twitch, high earner after high earner has confided to their audience that, actually, playing video games for a living—or more specifically, being “on” all the time, has made them forget who they are when they’re “off.” In August, World of Warcraft streamer Asmongold, who has 2.4 million subscribers, said there’s a big part of him that wants to quit. “I hate to say it, but I don’t want to deal with this anymore.”


Anys, too, is grappling with the effect her career has had on her well-being, material prosperity aside. She has wondered whether Pokimane had subsumed some of the most formative years of her life. “I haven’t given myself time to identity-develop, because I’ve spent so much time trying to please others,” she told Kanojia, the therapist, on-stream last May. “I feel really sad for myself. Myself at 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22.” A few months after that conversation, Anys took a month-long break—her first since high school.

“As I saw my career and my job becoming a larger and larger part of my life, I recognized that I had to find some way to balance it,” Anys tells WIRED, “and to kind of negate the mentally taxing side effects of streaming and always looking at my phone and, in essence, being in this constant feedback loop of comments and chats and other people's opinions of me.”

It would be off-base to say Anys has slowed down. She has, however, become more intentional with where she allocates her skill points. Late last year, Anys instituted a $5 cap on fan donations. It was unprecedented. “Thank you for supporting me to the point where I consider anything more than that unnecessary. To anyone that was more generous—please support growing channels, charities, and treat yourselves,” she wrote on Twitter.

In June, she signed a six-month lease on her own place and moved out of the content house. “I have been leaving my room too much,” she told Rinaudo on a livestream. “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of going out. I want to stay inside. I want to play Valorant for 12 hours, and I want nobody to bother me, nobody to look at me and nobody to @ me.”

Always ahead of the curve, this is Anys’ next frontier: to de-optimize. To embrace and explore parts of herself that don’t fit neatly into this all-consuming job, this totally coherent persona. This month, bare-faced after her skincare routine, Anys films a vlog for her third (or was it her fifth?) YouTube channel. She had realized something and wanted to memorialize the moment. She is ready to embrace something new. What it is, she’s still figuring out. But from now on, Anys is challenging herself to “just do what the fuck I want,” she says. “What the hell have I been streaming seven years for? What do I have seven figures in my bank account for? To feel like a slave to what I’m expected to do or the capitalist idea of always making the most amount of money you can? Is money really the thing I want to maximize in my fucking life?”

For all of these years streaming, she says, she’s been living to avoid regret. “I’m just a fuckin’ should-er. I’m always doing things I feel like I should do,” she says. “But avoiding regret does not mean you are pursuing what you want.”

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