Broadcasting video games is raising millions for charities

A packed room represents only a fraction of those tuning in for the weeklong fundraiser.
A packed room represents only a fraction of those tuning in for the weeklong fundraiser.
Image: Games Done Quick
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At a charity event in January, Chelsea Manning invited her friend, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the room. Like many of the guests, the conversation was informal in tone. Before leaving, Ocasio-Cortez said: “Trans rights matter. Trans rights are civil rights, are human rights.”

They were gathered to raise money for the non-profit Mermaids, a charity that provides support to trans-youth and their families. At the time of Ocasio-Cortez’s visit, the event had raised $200,000. Then, it raised $140,000 more. Similar situations take place across the world in living rooms, and hotel ballrooms, union halls, and even on TV. But this was different than a traditional fundraiser: it was hosted online, and the attendees were watching a 26-year-old stream himself play Donkey Kong 64, a video game.

Harry Brewis started the stream out of frustration that an activist forced the review of a planned, £500,000 grant to the charity from the UK lottery. Brewis, who games under the name Hbomberguy, did not expect to get much attention. He announced his marathon event by saying, “No one watches my streams or knows they exist, but the moral high ground is mine!” Ultimately, over half a million viewers would tune in across the nearly 60-hour stream.

Charities organized around video game watching are common to users of Twitch, a popular streaming platform owned by Amazon. Since streamers make money by accepting cash from their viewers, these events are a logical step for the medium.

It’s part telethon, part road race. Instead of trying to finish a 5k as fast as possible, the “run” here is playing a video game as fast as possible.

Twitch has encouraged this type of engagement by building features that allow streamers to direct funds to charities. Since 2011, it has raised over $130 million in donations, according to a spokesperson for the company. Donations exceeded $40 million in 2018, a 30% increase from the previous year.

Other notable streamers have raised money within the streaming community over the past few years. DrLupo broke a Twitch record with by raising $1.3 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The annual “Yogcast Jingle Jam,” has raised $14.9 million since the Yogscast started the tradition in 2014. And popular French gamer Zerator, raised $1 million to support Doctors without Borders.

Many fundraisers happen organically—like Hbomberguy’s. Others are planned strategically. The aptly named Games Done Quick (GDQ) organizes round-the-clock, week-long streams of players beating video games very quickly. Since starting in 2010, it has raised over $22 million for charities local and global. A quarter of its total fundraising came from events hosted this year.

During a Games Done Quick event organizers stream talented gamers playing-through a single video game while they try to beat it as fast as possible. Alongside the players is the “player’s couch,” a panel of the friends and commentators who, rattle off jokes, cheer on the player, and explain precisely what the player is doing.

Tickets to the main semi-annual events, sell out within a day, says GDQ Director of Operations, Matt Merkle. Next year’s winter event has is capped at 3,000 spectators. (Registration for that event begins today.) Meanwhile, the streams for these events bring in hundreds of thousands of viewers at any given time. During the winter 2017 event, more than 13 million unique viewers watched.

Games from the relay team after winning a relay race of Super Mario World. "One Tile Men" jump for joy after winning
Relay team “One Tile Men” celebrating after winning a Super Mario World relay race.
Image: Games Done Quick

Commentators will read messages from donors throughout the events. “Having lost both my mother and father to cancer, I’m extremely appreciative to events like GDQ. I saved my donations for one of the most entertaining games to watch,” was the message one $50-donor left. The average viewer contributes a $20 donation, according to Quartz analysis. Donor comments and guest from charities, help keep the focus on philanthropy. By the end of the week at GDQ’s winter 2019 event, the gamers at the Marriott Hotel in Bethesda, Maryland, helped raise $2.4 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. That puts it in the same fundraising league as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in New York City, where 10,000 participants raised about $2.5 million in 2019.

On Twitch, the game streaming platform, viewers kibitz in an integrated chatroom. The flood of messages range from emoji’s to inside jokes invented and perpetuated by the chat itself. The manic mob mentality of watchers can boost donations through self-generated hype. At the January 2019 event, chatroom members organized a flood of $5-minimum donations to coincide with one gamer’s run of Super Mario Odyssey. They called it the “five dollar train” Within fourteen minutes, they raised $140,000 pushing the event over its $2 million goal.

Hayley Cooke, a representative of the Prevent Cancer Foundation said, “in its nine years supporting the Prevent Cancer Foundation, [GDQ] has raised more than $11.3 million to fund research, technology, and community grants.” The founder and CEO of the foundation said, “the results are remarkable… with [GDQ’s] support, the Foundation is able to fund cancer prevention and early detection work that saves lives.”

Bidding wars are another staple of GDQ events. While mid-game, players often turn to donors to decide how to continue. For instance, saving the animals in Super Metroid. At the end of the 1994 Super Nintendo game, your character must escape before the planet they’re on explodes. As you rush out, you have a choice: Save animals that helped you earlier in the game, or leave them winning as quickly as possible. The choice is immaterial to you winning, but slow down a player who is trying to set a speed record.

In 2017, a bidding war over saving the animals or letting them die (affectionately titled “Fate of the Animals”) raised $794,000 in donations. The save camp won, edging out the let-them-die camp by $6,127.

Like most sports, these events are a spectacle to watch, even for non-gamers. Ultimately, they excel at what fundraisers are designed for: Raising awareness and dollars for a quality cause.