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How TikTok creators are making money off a peculiar new genre of live streaming

Creators like Pinkydoll are gaining popularity, and earning gifts from viewers, for acting like non-player video game characters (NPCs).
Pinkydoll has become one of the most prominent TikTok creators embracing NPC streaming.Pinkydoll via TikTok

TikTok creators are embracing a peculiar new live genre in which they stream themselves acting like non-player video game characters.

Viewers of such streams become the puppeteers of real-life NPCs, which in the gaming world are typically bystanders in stories programmed to speak only from predetermined selections of dialogue options.

Creators can earn “tips” from viewers, who are able to buy virtual coins to spend on cartoon gifts that can be converted into real money. During NPC streams, gifts activate specific phrases or actions — performed with the same automated-sounding tones and motions every time.

The streaming genre got widespread attention when creator Pinkydoll went viral for one of her repeated phrases, "ice cream so good," which she says every time viewers gift her virtual ice cream cones. Pinkydoll, whose 553,000 TikTok followers include rapper Timbaland, has stirred so much confusion and intrigue that she earned her own entry in the database Know Your Meme.

Junxi Chen, a full-time Minecraft streamer who goes by NathanLIVE online, decided to try it out himself after he began seeing NPC streams on his For You page about a week ago. Always donning a straw hat, he dramatizes his reaction to every gift — loudly slurping a virtual ice cream cone or bringing chocolate strawberries to his mouth with chopsticks.

“I realized being an NPC streamer is kind of the same as a traditional streamer, where usually when somebody donates or subscribes, they say thank you,” Chen said. “But as an NPC streamer, the streamer will make a reaction to the gift as their way of saying thank you.”

TikTokers Natuecoco and Satoyu727, both of whom initially found success adopting anime character personas in their videos, were some of the earliest to pivot to NPC streaming. During their streams, they perform mannerisms and voice effects often seen and heard in anime-style video games.

To add to the experience of interacting with a video game NPC, Satoyu727 occasionally restarts an action before he completes the animation, which often happens when a player re-clicks on a character before it’s done speaking.

YouTuber Cherry Crush, known for her ASMR videos, also became one of the most prominent creators in the space after her NPC streams went viral this year. Her TikTok bio describes her as “Your very own AI Tamagotchi.”

In her idle state, she stares wide-eyed into the camera as she bounces like an NPC, occasionally expressing that she’s “hungry” to encourage viewers to send gifts. Some items will prompt enthusiastic acknowledgments of the type of food, followed by a baby-voiced “yum,” while other gifts, such as chili peppers, will cause her to reject them with a “no spicy.”

“Mm, pumpkin, yum. Mm, hot dogs, yum,” she says in one stream. “I’m hungry. Om om.”

Many viewers stay on the LIVEs hoping to catch NPC streamers breaking character. Some online have begun spoofing the absurdity of such streams, highlighting the disconnect between the streamers’ on-camera behavior and their real-life personalities.

Even as observers poke fun at them, the seemingly endless flow of gifts such NPC streamers have pocketed has inspired many creators to hop on the trend while it’s still hot. To many, the earning potential is worth the internet hate that comes with being “cringe.”

Chen said he was prepared for lots of heckling when he started. Instead, an average of 2,000 viewers stayed put at all times throughout the four-hour stream, and he finished having accrued more than 1.3 million views. He said it earned him $650.

Though his NPC stream earnings haven’t quite surpassed the income he gets from his Minecraft streams, Chen said he’s excited to continue pursuing the genre. He said he’s not worried about comments from those who disparage those types of streams.

“Obviously there has to be someone who wants to spend that money for the streamer to make that much,” he said. “It is hard to make money, and seeing somebody doing these things and making more money than the doctors and lawyers, I think, may be part of the reason why there’s so much hate going on.”