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Tech Lab

Making a living as a professional video game player

Steve Serge is 23 and has 403,000 followers on Youtube and 30,000 Twitter followers.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Steve Serge is 23 and has 403,000 followers on Youtube and 30,000 Twitter followers.

From time to time, I pop up on a TV station viewed by thousands of Boston-area viewers. It’s a pretty sizable audience, but you’d hardly call me a star.

Steve Serge is a star. Indeed, STAR_ is his Internet nickname, which is only fair, since his YouTube videos have been watched 97 million times by fans around the world. They’re attracted not by Serge’s good looks, but by his exceptional skill with a rocket launcher.

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Serge plays videogames — mainly a popular shoot-’em-up called “Team Fortress 2” — and makes movies of the resulting digital carnage.

“I didn’t go to college,” said the 23-year-old Serge. “I just did this full time.”

Full time, as in for a living. Serge is a professional video game player, a midlevel position player in what’s probably the world’s fastest-growing “sport.”

It’s called “e-sports,” and suddenly it’s huge. The world championship of the popular video game “League of Legends” sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles last October, while 32 million more fans watched the showdown via the Internet. Even the reruns are hot. Gameplay videos are among the most popular shows on Youtube.

Indeed, one of the most popular transmitters on YouTube is a 24-year-old Swedish gamer nicknamed PewDiePie, whose profanity-drenched videos have been watched 3.7 billion times.

There’s also Twitch.tv, which shows nothing but gaming videos, most of them displayed live from basements, attics, and living rooms around the world. Anyone can transmit his or her games over Twitch free of charge, and about 1 million people do, while each month some 45 million fans log on to watch and hang out in game-centric chat rooms.

Twitch transmitters with big audiences are entitled to a cut of advertising revenues. With 1.2 million views of his live games, Serge easily qualifies.

He also gets a cut of the advertising dollars his videos generate for YouTube. Serge won’t say how much he earns, but it pays for his high-end computer gear, his apartment not far from Boston’s Prudential Center, and nights out with his girlfriend.

“It started out as a hobby,” said Serge, who began making his videos seven years ago. “There were quite a few years of doing it very insignificantly.”

He figures he can handle the pace for a couple more years before game burnout sets in, and then he’ll look into becoming a chef.

Serge pays extra to Comcast Corp. for an extra-fast broadband Internet connection, and he’s running a high-powered personal computer. The machine’s dual graphics-processing cards alone cost around $800, about $150 more than the total price of my desktop computer. Yet Serge thinks this heavy-duty rig is due for an upgrade.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Videos of his gaming exploits have had 97 million views on YouTube and provided Steve Sarge with a steady income.

Serge uses software called DXtory to record the video as he plays. He edits the raw footage down, dubbing in his voice where he describes his gaming tactics and cracking jokes at his own expense. It’s a lot of work; Serge recently spent about 20 hours creating a seven-minute video.

Live-streaming a game is much simpler, though initial setup isn’t much fun. You’ll need to download a transmitting program. One of the most popular, Open Broadcast Software, is free and can be found at the Twitch website. Many game-transmitters also use web-cams to show themselves in a corner of the screen, a decent quality microphone for doing color commentary, and even software for playing their favorite background music.

It took about an hour of tinkering to get my 3-year-old generic Dell desktop machine onto the Twitch network. But it was a good excuse to play “Team Fortress 2” for the first time in months.

After just one hour of kill-or-be-killed action, my video stream had attracted nine viewers. One of them was me; I streamed the game to my i-Phone. But if a lousy player like me can scare up an audience so quickly, there’s a future for this business.

Besides, getting your games online has recently gotten much easier. Sony Corp. built Twitch access right into the software of its PlayStation 4; the machine also supports a rival online video service, Ustream.tv. No need for costly extras; just press a button on the game controller, and you’re on the air.

Microsoft Corp. is adding Twitch support to its new Xbox One later this month, through a downloadable software patch. And Twitch is developing software that will let people show the games they play on their smartphones.

Soon tens of millions of gamers will be sharing their triumphs and failures in real time. And the best of them, like Serge, will become bigger stars than I’ll ever be.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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