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With outside the box productions, streamer Jerma985 pushes the boundaries of Twitch

The Twitch streamer known as Jerma985 steps up to the plate at a <a href="">baseball game</a> he organized between a team of clowns and another team of magicians.
2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
The Twitch streamer known as Jerma985 steps up to the plate at a baseball game he organized between a team of clowns and another team of magicians.

Updated October 18, 2022 at 2:51 PM ET

When you think of Twitch, you might picture someone playing video games with their face in a little box in the corner of the screen. You might not imagine a bizarre live event with real production value that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to create.

But that's exactly what the streamer Jerma985 is making a career out of: huge, elaborate, surreal shows that are pushing livestreaming as a form to strange new heights. And hundreds of thousands of viewers are tuning in on Twitch.

A real clown show: the baseball stream

In August, Jerma put on one of his biggest streams yet: a wild four-hour game of baseball between clowns and magicians. He'd scripted and directed it, but there was an element of the unplanned and unexpected.

That evening, an announcer's booming voice welcomed viewers to a stadium in suburban St. Louis for some good old-fashioned Jerma Baseball Association action: "Tonight, a big-time matchup between the California Circus and the Maryland Magicians."

A team of clowns in full face makeup — and baseball uniforms — ran out onto the field, and a mustachioed magician with a baseball bat stepped up to the plate. There were unicycling outfielders. There were Mario Kart-esque traps and sabotages. And so many players got thrown out for trickery and bad behavior that the umpire himself had to take an at-bat or two.

The man underneath all that padding and the umpire's mask? Jeremy Elbertson, better known as Jerma985.

Jerma gave the baseball game his all. He even took a pie to the face from a disgruntled player.

"When that show is over, I am covered in shaving cream and sweat," he told NPR. "I'm a disgusting mess of a person."

Jerma gets a pie in the face thrown in jest by a disgruntled player during his <a href="">baseball livestream</a>.
/ 2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
Jerma gets a pie in the face thrown in jest by a disgruntled player during his baseball livestream.

To create this high-production fantasy world, Jerma hired real baseball players, real circus performers, and actors from across the country who wanted to play make-believe, which wasn't always an easy pitch: "You all have to put on clown makeup and wear capes and have magic acts performed around you while you play baseball."

Once Jerma had a cast, he gave them an outline of the game, along with pages and pages of gags he'd come up with — although he doesn't like being called a writer. "I don't even have Microsoft Word," he said. "I open up the default Windows WordPad, and I just start to write stuff."

Jerma directed his cast, but he also let them make decisions on the fly. "It's like a live comedy improv show," he said.

And no matter how weird and convoluted his shows might get, Jerma is always looking for laughs.

"When I'm just calling balls and strikes and doing all these wacky things, in my mind I'm going, 'I hope this is funny. I hope this is funny. I hope this is funny,'" he said. "Not everything has to have a joke attached to it. Not everything has to have a punchline... You look at what Nathan Fielder is doing, right?"

Why Twitch?

Fielder is a useful reference point. Both he and Jerma are blurring what's real and what's not and playing heightened versions of themselves, and there's often a satirical bent to their work.

That said, Jerma sees himself as more "e-clown" than artist or provocateur. "I don't like to punch down. I don't really punch up that much either, though," he said. "I kind of just throw punches wildly in the air."

A player is forced to dress up as a baby by the opposing team during Jerma's <a href="">baseball livestream</a>.
/ 2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
A player is forced to dress up as a baby by the opposing team during Jerma's baseball livestream.

Bloomberg video game reporter Cecilia D'Anastasio said there are other streamers experimenting with in-person events like game shows, but Jerma's big, performance art-y events are unusual for Twitch. "What Twitch's bread and butter is, is a streamer going about their life quite casually and playing video games and just chatting with their fanbases," she noted.

So why does Jerma do these productions on Twitch instead of making a movie or a TV show? For one, the liveness of the platform creates a unique sense of unreality. For another, he said he sees the shows as a great hang for his viewers, and he values his relationship with his audience. "I'm coming up with a scenario that I think is a fun time for everybody," he said. "That's all I care about."

And of course, money is always a consideration. "Movies are expensive," said Jerma. "Way more expensive than trying to get a bunch of people together to do a show on Twitch for a few hours."

Building up to the big leagues

Jerma studied communications and video production in college. Then, in the early 2010s, he started messing around on YouTube with video gameplay commentaries and comedy sketches.

Several years later, he switched his focus to Twitch. He mostly streamed normal gaming stuff, which he still does plenty of, but he also tried a couple of small, outside-the-box experiments — like hooking himself up to a lie detector to answer questions from viewers, or staging a family dinner with strangers. As his ideas grew more complex, he found that there was a lot of trail to be blazed.

Jerma is confronted by the coach of the California Circus during the <a href="">baseball livestream</a>.
/ 2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
2ndJerma/Screenshot by NPR
Jerma is confronted by the coach of the California Circus during the baseball livestream.

"When there was an idea — 'Oh, I really want to be in a dunk tank and I want a robot to be able to shoot balls at the dunk tank and have it be controlled by [viewers]' — where do you go?" said Jerma. "Who are you supposed to talk to?"

Over time, Jerma built a team of collaborators, some from his tight-knit viewer community, and the events got bigger and bigger. There was a carnival with games (including that dunk tank) controlled by his audience. There was a treasure excavation in the Nevada desert.

Things hit a high point in August 2021 with the Jerma985 Dollhouse stream. Imagine a live-action version of the video game "The Sims" — on a soundstage, with a big cast and crew — and starring, of course, Jerma.

"The nature of that whole show was I'm a person in a house ... you get to decide what I get to do," he said. Over three days of streams, Jerma's viewers made him simulate eating, sleeping; they pushed him into a love triangle with his cat-boy maid and the Grim Reaper; they even made him fight a bear (or at least a guy in a bear costume).

The show was a smash hit. The third day of the Dollhouse peaked at over one hundred thousand concurrent viewers. That's a lot for Twitch.

Paying for pricey productions

Popular streamers like Jerma can make good money on Twitch and YouTube via revenue streams like subscriptions, donations from fans, and advertising and sponsorship deals. Jerma said his big events pull in plenty of that revenue.

But Jerma's big shows are way more expensive than sitting in a gaming chair playing Elden Ring. They may not be on the scale of a movie, but Jerma estimated some of his productions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, he has to find big money sponsors for his events.

He's represented by Evolved Talent Agency, which helps, and some sponsors are seeing the potential. Jerma said his shows are paying for themselves. For the Dollhouse stream, Coinbase chipped in, and the baseball stream received support from Fansly, an adult content and social media platform, and Manscaped, a male grooming company.

To D'Anastasio, the scale of these productions is just more evidence that livestreaming isn't an upstart, fringe concern. "It's not that the streaming space is maturing," she said. "It's that it has matured."

But even if Jerma's big shows are making money now, he knows there are no guarantees in the world of livestreaming.

"Nobody really knows how long this is going to last," he said. "Does this evolve and become even larger than it is now? Or does it go bust at some point?"

Why fight for a vision that's so hard to explain and even harder to realize — like making clowns brawl magicians on a baseball diamond?

"Why not?" said Jerma. "It sounds like fun, and it seems like something that could make a lot of people happy. So I'm going to do it."

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Alex Cheng
Alex Cheng is a producer for How I Built This with Guy Raz. Previously, he worked in the newsroom at Minnesota Public Radio and interned at NPR for Invisibilia. He was a house improv performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and he writes and produces comedy here, there and everywhere. He spends a lot of his free time writing, shooting videos and stir-frying vegetables.