The first time you encounter one of Stefan “TheSushiDragon” Li’s Twitch performances, you’re likely to cycle through phases of conflicting emotion: confusion, elation, bemusement — perhaps even genuine wonder. Armed only with a green screen, two wrist-mounted micro-keyboards, and more video effects than the entire Tim and Eric back catalog, Li has danced and gyrated his way into the hearts of his 40,000 Twitch followers. On a platform arguably defined by the “chill dude” personas of low-key entertainers like Shroud and Ninja, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Li might come off as a consummate performer letting it all out for his subscribers, but he didn’t start off as a streamer. He got his start on YouTube around 2011, putting out comedic videos that show off a flair for silly concepts and pinpoint editing — my personal favorite is this one from 2013, which depicts K-Pop as a parasitic force bent on world domination. Lured by the promise of viral success, he eventually moved into an apartment with several other YouTubers, including future megastar Jack “Jacksfilms” Douglass.
While his videos got some traction from viewers, and he was able to make a “sort of half-living” at it, over time Li began to feel that the landscape of YouTube was shifting towards mega-channels with millions of subscribers, rather than mid-tier channels with smaller communities. Though he says he enjoyed his time on the platform, he describes the current state of YouTube as “unsustainable, except for the top players.”
Discouraged, Li decided to take a few years off from making videos. Throughout that middle interval, he worked retail in LA while living in an apartment that was so tiny he had to do his dishes in a bathroom sink. In the meantime, he earned a little extra cash by filling out hundreds of online surveys he found on Reddit, earning two or three dollars a pop. But then, in 2015, he started checking out some of the streamers on Twitch — at the time a relatively new platform. He wasn’t interested in the high-level competitive gameplay; instead, Li found himself drawn to the performative aspect of the platform, with viewers and streamer playing off each other to create a unique, dynamic experience. He started putting away his survey earnings into building a new streaming setup, buying it part-by-part, all the while receiving emails from fans asking when he’d return to the platform.
Like most of his peers on Twitch, Li started by broadcasting popular multiplayer games like Overwatch. As his viewership began to grow, however, Li figured out that his fans really enjoyed his over-the-top celebrations when he nailed a clutch play or managed an impossible shot. These victory dances kept growing more and more complex, until he started to get noise complaints from his neighbors. At that point, Li moved his entire streaming setup into a closet to keep out the noise and converted his apartment into a makeshift studio, complete with green screen.
“At one point, I put on a very hype music video that I had created specifically for the stream,” Li said. “When I would get an awesome kill, I would just scream really loud — because I didn’t want to get noise complaints — run out to the green screen, and start hitting all these crazy keybinds for these effects. The green screen was the main thing. I already knew how to do green screen keying from YouTube, so I just did all these funny bits where I was dancing with senior citizens.”
i can’t wait when i get more time to start editing everything that has happened over the years, the way @FrizenWhat edited our dual stream I had with @awk_raccoon was gold and wouldnt have done it any other way #???? pic.twitter.com/RWusorwsX7
— S-DRAGON (@TheSushiDragon) January 17, 2019
Finding the Rhythm
As his frantic dancing grew more popular, Li began to cut out Overwatch entirely to focus on jamming to the dozen-or-so music videos he had painstakingly edited for weeks. Soon enough, however, he realized he was falling into the same trap that had plagued his YouTube career. Li’s perfectionist streak saw him editing the same videos for days upon days on end. Since YouTube’s fickle discovery algorithm prizes frequency of uploads over their relative quality, he felt like his skills were not compatible with the platform.
His solution was simple. Since Twitch is a live platform, he would allow his viewers to assign him random songs and then he would try his best to dance to them. No editing required. When his chat became flooded with requests, Li decided to generate a little revenue. If you paid him a dollar per minute, he’d bump your song to the top of the list. Very few people took that option in the early days of his chat, but when he finally got a taker, he knew he had to turn up the intensity to give them their money’s worth.
While it started off on a lark, Li quickly began to build new backgrounds and new effects to layer over his performance. After each stream, he would tinker with each of his tools, trying his best to make them as “immersive” as possible. He likens the process to making a video game, with his stream as a product in an “alpha stage.” Li says that his fellow streamers are essentially in the business of creating a fantasy version of themselves — a process he believes is endemic to our current age of social media. The difference, to him, is that his performances are honest in their goofiness.
“I would create a space background, and then I would sit in my room and say, ‘okay, I have to convince myself I’m in space for some reason,”’ he explained. “Just very small, minute details, but that’s how I create that suspension of disbelief. I’m creating a fantasy, like a lot of other streamers, but I try to be more open about it. Some people say to me, ‘this feels like a drug.’ That’s the power of that immersion. It’s kinda like watching a movie.”
Li says the channel is in stable financial condition now, but it wasn’t always that way. On top of his equipment breaking down every few days, he had an inflexible day job to contend with. He applied for a job as a waiter at a sushi restaurant, but he was streaming when they tried to call him back, so he didn’t end up getting the position. Luckily, he made Twitch Partner status shortly afterward, which put him on the path to full-time streaming.
Li admits his channel still has a long way to go, both in terms of viewership and his technical proficiency, but he’s looking forward to the future. Currently, he plans to build a backpack that allows him to take his unique performance out into the real world, “where the sky’s the limit.” To get the funds, he plans on streaming an all-day performance.
“Streaming is a form of self-improvement, because it’s live,” he concluded. “You can’t create this fake fantasy like you see in social media, and you have to improve, because otherwise it’s not going to go anywhere.”