The Other Trump: Meet 'Hearthstone' Star Gamer Jeffrey Shih

Gaming superstar Jeffrey "Trump" Shih works 60 hours a week playing and streaming Blizzard's hugely-popular card game

Jeffrey "Trump" Shih is acknowledged as the first professional 'Hearthstone' player. Credit: Bram Vanhaeren

People can't get enough of Trump. They hang on every word of his social media pronouncements. He's a pioneer of a new kind of entrepreneurship, and he's happy to share the secrets of his success. He knows the rules of the game inside and out, but he's also a great entertainer. "It can be hard to divide the two," he admits.

But he's not the Trump you're thinking of. This Trump is Jeffrey Shih, a 29-year-old competitive gamer and streaming superstar, one of a growing number of people who are able to make a full-time living by broadcasting their gameplay footage with accompanying commentary to an online audience.

Shih has over 700,000 followers on Twitch and a similar number of subscribers on YouTube. He chose the "Trump" nickname as a teenager simply because he got a kick out of Donald J. Trump's showy management style on The Apprentice. "This was long before he became a presidential candidate," Shih stresses.

Every weekday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. PST, you can find this Trump on the livestreaming site Twitch, showing off his skills to an audience of tens of thousands, usually focusing on Blizzard's collectible card game Hearthstone. As he plays, he describes his sophisticated stratagems aloud for his eager audience, and keeps one eye on a chat window where viewers can post comments and questions, insults and absurd non sequiturs.

The stream is occasionally interrupted by advertisements, and Shih receives a tiny amount of money for each pair of eyeballs that watch. Followers who sign up for a $5 monthly subscription to his channel can avoid the commercials. (Twitch splits that subscription money with the broadcaster.)

He's highly skilled, and he was the first to play Hearthstone professionally in competitions. (He reckons that he's in the top 1 percent of the most-skilled Hearthstone players on the planet.) But he still derives most of his income from capturing footage of himself playing. He has a gamer's dream job, but it takes real work: He estimates that he spends 60 hours a week playing, setting up sponsorships, interacting with his audience and staying on top of the latest industry news.

Shih has viewed video games as a path to real-world profit since he was a child in the Bay Area, playing the massively multiplayer Ultima Online. "There was limited real estate on the map, and prices in the game go up like real estate prices in our world do," he says. "I made sure to get the best spots, and sold them for real money."

He went to NYU and studied business and finance. "The most useful class I took was Management 101," Shih says. "It taught me how to get the most out of employees, and that has a lot of relation to how to manage an audience, how to make everyone feel listened to."

His life changed when Twitch came along, and offered popular players a way to monetize. "I started getting paid to stream," he says. "It was really exciting!" He has an indelible memory of the moment in December 2010, when he got his first paycheck for playing in public: $2.88.

Some streamers get by on entertainment value and over-the-top antics: It doesn't really matter what they play because people tune in to watch their shenanigans. But Shih's audience is there to learn how to get better at Hearthstone. He was the runaway winner in the category "Most Educational" at Blizzard’s 2013 Stream Awards. Advertising revenue from his exhaustive YouTube tutorial videos are actually his main source of income.

Shih is a true creature of gaming: His very nature was shaped, he has said, by the character Aeris Gainsborough from 1997 RPG Final Fantasy VII. "I adored Aeris," he says. "I absolutely needed her in every party – I admired her support to the team. To this day, I try to emulate her warmth and her kindness." In massively multiplayer games, he always chose the roles of helper and healer, and the only jobs he enjoyed doing before becoming a full-time broadcaster were tutoring and customer support. Lucrative as they are, he sees his Hearthstone tutorials almost as a form of community service.

In the end, Shih isn't just playing Hearthstone, he's shaping its future, with the game's designers closely following his reactions. "He talks a lot about the design stuff, which is really useful to someone like me," says Dean Ayala, associate game designer on Hearthstone. "He's very invested in all the decisions that we're making. He's been out to Blizzard on more than one occasion giving his feedback, and we're listening to him."

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