Inside Luxe Gaming, 'Egirl' Zoie Burgher's Provocative Streaming Empire

Inside Luxe Gaming, 'Egirl' Zoie Burgher's Provocative Streaming Empire

Zoie Bergher Jaser Adrian

In the face of harassment, bans, and torrents of dismissal and criticism, Burgher remains defiantly successful as she builds a dream team of streamers

In the face of harassment, bans, and torrents of dismissal and criticism, Burgher remains defiantly successful as she builds a dream team of streamers

Zoie Burgher has invited me out to her pool. It's just outside one of the gazillion doors that flank every corner of her alabaster castle nestled on the peak of a craggy bluff, deep in the ritzy, north San Diego County community of Escondido. This is agriculture country; you swing by a half-dozen farmer's markets and grocery plantations on the gentle zig-zag up the gravel sheets and hidden inlet roads. Zoie, in striped athletic shorts and a pair of furry magenta slippers, tells me that the thing about internet fame is sometimes it's the best thing in the world, and sometimes it makes you feel like you're losing your mind. It's early evening, and the sun peeks behind a distant mountain range that shelters the valley from the eroding ocean breeze a handful of miles to the west. She’s 21 years old and bought this place in April. The water sparkles against the bricks.

"Think about the entire internet hating you, think about an employer looking up your name and the first thing they see is 'banned' and 'sexual' and 'provocative,'" says Burgher as we sit in her living room, discussing her notoriety. I mention that it seemed like she relished that a little bit. "Of course it seemed like it!" she laughs.

Burgher was never trying to be famous, but she always wanted to be a star. That's at least how she explains it to me. Two years ago, she was a Florida State student studying international relations with an emphasis in Islam and the Middle East. But Burgher also harbored a love affair with Call of Duty. As a hobby, she set up a streaming rig and broadcasted herself to a small audience, scoring kill streaks in a cheeky Halloween costume or a lacy lingerie set. Sometimes, after donations, she'd balance a red solo cup on her back and twerk.

The fallout was immediate. To a certain class of regressive young men, the "twerking Twitch streamer" represented the ultimate degradation of the form. You can still find the bones of those earliest, frenzied takes if you scour the reedy YouTube floor. "Nobody would give a shit about her if she didn't show cleavage," said commentator Pyrocyincal in a video called "Zoie Burgher is Destroying YouTube. "In most of her videos her snatch is about two centimeters away from being shown." This is how the new media cycle works – high-traffic controversial trends are repeatedly mined by content creators for clicks – and Burgher did her best to maintain a sense of humor, even organizing a YouTube playlist simply called "who's roasting me now?" She understood that there's plenty to profit from in infamy, even when it hurts. But Twitch is notoriously conservative when it comes to user restrictions, especially for sexual content. As Burgher's reputation grew, the authorities handed down a series of bans, culminating in a permanent ousting last September.

But Burgher, ever resourceful, followed the path "life streamer" Paul 'Ice Poseidon' Denino took after he was banned, and migrated her channel to YouTube Gaming – the nascent live-streaming service positioned in direct competition to Twitch. Her product got more sexual, and her notoriety hit the stratosphere. Burgher has been a public figure for about nine months, and in that time she's generated 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, 641,000 Twitter followers, and a legion of Patreon donors eager to fund the cars, the clothes, the mansion on the hill. The tiered rewards on her pledge drive leave little to the imagination. $15 a month earns you a Snapchat add, $25 unlocks "exclusive booty pics," $100 for topless shots and a personal video. Her current stretch goal is earmarked to purchase butt implants. It's 81 percent funded at press time.

Burgher's work blurs the line between erotica and theater, pinup and show business. It's not the first time someone in games broadcasting has incorporated sexuality into their brand, but the results are replete with concessions made to fit the jurisdiction of the Terms of Service or community taboos. Though often described as a "bikini streamer," the term Burgher uses to describe herself is "egirl," a sardonic distinction that willfully embraces her titillating place in the industry. At her core, she is fearless; a businesswoman happy to use every resource at her disposal, and a good Call of Duty player to boot.

Burgher says the games industry is a boy's world, guarded by a legion of men who are "entirely allergic to any form of owning feminine sexuality." She knew she'd earn a fair share of controversy by using her body on stream, but it was still a way to carve out a piece of the pie all to herself. Burgher tells me that she was tired of fitting in with the masculine criterion established by the gaming community at large, and instead opted to stand out as a woman. It was a decision that’s made her life "really, really enjoyable."

The interior of Burgher's house is still only partially furnished. The room we're in is covered in frilly Neapolitan throw-blankets, like the set of a permanent sleepover. Across the hallway there's a massive projector blasting an HDMI-out signal on the eggshell wall, a collection of hookah pipes are framed against a glowing California sunset. Burgher bought this place to live her best life, but also to serve as the base of operations for her new gaming brand, Luxe. She describes Luxe as both stream team and pro gaming squad, and like most things in Zoie's life, it's only existed for a few months (it was formally announced back in April.) Burgher's goal is to recruit a staff to make up Luxe's core identity. Right now, there are four people on the roster living here, and each of them emerge from the mansion's bowels one by one to greet me: Abigale Mandler, a genial redhead and Burgher's former roommate, who jumped on board in the midst of her sudden rise to fame; Kiran, (who is better known as OMGLove and keeps her last name private,) a long-time member of the Call of Duty community who was drawn to Burgher after she sent shockwaves through the streaming world; and Linda Tena, an 18-year old in an Iron Maiden shirt who plays Call of Duty, Smash Bros., and creates makeup videos. Tena was personally recruited by Burgher after a casting call, and moved into the house about a month ago.

The girls on the Luxe roster have all adopted Burgher's business model. They clock time on Twitch and YouTube, and offer regimented and increasingly provocative Patreon tiers. Burgher makes it clear that this is all optional and non-coercive. While a significant portion of her personal income is derived from Patreon subscribers, she's sensitive about the limits of that paradigm. "I just see opportunities where girls have profitability based on their own image, and I want to help them own it without a man in between them," says Burgher. She references her time working in a nightclub, where she’d earn a paltry cut off the tables compared to the house. “I want the girls to make more money off their own image, and their own personality.”

It's important to note that Luxe is categorically not a pornography company. That precedent was established earlier this year, with the termination of Celestia Vega from the Luxe roster. Celestia, like Burgher, made her name by playing games, making videos, and issuing suggestive Snapchats. But in January, Vega announced that after she hit one million YouTube subscribers, she'd sign a contract with an adult entertainment company and embark upon a career as a crossover gaming personality and pornstar. Burgher responded in a vlog where she cut ties with Vega as diplomatically as possible. "While I'm not against sex work, there is a societal stigma that does affect real life. This can affect the stream team I'm created, the brand I'm trying to grow, and the people who are trying to grow through the stream team," she said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but society does."

Burgher is an executive at the end of the day. Her purging of Vega reads a little suspect given the libertine nature of her own content, but it's also unsurprising that she'd determine a partnership with the porn industry to be a bad business decision. But regardless of any modesty, Burgher's marriage of sexuality and gaming has made her a perennial target for harassment. The comments that dot her YouTube videos are both predictable and sad, and occasionally she gets in hot water with social media corporate authorities, (last month she was banned from Snapchat.) An often repeated argument claims that Burgher is setting a bad example for other female streamers. But that line of reasoning denies her vocational agency. "I paid my bills, I paid my parents' bills, it was all in a day's work to me," she says. There is no cognitive dissonance to Zoie's stratagem. She knows exactly what she's doing. But there's only so much she can do to shield her Luxe signees from any residual animosity.

A Lesson in Coping
Abigale Mandler is shy, and her Patreon pitch is torturously earnest. "Hi my potatoes! Thanks for checking out my Patreon! This is a way for you to see a sexier side of me while helping to support me!" In the months after joining forces with Burgher, Mandler has racked up over 200,000 Twitter followers and established herself as Luxe's de facto second-in-command. She's also a little more fragile than her boss, and wasn't prepared for the tidal wave of libidinous animus that filled her inbox.

"At the very beginning, it was really intense. I had anxiety constantly, and I was always looking at my phone," she says. "For your sanity, you have to just set down your phone sometimes."

Burgher knows her brand is precarious, and that her success will always be held against her by certain people on moralistic grounds. But it's a testament to her entrepreneurialism that people were willing to sign with Luxe despite the inevitable stigma. "I was just this controversial girl that no one had a good opinion of, but I grabbed a bunch of people together who had to go out on a limb for my reputation, and risk being associated with me," she says. "I had to put my care and love into them and make them feel like their trust was well placed."

The most interesting case is OMGLove – a power gamer at heart who's been competitive in Call of Duty for 10 years. On paper, she seems like the the type of purist who you'd picture raging against Burgher's supposed debasing of the medium. Instead, she's become one of her biggest cheerleaders.

Modern internet celebrity requires a 24-hour connection to social media, and for so many people, that relationship is toxic. 

"[Being a woman in the Call of Duty pro scene] means showing up to events with a huge disadvantage. You're like, four girls who never get to scrim pro teams because they won't give you the time of day," she says. "[Burgher] was doing something that no one has really done. I've never seen that on Twitch, she had this fresh new idea. It got her a lot attention. There were a lot of girls in the community who were saying awful things, but there were also a handful of girls who realized, 'wow, this is a girl who's trying to make her way into the community, and trying to do something in the community' Is it traditional? No ... but she's doing something for women."

OMGLove speaks with a steeliness unique to women who've spent a long time as a public figure in video games. She's seen her name dragged through the mud dozens of times on ancient message boards, and her coping mechanisms are honed to perfection. "I think about how hard it must’ve been for someone like Abigale," she says, darting her eyes across the room to meet her friend's. "When I was brought on, I was used to it. I knew what would be said."

"Yeah, I had no idea," replies Mandler.

That was the moment I understood the real reason why Burgher wants everyone in the Luxe brand under the same roof. Modern internet celebrity requires a 24-hour connection to social media, and for so many people, that relationship is toxic. No one should live under the soundless isolation of angry Twitch chat and baneful Twitter mentions, especially alone, in a bedroom in an empty house. When it gets too much, the Luxe team have each other. They laugh in real life. They live in an enormous mansion. There is no better support system than good roommates and video games. Sometimes, you need people to encourage you to watch the sunset instead of stressing over YouTube comments.

"When I first started out, it was so nice to have someone else understand exactly how I felt about myself. Some days, I was just like, 'I don't want to stream, I don't want to get online and get harassed by people,'" says Mandler. "That’s why I’m so excited that we finally have this house, because we can all go on stream together and we won't even look at chat. When Zoie and I stream together, we're just vibing off each other. I think one of the problems is a lot of girls stream by themselves."

Burgher's notoriety can occasionally make it seem like she's guilty of crimes greater than wearing a bikini on camera. But Zoie is innocent. Same with Abigale, same with OMGLove, same with Linda. They are simply negotiating the same clenched, masculine anguish that tails every woman who uses her sexuality to make money with pride. "I had my personal rise to fame and people reacted to it. The choice was negative," says Burgher. "They could've embraced the new sexual norm. Their choice was 'No.'"

The thing about internet fame is that sometimes it's the best thing in the world, and other times it makes you feel like you're losing your mind. Burgher walks me to the door and gives me some advice on how to reverse down the serpentine driveway that leads to the Luxe house. I tell her that for all the drama and treachery, living somewhere like here must feel pretty good. She smiles. All it takes is a night swim to remind the world that you're winning. Controversy will follow Zoie Burgher for the rest of her career, and she'll be laughing all the way to the bank.