Ferraris, Planes and Yachts: Virtual Gifts and Real Money in Chinese Live Streaming

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9:35 PM HKT, Fri June 30, 2017 5 mins read

Week 3. Here’s my fan counter:

If you’re still reading this column – in which case, hi Mom! – you might be wondering how big a deal live streaming (zhibo) can possibly be. Sure, I may have thrown around a few large numbers in my introductory post, but, I mean, come on: how much money can there be in a less-organized and far-less-talented version of YouTube where every video is essentially improvised?

To skip straight to the end – spoilers! – a lot. It’s a 4-plus-billion-dollar industry with rapidly growing investment from the big boys like Alibaba and Baidu. in, meaning there will be more money pouring into live streaming soon than coming out of the entire film industry in China – and let’s not forget that this country is single-handedly keeping Michael Bay’s film career (and shitty video game adaptations) going.

There are more people in China watching zhibo than there are people in America. You may have heard the horror stories of people getting plastic surgery in the hopes of winning the live-stream-lottery; but the zhibo community is not just a collection of vapid pretty smiles anymore. Online gaming – something with just a *tiny* bit of popularity in China – is moving quickly into the live streaming field. You can watch sports, concerts, hiking, fishing, and much more – hell, there’s even an audience for pearl-diving.

So the point is, it’s big. And though I’m sure investment money pours in from left and right, a huge chunk of the money comes from regular Joes and Janes (or Zhangs and Wangs, as the case may be) spending a little bit of real money for “tickets,” which can be used to send gifts to streamers.

And a LOT of gifts get sent – from little one- to two-ticket stars, eggs, hearts, and cucumbers (no idea, don’t ask) all the way up to multi-thousand-sticker Ferraris, yachts, and planes. Like any good app asking you to spend money on imaginary goods, Yingke (or YK for short, i.e. the zhibo app I use) is always switching up the gifts and upping the ante as more and more users join up. When I first started, the 1,200-ticket Ferraris were one of the biggest gifts you could send rolling across the screen; now, they pale in comparison to a 10,000-ticket firework display, a 13,000-ticket yacht, and a 33,440-ticket island paradise that takes up the entire screen for several seconds with an animated explosion of color and prestige (for context, 33,400 tickets is worth over $150 if you trade those tickets in for cash).

Watch a popular host for an hour and you’ll see them receive anywhere between a few hundred to more than a thousand RMB in gifts from their audience – and there’re several hundred *hot* streaming rooms going at any given time on YK alone.

Here’s what getting a typical gift looks like:

I’m not a math genius, but I believe that adds up to anywhere between a metric f@#kload and a cubic sh*t-ton of money.

Now, you’d think everyone would immediately convert these gifts to cash, but the masterminds behind YK have come up with a pretty brilliant method for keeping most of the money rotating around the system. See, everyone on these streaming apps has a “level,” with a little progress bar that is for all intents and purposes just like an experience bar in a video game (think WoW). Every time you give someone a gift, you get 10x the gift’s value in “experience” toward your next level. As you progress higher and higher in the level system, your name changes colors, you get little stars next to your profile pic, the system announces your presence when entering a streaming room, and you even (supposedly) get preferential treatment from the apps discovery algorithms. I myself just reached level 17, the first point at which your little number changes from a boring ordinary green circle to an exciting orange half-moon – and I’d be lying if I said the hit of dopamine didn’t get me amped up for my next “level.”


So, not only does investing your hard-earned gifts give you the rush of higher numbers and shiny prestige, the app tries to convince you that without a higher level, you’ll never get discovered by enough people to make it big anyway. And to a degree, that’s clearly true; obviously we have no idea how much or how little your level makes a difference in how easily you can be discovered, but the fact that higher-level folks enter streaming rooms with a shiny visual effect that essentially says “lookit mr./ms. important over here” certainly makes their engagement with the host more likely to result in new followers.

Maggie and Carlos: gods walking amongst mere mortals

And as with any good freemium service, you can pay to win – or at least pay to get ahead. Of course the idea is that you stream, receive gifts, trade the gifts for tickets, and then use those tickets to give gifts in turn (the gifts devalue when you exchange them, meaning YK is constantly getting a cut before any advertisers even enter the picture). But if you prefer to streamline the process, YK and other apps are more than happy to let you purchase the tickets directly. And believe it or not, this is actually MORE dangerous in China than America. Here, just about everyone – myself joyously included – has their bank account directly hooked up to WeChat wallet and Alipay; the cash-free world has arrived in China, and while it is a beautiful thing, it makes spending money on silly in-app purchases quite a bit more tempting.

“But why?” I hear you ask: “Why are people so into this? Are young people these days really so dumb that they’ll waste money on something this stupid? At least when you play Clash of Clans you get to tap some goblins to death – here you’re literally just watching people… exist…?”

At least, I hope that’s what you’re asking. If you couldn’t care less, here’s a picture of a puppy.

I know I started off citing the big numbers and overall trend, but I think Chinese live streaming is something that needs to be brought down to the individual level and humanized to be understood. This just my pet theory (though I’m not alone), but it seems to me that mobile streaming in particular invites everyone to share in the streamer’s un-touched-up world. Sure, the profile pictures may be weirdly altered and the host may have arranged some mood lighting and a microphone, but at the end of the day you’re interacting real-time with a real human being. Rather than watching a slick, professional, prerecorded video, live streaming gives you a window into other people’s – theoretically speaking, more interesting – lives.

It’s a lot like how the Let’s Play craze on YouTube (videos of people playing video games and joking around doing so) confused and continues to confuse people who don’t get that it was never about well-scripted jokes or insightful commentary – it was about simulating the comfortable feeling of chilling with a funny friend when you’re stuck at work or in the library, or when you just don’t have that funny friend. Zhibo takes that one step further by removing a layer of artificiality – sure, the host might not be able to legitimately engage with every single person sending them messages, but the interaction is both real and in real-time.

And here, I believe, is where we get to the core of why live streaming is so much more popular in China than America: fun social interaction is in high demand and low supply here.

Before I open myself up to accusations of racism or cultural insensitivity or general jerkitude, let me caveat: no, I’m not implying that Chinese people are nerds who don’t know how to have fun or that everyone in China is just such a gosh-darn studious worker that they have no time for partying or any other such nonsense. What I’m saying is simple and statistic-based: despite the near-miraculous pace of improvement and change here, there are a LOT of very unhappy and directionless young people in China. A whole lot of people are overworked and underpaid. Many face enormous family and societal pressure to achieve goals that are implausible – millions of students who will put in unbelievable amounts of work will never get into a good school; millions of men, through no real fault of their own, will never find a wife; and millions of women will never look the way every billboard and movie and ad tells them they must in order to find a handsome and rich husband.

Really sucks the fun out of these profile pics, don’t it?

Throw in the fact that just about everyone my age is an only child (we’re an anti-social bunch) and that most major cities are regularly blanketed by thick gray clouds of thoroughly depressing smog, and the zhibo phenomenon starts to make a lot more sense. Put it all together, and you may begin to see the value of a service that allows you to to pick up your phone anytime, anywhere, and waste a few minutes chuckling at a charismatic pearl diver, sexy weightlifter, cool DJ…

…or even a dumb foreigner trying to improve his Chinese.

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