Streaming, The Australian Media Landscape & Games at PAX Aus 2023- Couch Soup Interviews Back Pocket

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Rohan Elliott
| March 20, 2024
hello world!

During the madness that was PAX Aus 2023, along with checking out some great indie games and getting a good look at the back of my head through a video camera, I managed to wrangle Peter Burns and Stephanie Bendixsen of the Australian streaming group Back Pocket. Thankfully, they were very accommodating… they were even willing to stand on the big red X while I untangled my big net. 

After I had pulled my back out, dragging them to a quieter area, we’d negotiated the payment terms for their on-camera appearance. We set it all up and got to talking. Before we jump into this, a big thanks to both Steph and Pete for their time and for making it a lot of fun for this nervous writer.

For those of you who prefer written content over video content, you can read the full interview down below.

For our non-Australian friends over the sea or people that aren’t sort of up to date with the Australian gaming landscape, Can you give us a bit of background about Back Pocket and how this all came about?

Pete: Yeah. For sure, Back Pocket, it’s a gaming variety show. It was built in and it’s made in a studio that we have for our production company. We film shows in there and we do live streams out of there. When COVID hit, we had the space, and we didn’t have a lot of work happening, so we were like, we should use the space, and we should make something. We love video games, we’ve worked in the video game industry in television before, Steph in particular, who I’m sure will tell you that side of the story. We had an audience from other shows that we’ve made for ABC (which is PBS for everyone watching in America) and another network (Seven Network), and so that audience kind of was excited to see what we would do next.

Thankfully, with something that we’ve made ourselves so no network can cancel it, and ratings aren’t a massive issue; it’s just about something that we get to do for ourselves that we enjoy with the gear and the studio and the space that we have that we are very fortunate enough to have through the production company that we run. It facilitates being able to just play video games and come to PAX and, you know, have a great time.

Steph: It’s cool to make something with I guess, television broadcast experience but for the Internet. That feels a lot more loose, so we can kind of put as much professionalism into it as we want. We can make feel more cooler and more produced, but it can also just be loose AF and everyone just kind of hangs out and has a good time. It’s the best of both worlds really.

You guys mentioned you previously worked in other shows prior to Back Pocket. Do you mind filling us in a bit more about that time?

Steph and Co-Presenter Bajo from ABC Good Game

Steph: Yeah, sure. I was seven years at the ABC, so it was my first job in television, on a video game review show called Good Game, that’s where we (Pete) met, and it was kind of like an Australian gaming institution. We had a show for adults and then we had a kids version of the show as well where we did Mario and Minecraft and stuff like that on there. We had two audiences that really loved games but were sort of at different age groups that I guess over the years have followed the stuff that we’ve done, which has been really cool. 

So once we left the ABC and we had the opportunity to make something, particularly as audiences were moving online, we I guess created Back Pocket to create a home for the the wonderful community that we built in television over all those years. It was a way for us to keep working together because we all kind of couldn’t leave each other alone, I guess.

Pete: Yeah, and we didn’t know if we were making a good Twitch show when we started making it. Because Twitch is, inherently, really intimate and about, for the most part, it’s a person in their bedroom, and they’re just communicating with chat constantly. That was, and I think still is, the predominant way that people use Twitch is to have a dialogue with their chat. I mean, that’s how you sit in a room as one person and stay sane. Staying live for eight hours, you’re at least communicating with other human beings through the chat. 

We were like, we come from an entertainment television background. We want to make something that makes sense to a Twitch audience, but we aren’t the people that sit and play games at home with a camera on us and chat to people while we’re doing it; I still find that really hard. I do it on our channel, but I’m not good at it. But when we do the show in the studio, we have a cast of our staff and our team, but we bring in guests as well, and it’s just a really awesome opportunity to just have a discussion.

The chat has gotten used to the fact that they’re a little “second fiddle” in that Back Pocket in that they are enjoying each other’s company while the show is happening as opposed to us always engaging with them and we build segments that engage with them and if someone comes up with a corker and we see it in chat cause we’ve always got the chat feed going, well, you have to shout that out because that’s gold. For the most part, it’s an in-studio show, and we bring in the audience where it makes sense. So it’s a little bit different to most Twitch stuff in that aspect.

Steph: And chat has the opportunity to become kind of central characters in the show because we get to know people so well just from turning up every week, and people submit stuff into the show as well just to be a part of the show. We also have a Patreon where people can submit more stuff, or we’ll make them a commercial, like a parody TV commercial, which is pretty cool. 

It was a weird shift coming from TV to live broadcast on Twitch because, for me at least, I had a lot of learnt TV presenter behaviour that I kind of had to unlearn for Twitch. No one is watching Twitch because they want to see someone present the way you do on a normal TV show, and that was really hard because I’m so used to looking down the lens being like, “Hi, welcome.”-

Pete: -And we toyed with autocues and stuff, and it just didn’t make sense.

Steph: It feels antithetical because who wants to hear me just talk as myself like normal? That feels unenergetic and unexciting, but actually, it’s more appealing because it feels more natural and more honest, I suppose than something that is overly polished and crafted. I’ve learned now to kind of let that go. Now, it’s a question of stopping myself from saying too much.

You sort of touched on some of the issues you had jumping from TV to streaming. Were there any other larger fundamental issues you had when you originally started streaming?

A variable who’s who of guests on Back Pocket

Pete: Not really. We definitely had those considerations about how this is going to make sense on the platform, and once we realised that it did, the big challenge for us is that it’s expensive for us to turn on the studio, to bring our staff in, to make sure everyone getting paid and we’re not gonna go out and try and get client rates to make this thing, we’re making it because we want to. We crowdfund through Patreon and we developed a system that means we owe the audience. You see the same thing with Subs (subscriptions), and we don’t encourage subbing on our channel; really, we’re like, go to the Patreon because it makes more sense for what we’re doing. There’s that dynamic that you do end up owing your audience because they’re committing to something, they’re paying their hard-earned money to you, there’s an expectation.

We’re managing a business around this fun show that we’re making as well, and when we need to move the day for a job, that means that half the team need to be in Perth to do a live stream for some client, we can’t do the show. We don’t have the resources to do both, so there’s the “so sorry, Back Pocket audience, we need to do this thing, we’re going to make it up to in these ways. That was something that we hadn’t had to navigate with television that really close relationship with the audience.

We made shows that tried to have a community like for television, and that developed, and that’s why there’s an audience for Back Pocket now, but it was never the same instant communication. The discord is like someone posts something, and they’ll get an answer in the next, you know, 20 minutes, if not from us or our team, then from someone else in the discord. It’s a little bit self-managed now; I mean, it’s a lot self-managed because the community we have are amazing, and they care about each other and they care about the show. They do so much of the heavy lifting for us in terms of keeping themselves happy.

Steph: I think that everyone is aware of the fact that it takes a lot to put on Back Pocket as opposed to what a lot of people are doing on Twitch, and they’re very forgiving when there are times when we have to pair back a bit or shift things around because I think they’re just happy that the show exists, and they want to keep it going. We try and make it up in other ways when we can, and I think for me, it’s all just personal stuff. Live streaming is so different because I got used to seeing my face on television, like 30 minutes a week or like an hour for the kid’s show as well. It was edited by someone else, and I was just focusing on the games and the production side of things. I would film for like a day, and the rest of it was all production.

Now, live streaming, you’re live on camera for such a long time, and you have to kind of be ok with how you are for that long duration, and then it’s just this constant self-promotion outside of that to make sure that people are aware of what you’re doing consistently going forward, and I find that really exhausting. I get sick of seeing my own face. I can’t imagine how other people must be, but it’s part of it, and you can’t not do it. Otherwise, you just kind of fade away. I find that side of it super hard.

Pete: Totally, and that’s true for everyone who’s on Twitch or an influencer in any way on any other platform. The people that we know that do the same thing, they have that same hurdle, that same challenge. The amount of energy that goes into self-promotion is exhausting, and it can feel so vain sometimes, but it’s just baked into what is now a career path for a lot of people. So yeah, it’s an interesting thing to navigate. If you’re thinking about doing it, know that your face will be on camera a lot. A lot, even with pimples.

How do you keep things fun and engaging for yourself and the audience to avoid burnout? 

Steph: I think Back Pocket for us kind of is the solution to that in many ways, even though it’s a lot of work to put it all together. The reality is for most of us, our income comes from other work. Pete with his production company, and for me I do sponsored work outside of Pocket. Back Pocket is not a revenue thing for me at all; It is a sanity thing for me. It is how I can stay creatively fulfilled and feel good about the industry that I’m in, and share that with people and have it not be about sports and stuff all the time. I think also as our team has grown, it’s made it a little bit easier. Some of us can kind of step back a little bit. Whereas initially, it was just kind of-

Pete: -we’re all producing all the ideas and creating the assets that make those ideas work and, lights, cameras, action, and everyone needs to be there on the day. Now, if someone needs a week off, we can provide that because we have enough backfill to make that work, which is great.

Steph: And bringing in some guests and stuff has meant that the show is fresher, but also it gives someone a chance to have a night off which is cool too.

Pete: For me, I just love being able to play with the toys, and the toys are the cameras and the gear. We do a bunch of client work, but doing a show for Back Pocket is so low-pressure. It doesn’t matter if the wheels fall off if things break, so we can go, “oh, this could be a fun thing to do in a live stream scenario. Let’s create a version of it that makes sense for Back Pocket, and if it works in Back Pocket, it could work in another show as well”, and we just get to play with it and tear it apart. That’s always a lot of fun.

Steph: It gives us space to experiment with dumb ideas, and the audience are just so there for it, whereas we wouldn’t want to take that risk on a client job.

Pete: And we’re full of dumb ideas.

What are your favourite moments from Back Pocket so far?

Back Pocket and fun with green screens

Steph: Oh man, I feel like for me from a production standpoint, I really love any of the green screen stuff we do. I feel like it’s allowed the team to be performatively creative, and it feels kind of sketch-showy and really fun and cool, and I just love it. I love seeing what people come up with in the moment.

I think my favourite moment is just anything that involves the community. Last year at PAX, we had a live show for Back Pocket, and we had a kind of talent show, I guess. We had a bunch of community members come up on stage and do a musical performance with different instruments, and they just got together and rehearsed it. Most of our community have met through Back Pocket or through Good Game. To know that people have come together because of this community and then just created this beautiful art on stage in front of everyone and friendships as well. Yeah, I cried. It was really sweet.

Pete: For me, this year in particular, we’ve had so many guests come through, and the people that are on Back Pocket have worked together for over a decade, so we know the joke before it gets said. Having guests on it’s just a different flavour; a different dynamic, getting to meet people as well and kind of get to understand how they work in their space. And people like T10 Nat, who are a generation different to us, but we watched their content, and it’s just a delight. So, to have her on the couch was heaps of fun. Everyone we’ve had through just brings a different energy and that is really fun for us because we’re so used to our dynamic.

Hiring people like Ruby Innes, who was formerly at Kotaku and just a menace on Twitter, and she was a guest on the show and the dynamic that we had, the chemistry that we had with her immediately was like we need to hang out more. Then the opportunity came up to hire her, and we’re like, come work for us, please.

Steph: And she’s such a specific nerd for the weirdest things. She’s from another planet, and it breathes life into the show in a really cool way.

What are you hoping for Back Pocket going forward in the future?

The current Back Pocket team

Pete: For me, and this has always been the goal, to build something sustainable. That this show can go on without us and become part of the Australian games media landscape in a way that new talent can come across, and that brings a new audience, and it brings value not just to an audience but to the game development scene. We try to get game developers on the show as often as we can, and talk to them about their games, and just become an important part of the media landscape in an entertainment way.

We’re never going to be a news outlet; we don’t want to be that. We want to be an entertainment outlet, and yeah, we’re building slowly. It’s a small market in Australia, but the fact that we’re able to support it with community support and with a business that has the resources to make it work, it’s just a really fortunate position to be in. So we’ll keep it going as long as we can and hope it builds into something that you know is sustainable.

Steph: And just grow the team and add more voices to it. I think that would be awesome. That’s my hope.

Again, big thanks to Pete and Steph for chatting with us and even taking the time to try to sign my net! I mean, I probably should have realised Sharpies don’t quite work well with burlap.

Are you excited to check out Back Pocket? Were you a member of the Good Game or Good Game Spawn Point crew back in the day? Let us know in the comments below. 

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