It’s TheSushiDragon’s virtual world. And we’re just streaming it.
30 December 2021 | By: Matt Miller, Sr. Copywriter
Stefan Li is tinkering with a camera that he’s super-glued to a hoverboard that’s programmed to roll around at his command.
It’s not working.
“The camera has officially died,” says Li, who is best known on Twitch as TheSushiDragon, where he has more than 260,000 followers. It’s the early moments of a weekday stream in late October, and Li is getting his equipment ready as his viewers start flooding into the chat. He’s using voice commands to cycle between his multi-camera setup. But Camera One on the hoverboard is still giving him trouble. “RIP Camera One,” he says. Suddenly, Camera One jolts to life. “Ohhh no, he’s still alive,” Li yells, as the view switches to the perspective of Camera One rolling around behind him. “Okay, we can get started everyone,” Li tells his fans as the stream begins.
Technical difficulties like this aren’t a setback for TheSushiDragon’s livestreams. It’s part of the fun. His channel is a futuristic one-man variety show. Picture this: During his stream, Li wears Vuzix smart glasses where he sees holographic projections of his computer displays. Strapped to his chest is a screen that sometimes displays his live Twitch Chat, along with a DSLR camera that also gives his audience a first-person point of view. In his hands he has two controllers with dozens of buttons that allow him to direct audio and video so that he can create special effects on the fly. And, of course, there’s his robot camera on the hoverboard that he can switch between for a multi-cam, 360-degree immersive experience.
“Everything’s mostly powered by Velcro, superglue and magnets,” Li tells me a few days after the stream with a fussy Camera One. When he isn’t streaming, Li looks less like a cyborg, and instead of dawning his rig of tech, he’s wearing a jacket he designed himself. It’s a jacket that was built from scratch, much like his Twitch channel. “My show runs on the concept that what I feel, you feel. That’s my way of creating authentic content. There is no middleman telling me what to do. My body is the camera. I control everything – audio, video – it’s all in my hands.”
With the control in his hands (and the cameras on his body or hoverboards), Li has the freedom to run around the space where he streams, which is an 8,000 square-foot warehouse in Montana, where he moved to from LA in search of more space in 2020. The warehouse is equal parts a robotics R&D lab, consumer electronics store and an adult playground, with entire green screen walls, go-carts, mannequin torsos on motorized platforms, giant mobile monitors, smoke machines and an inflatable dragon.
TheSushiDragon’s shows usually consist of Li playing around with these consumer technology toys while chatting with his audience, intermittently stopping to dance, creating DIY music videos starring himself. There are interviews. There are mini-games. There’s an ever-present alt-comedy prankster vibe, inspired by Li’s heroes like Eric Andre and Jim Carrey.
With all this technology and the high-budget multi-cam direction of his stream, one might think Li has a film or robotics degree. That’s not the case. Just a few years ago he was working the floor in a discount clothing store chain.
From retail to real time star and director
While Li was hanging clothes at his retail job in 2016, he imagined the concept of a streaming show in which the creator edited his feed live for his audience. He started on Twitch in 2017 with a more traditional stream. He’d play video games with his audience, while live-editing what they viewed on their screens – meaning, he’d add special video and audio effects rather than just a static video of the game and his head. Li had success with this type of stream, as many other creators do. The beauty of Twitch is that it can be as simple or elaborate as it fits for the creator. A successful creator doesn’t need elaborate special effects. But, Li’s vision was to create a highly-produced digital world for his audience. When he did something huge in a game or won a match, TheSushiDragon would have big elaborate celebrations with special effects like breathing fire or turning his head into a cartoon character – these started to become his audiences’ favourite part of his show.
“I wanted to be the entertainer, rather than the video game entertaining my audience,” Li says.
So he started experimenting more and more with the computer programs and electronics he had on hand. How could he build different, impromptu worlds and new experiences for his viewers?
He started tinkering. He taught himself how to use all the programs and tools necessary to edit and manipulate his stream in real-time. His audience, meanwhile, helped him with the tinkering.
“As my audience started getting bigger, all these smarter college people who knew what they were doing were inspired by my effort and wanted to help,” Li says. “I spend 16 hours a day trying to change all these hotkeys and a programmer shows up and says, ‘Hey I can build a program that does it in five minutes. Some people want to donate money, I want to donate this program.’”
This programmer ended up teaching Li most of what he’d been trying to learn on his own. And as the technology and Li’s skills evolved, so did the show. Soon he had his smart glasses, his multiple cameras, his robot – and rather than using his controllers to play video games, he was using them to nail perfect camera transitions or queue up a canned laugh track. The way Li describes it, he’s in perfect lockstep with his show. He is the show, in a sci-fi sort of way. The technology helped him become more authentically himself.
Bringing brands into TheSushiDragon’s show
That ethos of creativity and experimentation has offered an interesting space for TheSushiDragon to find innovative ways to work with brands in his stream.
“I’ve done some really funny stuff that I can’t believe brands said yes to,” Li says. There was the sponsorship with BMW, where Li asked the team for visual assets of the car and used it to create a virtual experience for his viewers where it looked like he was actually inside the car and driving it. “Streamers don’t normally ask for more work to do, but I wanted to create something unique,” Li says. “I would hit a button and it looks like I’m driving this virtual car with chat as my passengers. It’s a new experience for viewers... that to me is the future of live entertainment.”
Li also teamed up with Intel to help turn him into a robot for his feed and made a live music video for the brand.
“The funniest thing was, my partner was in a green screen suit, and I had her hold the laptop. I was cracking up with my chat because it looked like the Alienware computer was floating while I was reading off the key points about the Intel CPU,” Li tells me. “I build these worlds to be as immersive as possible. And brands have that opportunity to create very experimental content that sticks with people.”
When Li started using the Vuzix smart glasses, he says the CEO reached out and loved how it was being used for live entertainment. Together, they decided to do a giveaway on one of TheSushiDragon’s streams.
“When I get a new brand involved it becomes an entirely new show, because there are new effects, new concepts, new jokes,” Li says. “People ask, ‘How is it that your brand streams are just as good as your normal streams?’ And it’s because it’s a new experience where the brand is giving me creative freedom.”
The creative freedom that brands and technology offer have given Li the opportunity to create content that he says is entirely original. His show is still evolving, and he plans to bring in more interviews, more VR experiences and more mini games. He also is working on another show, exclusively on Twitch, called TheSushiDragon Presents, in which he builds custom worlds for artists and their work.
And as technology evolves, so will TheSushiDragon’s show. Maybe this is a little glimpse into what the talk show host of the next generation might look like – smart glasses and robot hoverboard camera included.