Lockdown has been a tough time for everyone, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s certainly hit the comedy scene rather badly. With Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s biggest comedy festival cancelled, and 77% of comedy venues in the UK set to close within a year, comedians have lost their main source of income.
One such comic was Bilal Zafar, who lost over 90% of his work after lockdown hit, leaving him with a cancelled Fringe show and nothing but uncertainty on the horizon. But then he turned to Twitch, at the recommendation of fellow comedian Limmy who has already built up a huge following on the platform.
“At first I just wanted something creative to do in lockdown. My plan was to stream a few times a week on twitch for a couple of months and if I wasn't getting many viewers, I'd find something else to do.” said Zafar.
Wanting to stand out from the crowd of gaming streamers that saturated the market, Zafar started playing Pro Evolution Soccer 2005 with the premise that he was the manager of the club. He chose PES 2005 partly because of nostalgia for the game, and also because his computer couldn’t run that much while also streaming the footage out to the internet.
But rather than just playing the game like your typical streamer, Zafar pretends he’s on the side-lines as the manager of PES United - all while actually controlling the game. It sounds fairly unusual by itself, but he’s taken the idea further by creating an entire world for both the players and himself to inhabit.
Using a green-screen, Zafar hypes the players up in the changing room at half time, reprimands them in the manager’s office, and takes post-match press questions via the viewer chat. This allows him to flex the improvisational comedy skills that would otherwise be going to waste in the lockdown world.
Characters all have unique personalities and voices that viewers have grown to love as well. Take, for instance, crowd favourite Castolo. he’s supposed to be from Brazil but speaks with a voice reminiscent of a person that’s eaten too many sour sweets. Peter Crouch meanwhile, sounds just like former cricketer turned Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. Zafar is not a voice actor, so the humour in each voice helps differentiate between them all and lets Zafar take advantage of his comedic skills.
Early in the streams, one player, Jarosik, was “summoned to represent”, meaning he was called up to play for his country. However, Zafar quickly improvised that he had been summoned to fight in a war, which instantly changed the character’s entire personality. When he returned in the next stream, he was playing terribly, had a terrifying new haircut, and kept talking about “THE HORROR”. A clip of this was shared on Twitter leading to Zafar’s viewership doubling as everyone came to see exactly what was going on.
The club sponsor is not Pepsi, but a fake version called ‘Peppsy’ that’s meant to be drunk at a boiling hot temperature. This came out of a joke while designing the kits, combined with Zafar drinking from a mug during his stream. One stream even saw the team go on a team-building day to a comedy club, where they each got on stage and performed a set. Zafar brilliantly improvised as each of them, coming up with unique jokes based on each of the players’ respective personalities.
Viewers are also considered the “assistant managers”, meaning they all get a say in what happens at the club. If a player is having a bad match, they let the boss know and they come off .They decide what the season’s kit will look like,and get a say at halftime in the “hotseat” - where one viewer is allowed to give a team talk.
There’s a freedom to the streams that’s almost like testing material on a crowd, however the key difference is Zafar is able to build on previous storylines to create more material - something that is almost impossible to do when you have a totally new audience each night. Here he has a dedicated fanbase that continues to grow through viral clips and word of mouth. It also offers a lot more instant feedback than he would ever get on stage, thanks to an average of 800-1000 viewers constantly commenting.
“Of course, the lack of a live audience will always make it a very different experience but I treat my Twitch shows like they are my stand up shows. I try to keep them as entertaining as I can and I use audience participation a lot more on Twitch.”
It has also brought in a new audience that Zafar wouldn’t usually get. With people discovering the stream through recommendations, it has allowed for Zafar to build up a new fanbase extremely quickly, essentially doubling his Twitter following since he began this venture just 3 months ago.
The stream has also allowed for Zafar’s comedian friends to participate. A good example of that is Josie Long playing the club owner video calling in from her yacht. Not only did this mean the two comedians could riff off of each other, it further added to the deep story of the club and gave Josie the chance to perform in a way she might not have ever done otherwise.
With the success of the stream, Zafar has been able to create club merchandise including football shirts with player names, mugs with Hot Peppsy on the side, and even baby grows. Fans had been begging for merchandise the entire time, but Zafar was still shocked by the demand and positive reception he received.
Part of the appeal is that PES United feels like a real football club, with equally high stakes. Viewers grow to love some characters for their personalities, vilify others for their poor playing or lack of respect, and actively root for the team to succeed. It might have helped that there was no actual sport being played when Zafar it first began, so this felt like another way in. But there’s more to it than that.
There’s a regular storyline, fans are able to interact and have a say in what happens, and it’s a way for everyone to churn out inside jokes with each other. Fans are constantly sending out special emoticons saying “class” and “tbf”, tell each other to “pardon the pun”, and call each other “good family men”, all of which sound like nonsense to anyone who hasn’t seen Zafar’s streams before. The truth is it’s a community that is able to get together multiple times a week, and at a time where we are unable to see each other in person.
Now that the characters are all established, the story has been able to adapt. One series of streams saw Zafar become addicted to putting Bonjella in his mug of Peppsy after a real-life toothache had him using it during the stream. He used something real to turn what we were watching into a melodrama and culminated in him being confronted on a golf course by players after driving erratically. And then they sang to him, which is funnier when you remember that this is all done live with Zafir working alone. It’s impressive work and leaves Zafar more exhausted than a real hour-long set on stage.
It’s not Zafar’s first foray into the world of internet comedy, though, and before lockdown he released a series online called Bilal Zafar's Acting School of Excellence. In it he played a spoof version of himself teaching other comedians how to act, and was funded entirely out of his own pocket with no return on investment. But the success of the PES United series now means Zafar has been awarded the highly sought-after title of Twitch Partner - allowing him to monetise his content through ads. This, combined with money from subscriptions and donations, has enabled him to supplement the income he would have lost being out of work, as well as what was spent making his series.
As it doesn’t look like the future of live comedy will be changing anytime soon, it’s inevitable that many other comedians will seek out new ways of doing shows. Some have turned to Instagram Live, others are using private Zoom links that require tickets to enter. While these options are safe alternatives, they do miss the freedom Twitch has provided Zafar. Both are likely to only be seen by your original fanbase, making it harder to grow your audience base. They also miss out on a lot of the audience interaction that happens on Twitch, and because of that Zafar seems to think this is the likely move for comedy.
“I think every comedian will be on Twitch within the next few months with stand up looking unlikely to return soon. So many comedians in the UK are incredibly creative and if they can bring that to live streaming, I think it could be a very exciting time for twitch.”
Whether other comedians will make the move to Twitch remains to be seen, but if they do, they’re going to have to carve their own niche and offer something unique, lest they vanish into the sea of comedians all offering the same sort of thing. With clubs closed, it’s not enough to just do a standard comedy routine on the internet. The online market is saturated enough as it is, and the longer the comedy clubs stay shut the worse it’s going to get.
In the meantime, Zafar continues to be part of a revolution that shows just what can be done with online comedy. And that’s class tbf, as his fans would say.