Violence becomes him. Stalking through the wild grass and brutalist concrete wilderness of Tarkov, he’s implacable, the unstoppable force you’ve always secretly wanted to see come up against an object that claims to be immovable. He sees an enemy unaware. He snarls. The sights come up instinctively. In the pause before the man drops, you can see the Doc smile and his mouse twitch.
If you’ve ever seen an action movie, you already know Dr Disrespect (no dot because, if what I overheard is correct, the medical profession does not like those outside it stealing its valor). The army boots. A jet-black mullet wig and a dyed mustache. Mirrored sunglasses. A villain that’s as familiar as he is menacing. We know him. We know what he wants. And that’s why he’s probably the most important persona in the internet’s extended streaming universe: the Doc is the future of live entertainment.
Currently, the Doc is in a nondescript building in Glendale, California. Over the course of two days, the cockpit of a helicopter has taken shape in the middle of a very large soundstage, an assemblage of ‘80s-era buttons and dials and a generous amount of black paint. It’s all because Doc is here to shoot a hype video for his latest announcement: he’s re-signed to Twitch for an exclusive two-year contract — for a lot of money.
The precise figures haven’t been disclosed. Here’s what he has to say about it: “Let’s just say, when I first started streaming, was something like this fathomable? If it was, you’re dreaming really, really big. To me, it’s pretty shocking, and it’s very obviously life-changing, rewarding.”
When the mullet wig comes off, the man underneath has fashionably cropped salt-and-pepper hair. This is Herschel “Guy” Beahm who stands 6 feet, 8 inches, taller than a 2017 Toyota Sienna. Or a pony. As Dr Disrespect, Beahm is somehow even taller, though that could just be the army boots.
You could sum up Doc’s appeal with one of his catchphrases: “Violence! Speed! Momentum!” Twitch, on the other hand, is harder to explain. It’s a platform that lets anyone stream themselves doing just about anything that falls within the company’s terms of service — which is to say, if you’re following all applicable local laws, you’re probably just fine. (Though nudity, even if it’s partial, is frowned upon by the powers that be.)
But if you log on to Twitch right now, what you’ll mostly see is people playing video games. The view counts vary, but the basic visual format is pretty much the same: most of the screen is taken up by the game. And then, in an unobtrusive corner, you can see the streamer, live, wherever they’re broadcasting from. Most people are playing themselves.
Beahm, on the other hand, is playing the Doctor, which means there’s a real distance between the mustache and the man behind it. As the character, his broadcasts combine a mix of over-the-top CG graphics, played over a series of green screens in his house; they show a nightmarish cyberpunk-y landscape, all blacks and grays and reds, where Doc seems to live. There’s a sinister sports stadium with a locker room that Doc hangs out in; he sometimes appears to drive a 1990 Lamborghini Diablo VT, though it never goes anywhere, not really. The landscape is totally devoid of other people, and it is always night. It looks like an adolescent boy’s id.
And as a character, Doc is purely id. He’s based on the bad guys, on one bad guy more than any of the others: Fender Tremolo, the archvillain of 1989’s Cyborg. Fender leads a gang of pirates; he’s ripped but not roided out, with dreadlocks and intense blue eyes that peer from behind blacked-out sunglasses. He has authority, and he uses it to literally crucify Jean-Claude van Damme. “It was like a post-apocalyptic world and he’s the one that dominated this world. There was just something about him,” Beahm says.
In the end, Fender dies impaled on a meat hook. “I’ve always wanted a movie where the bad guy came out on top. It would shock the world.” Dr Disrespect is the villain who could finally win.
Over the last four-ish years, the Doc has risen through Twitch’s charts to become one of the biggest streamers on the platform. He performs to a live audience of more than 20,000 people during any one of his regular streams, which is good enough to make him the 10th-most-watched channel on Twitch, according to Twitchmetrics, a site-wide stat tracker. He’s racked up nearly 4 million followers there since he joined the site about four years ago, and his streams have landed him a TV development deal with Skybound.
That leaves Beahm and Steven “Stev” Lawson, Beahm’s manager and a business development executive at Boom.tv, dreaming about the character’s potential. “I think the brand is going to become the Batman of the future generations in 10, 15, 20,” Lawson says. “Now I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get there, but that’s where I see the brand going.”
The Doc’s rise, however, couldn’t have taken place without online streaming. He has a long history with Twitch; he joined as a viewer when it was called Justin.TV to watch Call of Duty pros throw down. (The name change occurred in February 2014.) Historically, Twitch has been the best place for people to live-stream themselves playing video games — “twitch” referring to the term “twitch gameplay,” which is gaming that tests a player’s reaction time — and their lives, too. In the beginning, Justin.TV was a place where the founder, Justin Kan, streamed himself live just about every minute of every day. By the time of its acquisition by Amazon in August 2014 for nearly a billion dollars, Twitch had focused entirely on capturing the nascent live-streaming market.
Of course, Twitch isn’t the only live-streaming platform, and lately, it’s been fielding some real competition. There’s Mixer, a streaming service Microsoft acquired in 2016 back when it was called Beam. There’s Facebook, which has begun to throw its weight around in Facebook Gaming; Fox has backed another competitor called Caffeine. DLive is a blockchain-based platform that doesn’t yet make sense — as a business, a value proposition for creators, or a place for audiences — that appears to be going after the segment of audiences who like to hodl. And then there’s the real elephant in the room: YouTube Gaming, which already gets most live-streamed content from creators as VODs uploaded to those creators’ channels.
Demand for streamers, naturally, has shot up, which has kicked off a war for talent. And Microsoft fired the first shot.
In August 2019, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the most famous gamer in the world, announced he would stream exclusively on Mixer, reportedly for a figure between $20 and $30 million. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, the most famous YouTuber in the world with 103 million subscribers, signed an exclusive deal with DLive in April 2019. YouTube Gaming stole Jack “CourageJD” Dunlop from Twitch at the beginning of November, and Facebook Gaming picked up Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang at the month’s end.
Streamers are valuable because they make everything people want to consume on a platform. That means the stakes are existential for platforms. Twitch’s default partner contract has an exclusivity clause, but when those contracts expire, anything goes. Many of the biggest names on Twitch have left for greener pastures — literally. Besides Ninja, Cory “KingGothalion” Michael, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler have also departed after being offered extravagant sums of money.
In January, reporting in Kotaku broke some of the secrecy around these deals. For Blevins, Twitch counter-offered $15 million for a three-year commitment; Mixer and Facebook, on the other hand, came in around $20 million per year. Grzesiek’s deal was worth less than Blevins’ but was still worth tens of millions. In response, Twitch has been re-signing its own streamers, Doc included. Imane “Pokimane” Anys, one of the most popular variety streamers on the entire site, re-signed with the platform for a reported $4.5 million. It also kept Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, Timothy “TimTheTatman” Betar, and Saqib “Lirik” Zahid — all huge names who draw big audience numbers whenever they’re live.
Sometimes it seems like anyone who’s amassed a following can get themselves to the bargaining table and then win — or at least cash out. That brings us to Beahm: if Dr Disrespect didn’t re-sign with Twitch, it would have been a real sign of the company’s vulnerability.
Beahm is important to Twitch because he’s important to millions of people around the world, and that makes his decisions worth millions of dollars. Twitch is also important to Beahm. “It’s the platform of my choice simply because it’s embedded,” he says. Beahm was approached with a partnership relatively early, in February 2016, a little under a year since his first stream on Twitch, which was in May the year before. He cites it as a sign of mutual respect. “They just saw the potential of this guy,” he says, meaning his spirited alter ego. “Because, again, he’s such a different type of streamer. He’s unique, he’s over the top and can feel like he might be a little threatening or dangerous, in terms of an investment.”
That’s true; the character does feel dangerous, even if that danger is mostly to the flow of brand dollars on the platform. Last year, the Doc got banned from Twitch for two weeks and had his E3 pass revoked after he ventured into a bathroom while he was live on Twitch. While he was live, it didn’t even cross his mind that streaming live from a bathroom was wrong; now, Beahm says he understands why what he did was wrong, even if he didn’t intend to do anything wrong. “If my kid was in there, I wouldn’t want him to be filmed by this guy and his camera crew, and it actually goes out, it’s a live stream. It could have been a lot worse.” It could have been. It was also solidly on-brand for the Disrespect persona; transgressing is something that fans of the character like. And it’s their feelings that propel the character.
His fans send Doc donations on Twitch with notes attached; some tell him that he’s helped with their depression, anxiety, and PTSD, he says. “I think they see a lot of confidence in him. I think they feel empowered by him,” Beahm says. “There’s something there where they see this guy and he’s so cocky, so confident, so over the top, but he can still relate to you.” The streams are a safe space. The reality that the character of the Doctor means a lot to a lot of people, however, does seem to take Beahm aback. “It’s hard to gauge that, because I’m sitting in my room all alone… Screaming.”
Among the Doc’s fans are two of the actors on set, Mike Ferguson — whose card calls him a “scumbag for hire” — and Will Mann. Ferguson, a grizzled, tattooed graybeard, is playing the “seasoned PILOT (50s);” Mann, fresh-faced and seraphic, is his “starry-eyed CO-PILOT (30s).”
After lunch, Ferguson steps outside for a pre-take cigarette. This isn’t his first time working with the Doc: in a commercial for G-Fuel, an energy drink that sponsors a lot of big streamers, he loses an arm-wrestling match to Disrespect. His kids are fans of the Doc character, too. Ferguson on Dr Disrespect: “He’s the fucking man. He don’t give a fuck. You know what I’m saying? Literally, he doesn’t give a fuck.”
Mann loves Twitch because he grew up watching his brother and friends play video games and finds watching gameplay comforting. The 26-year-old is also a Disrespect fan. “I guess he provides a little more escapism for Twitch, because a lot of the times you’re just watching a real dude play a game, which is great,” he says. “But you go in there and it’s kind of like, oh there’s this character dude, that’s obviously like a character. But you get to watch him for like five hours do his thing and kind of get invested in that.”
On set, everything has been built around Dr Disrespect. Lena Lollis, the red-headed costume designer, has sourced each piece of Doc’s costume individually — aside from the wig, sunglasses, and custom headset, which the Doc has generously provided himself. The hardest thing to find, though, was a copy of Doc’s red flak vest. As Lollis points out, red is not a popular color because, generally, you don’t want your camouflage or armor to be seen by the enemy.
Once Doc has left hair and makeup, he heads to the part of the cavernous studio where he’s been rigged up in a harness. (The Doc does his own stunts.) He is floating above a blanket-covered crashpad in a faux-wingsuit that Lollis made by hand out of neoprene, black with red elastic detailing. He looks relaxed; it seems like he’s done this before. Tim Hendrix has directed the shoot’s director of photography, Powell Robinson, to get a close-up of Doc’s snarling face after he’s punched a hole in the helicopter’s roof and then jumped out as he’s soaring through the night sky.
Hendrix got the job because he got an email out of the blue from a creative consultant at Twitch in the middle of December. “I came in knowing very little about the Doctor or Twitch,” he says. As Hendrix describes it, Doc’s idea was fairly complete creatively — the character was going to jump out of a helicopter and fly down to a purple-hued city — so his task was to figure out the execution.
It seemed an interesting challenge for Hendrix, whose background is mostly in music videos. (He’s most famous for directing the music video to Panic! At The Disco’s “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” which features an interesting take on tentacle porn.) Directing music videos and directing a hype video for a streamer are similar because they’re about taking performers who are known quantities and showing them in a new light.
There is one crucial difference, though: Twitch pays better. “It’s very different from music videos in that this will actually let me eat,” Hendrix says. A person in the room points out that Brendon Urie, the lead singer of Panic! At The Disco, also streams on Twitch. “Oh,” Hendrix says. “Maybe someday he’ll pay me a living wage, too.”
The next day, Beahm performs the Dr Disrespect character in 90-second chunks, over and over and over again, because Hendrix wants coverage but also because it’s hard to get everything right. Watching him in the monitors behind the helicopter’s cockpit, the character feels undiluted. I can see why his manager is comparing him to Batman: it might be that the character’s real essence is meant for the big screen — not lots of little ones.
Guy Beahm, the man behind the mullet and the mustache, is 37, and his first two loves are sports and video games. His grandfather gave him his first computer when he was in second or third grade. At the time, his favorite game was Asteroids, which changed after his grandfather bought him a NES. He was online at an early age, an only child looking up cheat codes on Prodigy when he wasn’t hanging out with his parents and their friends. Beahm went to college because he wanted to play basketball, and the team he played on at Cal Poly Pomona was good. (Education, he says, was secondary, though he did study business and marketing.) After college, he took a few random jobs because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He was a temp administrative assistant at Stanford, a sales rep for a roof tile company, and a mortgage consultant, all in quick succession after he graduated.
Dr Disrespect was born during that time as a disembodied voice in Halo 2’s lobbies and in its proximity chat. Even then, it was clear he’d hit on something special; other players wanted to be on his team, after witnessing him barreling through his enemies and then roasting them when they died.
In his first video — posted a full decade ago — Doc’s first words, spoken directly to camera, show an unpolished Disrespect, though the character is nevertheless familiar: “People have gotta understand… you gotta attack. Attack. Attack. But don’t get it mistaken. Certain individuals you don’t attack. You run from.” Aggression radiates from behind his mirrored sunglasses. The video cuts to him playing Call of Duty.
The YouTube videos continued, and subscriptions began to roll in. At first, it was one or two videos a month; Beahm’s real goal was to get into game development. Eventually, he found a role as a community manager at Sledgehammer Games, a studio that had just finished developing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and from there, he became a multiplayer level designer on Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
After the game’s release in 2014, Beahm began work on the next Call of Duty game — and then had a moment of clarity. From there, as he saw it, the future was pretty mapped out: he’d go from associate level designer to level designer to senior level designer. It was a career, sure, but one that he wasn’t so certain he wanted to pursue. “I saw the path in the next five, 10, 15 years. I just was like, I don’t know if this is it. I decided to just like, you know what? Let me look somewhere else.” Beahm quit and went looking for other jobs in the industry. Eventually, he managed to wrangle an offer from another big game developer.
That was when his current business partner, Sumit Gupta, came to him with an offer to work at his startup — Boom.tv — where he was developing some new streaming tech based around VR. But it wouldn’t be a desk job; Beahm would be helping Gupta figure out the streaming landscape, starting with setting him up to stream on Twitch. And so Gupta said: “Hey, what do you think about reviving your old Doctor character?”
He was in his 30s; he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was choosing between another Triple-A job and an as-yet-unknown momentum, and the week Gupta gave him to decide was up. I’ve already offered this. Either you’re on board or not, Beahm recalled him saying. “And it’s like, fuck all right.”
The gambit worked, and the fans began to trickle in, which is the hardest part of doing anything on the internet; that goes double for Twitch. Finding an audience there is a mysterious business, maybe more than anywhere else online. Part of that is because you have to convey the force and depth of your personality to other people, live, and part of it is because it’s exceedingly difficult to get people to care about what you’re doing until you’re already far enough along that it doesn’t matter. You have to bet on yourself, again and again and again. And even then, it might not work. You almost never get to quit your day job.
Reflecting on what he’s accomplished so far, Beahm says he feels like he’s getting closer to what he wants to do. “The pistons are moving. The momentum’s… you can feel it, right, but we’re not there yet,” he says.
The problem with being a villain is that the hero always wins. See, after Doc punches a hole in the helicopter’s roof and jumps through the glass as the pilots cackle themselves into a tailspin, the rotorcraft is supposed to crash.
A few weeks after Doc leaves the soundstage, Kobe Bryant was flying with his daughter to his youth basketball academy in a helicopter that never made its destination. The day after the tragedy, I get a call from Doc’s publicist: the announcement is going forward, but his original video will never see the light of day. (Eventually, a modified version is released, months later, featuring a “military-grade spacecraft.”) No one wants to make light of a real death.
This makes sense. Beahm is a father, too. And though Disrespect is what he’s famous for, Beahm’s alter ego exists to let him do things he can’t do as himself. “Personally, there’s no way I could sit here as Guy Beahm, and sit in front of a camera and stream,” he says. “Not that I can’t do it; I’m not interested in it.” When he’s out of character, Beahm is a little fidgety, and his voice is pitched just a bit higher. The Doctor, on the other hand, doesn’t fidget; he’s almost unnaturally still, except for when he’s baring his teeth. There is a barely suppressed rage in him, as though he’s waiting to strike or be struck.
On his stream that day, the day after Kobe Bryant died, was the first time I’ve ever not known who’s on camera — whether the man speaking on stream was Guy Beahm or Dr Disrespect. He addresses the situation with his hype video shoot obliquely, while he’s not playing anything at all: “I don’t even know if that video will ever make it out simply because of the content that’s involved. But that got me trippin’, man,” he says, though it’s clear that the ultimate fate of the video isn’t what’s bothering him. “I’m a little upset today. I’m upset. I’m sad and I’m getting upset.”
The donations keep flowing in, all $8.24 in honor of the numbers Bryant wore while he played for the Los Angeles Lakers, and he reads nearly every one: they’re all about people who are gone now, both loved ones and celebrities. Doc’s stream that day is a site of collective mourning. Finally, he boots up Escape From Tarkov. On-screen, his boots crunch as he steps out into the map’s wildness. And then his figure stills as he begins to perform.