Join one of Jake Randall’s streams and he appears, in the corner of the screen, sitting with his back against a bookshelf that’s overflowing with video game jewel cases. He’s staring down an online retailer in the nervy minutes before a PlayStation 5 restock. Today, the target is Amazon, and Randall educates the crowd with his most dependable console-rustling axioms: Be an Amazon Prime member or free trial holder, go to the PS5 page and click “add to list,” have one tab open with the the product page and one with said list, and attempt to buy the hardware from both sources once the “add to cart” buttons unlock. He explains that it’s common to fail dozens and dozens of times before you are successful, and to repeat these steps until the process works.
A few minutes later the consoles are restocked, and the legion of Randall pours through the breach, refreshing the checkout page over and over again. The chat lights up as people share successes and failures.
For the past two years, Randall has been one of the preeminent console purchasing influencers in the world. He has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter and 180,000 subscribers on YouTube, the bulk of whom showed up in late 2020 as pre-orders for the new console became available. Streaming stardom is infamously elusive, but Randall broke through by mastering an exceedingly difficult art: becoming really good at buying PlayStation 5s, and being willing to show others how to do the same thing. He cracked the furtive code of viral fame; all he needed was a Chrome browser and a lot of patience.
“Every retailer is so unique. It’s all just trial and error for me, figuring out what works. I don’t use bots, I’m not a reseller, and all the knowledge I’ve gained would only help another person like me; a common consumer just trying to buy one console for themselves, ”says Randall, in an interview with Polygon. “I think when people are trying to buy this stuff without a stream on in the background they don’t know what they’re doing. They get discouraged. Honestly, the number one thing for me is just providing encouragement. ”
Randall started streaming on YouTube in 2019, a year before the ninth generation of video game consoles made landfall. He was able to start his channel due to a revolutionary change in his physical health. Randall was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 5 years old and has wrestled with the disease’s debilitating fatigue for decades. But a few months before COVID-19 was discovered in the United States, Randall started using a new treatment that restored much of his energy. (The life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis is usually around 40 years. But today, Randall is hopeful that he will avoid those grim projections.)
During that time, he cultivated some brand-new passions, and started a daily Pokémon Sword & Shield broadcast on YouTube to a small but tight-knit collection of viewers.
“I was able to get up to 1,000 subscribers in a month, and then Animal Crossing [New Horizons] came out a few months later and I pivoted to that, ”says Randall. “By August of 2020, I had reached nearly 5,000.”
It’s extremely difficult for streamers to find any semblance of an audience, so Randall had plenty to be proud of with those numbers. But the burgeoning hardware mania – and the subsequent supply chain chaos – was what made him a superstar.
Randall’s initial success happened by accident. He knew he wanted a PS5 and decided, on a whim, to livestream his attempt to secure a pre-order. So on Sept. 25, 2020, Randall simply streamed himself lurking around the GameStop website, waiting to pounce on a new machine, like so many other would-be customers across the globe. Console hunting isn’t a particularly cinematic experience. And yet his viewership doubled, then tripled, and then quadrupled, far exceeding the hundred or so who tuned in for his gaming streams. At the height of the stream, Randall had 10,000 people watching his efforts.
“Maybe it was just really searchable in YouTube’s algorithm,” he says. “I don’t know what was going on.” His viewership numbers have been going up ever since.
After striking gold with that first pre-order session, Randall kept his ear to the ground for any rumored restocks. He would fire up his streaming rig whenever reports of one of those scarce payloads flitted through social media. By autumn 2020, buying a new console was already a highly strategic endeavor, frequently requiring a sweaty 24-hour monitoring effort.
Before long, Randall had made connections with insiders at big box stores like Target, Best Buy, and GameStop, who informed him of potential shipments and elusive drop dates. In fact, he’d been making connections since his first-ever pre-order broadcast, when a GameStop employee entered the chat and provided a backdoor link allowing him, and his viewers, to skip the line for a purchase, Randall says.
In the following months, thirst for the new consoles reached a zenith. Scalpers in this scene have automated their operation with bots that effortlessly pierce through online retail infrastructure, potentially scooping hundreds of consoles at once. And overall demand looks likely to remain high, amidst the interminable semiconductor shortage. Within these circumstances, you can understand how a friendly face on YouTube became the best bet for aggrieved gamers across America.
Randall doesn’t recall a specific moment when it became clear that PS5 and Xbox Series X storehouses would remain limited for the long haul, but Randall certainly didn’t expect to be sitting in retail queues deep into 2022. “I thought it’d be good for a while and that I’d pivot to something else down the road, but it lasted for so long and it turned into my main thing, ”he says.
There are plenty of people who join Randall’s stream, cop their long-desired PS5, and disappear right back into the void. He’s fine with that cycle; Randall understands that he is providing a service, and many viewers happily move along once they land a console. But Randall also tells me that he has some regulars who stick around even when they’re no longer in the market for a machine. “It’s probably less than 10 percent of all people, but the number one comment I get is, ‘Jake, I came for the PS5 but I stayed for you,'” he says. “Some people will be in my community for life, others will rotate in and out.”
I get it. Yes, I’m one of many gamers who still haven’t landed a PS5, so I have a somewhat transactional interest in Randall’s stream whenever he is live. And yet I’m drawn to the compellingly tense vibe to his craft that I don’t find in my usual diet of sedate Hearthstone streams. The audience is either on the verge of triumph or defeat, hoping that this will finally be the session where the stars align. Randall leans all the way into that fidgety consumer high. Every stream is ramped up with a “hype session” in which he spins around in his computer chair and throws a pair of finger guns in the air. “If you’ve been having a hard time securing your PS5, today will be that magical day,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for two years. I won’t fail you. ”
Of course, there are a few faint signs that some of the supply chain issues are being resolved. It’s getting easier to pick up an Xbox Series X in the wild, and while PS5s remain scarce, Target is now allowing its local stores to sell their inventory without collaborating on any national restock schemes. We might not be far off from a world where everyone who wants a new console can purchase one without the aid of an expert streamer, for that is how the retail industry is supposed to function in the first place.
So where does that leave Randall? He tells me he’s been asking this question constantly for the last two years, ever since he started shepherding viewers through that first pre-order gambit. Randall would like to make more content about his journey with cystic fibrosis; after all, he’s got plenty of stories to share. But he’s also not worried about his current streaming format. Randall believes that there will always be another scarcity on the horizon – another bauble of gamers’ envy – and given the way scalpers have come for sneakers, graphics cards, and consoles, he might not be wrong.
“There’s always the next big thing coming out,” he says. “Always the next product that everyone wants. And with the chip shortage there’s probably going to be high demand for products after they launch. As long as I’m passionate about the products, I will be streaming that. ”