Phil Burnell is my friend.
He seems like a good dude, maybe a little misunderstood by others who've seen him around here and there. He's in his early thirties, lives on the New York side of Connecticut and can be pretty funny sometimes. Last time I checked in with him, he had just gotten back from a Disney vacation with his girlfriend, Leanna. She seems like a sweet gal, at least from the times I've seen them together.
Phil loves video games. I know this because I've watched him play plenty of them — some old, some new, some good, some terrible. His condo, which he bought a few years back, is adorned with dozens of gaming-related posters, figurines and other such knick-knacks. He owns almost every home console ever released in America. He even used to play some games competitively. Just the other day he was telling me about how excited he is for the "hardcore gaming season," which is the name he gives the holiday's heaping of new, high-profile games.
I've seen Phil at his best and at his worst. I've seen him laugh. I've seen him cry. I've seen him rage. I've seen him embarrassed. I've even seen him shower. That was pretty weird. I think it's fair to say that I know Phil pretty well.
Despite all this, I've never actually met Phil Burnell, at least not in person. I've just watched him, because I can, and because he wants me to. And I'm only one of the thousands of people worldwide who can say the same.
Providing some assurance
You see, Phil Burnell is more commonly known as DarkSydePhil, one of the most prolific video game Let's Players in history of the medium.
"Let's Players," for the uninitiated, are more or less people who film themselves playing through video games while injecting their own personal commentary. The phenomenon — and it is indeed a phenomenon at this point — started as a series of forum threads, in which players would upload screenshots of the games they were playing and add accompanying text blurbs to describe what was going on. These naturally evolved into video form, and have since grown exponentially with the rise of YouTube and other video sharing sites.
Think of it like Mystery Science Theater 3000, only with video games, vloggers, poorer film quality and more candid observations from people that may or may not have gone to high school with you.
Passion is what makes the Let's Play world go round. It's that intangible personal touch that differentiates the Let's Play from simple gameplay footage — they thrive on the personalities of their composers. Some of those personalities are engaging, others are painfully awkward, but all of them share the same love as most of the people reading this site: video games.
Passion is what makes the Let's Play world go round.
Most Let's Players create their footage out of a simple desire to make their time with a game a communal experience. The goal is to put you on the couch next to your host, to make you feel like their play time is your play time, to effectively provide an outlet for those who just don't want their gaming session to end at the turning off of a power button.
Its popularity seems simple enough. As video games continue to grow as an industry, so too does the public's demand to play them. And as the demand to play video games grows, so too does the demand to consume them in any form possible. Let's Playing gives game-hungry players that other form, and even lets them get to know a new buddy who will bring them through these increasingly fruitful experiences in the process.
That's not to say there aren't other reasons. In today's economy, it makes sense for people to look for a sneak peek of some game they may be interested in purchasing themselves. As Phil puts it, "when you spend 60 dollars for something, you want some assurance that you're going to enjoy it." Some free publicity doesn't always hurt game companies either.
A world in video
DarkSydePhil's Let's Playing career has largely been a smashing success. His dedicated YouTube gaming channel, DSPGaming, has close to 120,000 subscribers, with about 200 million total views across the dozens of playthroughs (Phil's averse to the term "Let's Play" due to how "childish" it sounds, and because he commits to completing every game he plays, rather than merely playing them) he's run through. If you factor in his old and alternate channels, that view count nearly doubles.
He has his own website, which was created for him by a few tech-savvy superfans free of charge. He sells his own personalized merchandise — shirts, hoodies, mugs, hats, underwear, the works — plenty of which feature his bearded mug plastered right on them. His Twitter and Facebook accounts sport thousands of followers. He's hosted his own panel at a few conventions. He's even branched out and created a highly-viewed, live-action gaming sitcom-cum-sketch show with a few of his best friends.
Most significantly, he has one of the most rabidly loyal fanbases of any YouTube celebrity on the site, one willing to donate their own possessions to him for future playthroughs (or just because), create tribute songs to his videos, and go to war with him against more well-known Let's Playing competitors. They love Phil, and he loves them back, a fact only emphasized by the occasional fan appreciation, mailbag or contest giveaway video.
"I owe everything to them," Phil says. He's not just saying that — no views mean no livelihood.
Unlike most of his peers, Phil actually makes a living off the enterprise he's built for himself, through a partnership with gaming video giant Machinima. The more that people watch, the more he earns. It's a volatile business, but it makes Phil a 21st century entrepreneur if there's ever been one. But he's also, to use his terms, "just a normal guy who recorded himself having fun with his hobby."
Walking the line
Seemingly everything about Phil emphasizes this implicit blending of potential for internet popularity with that ever-present sense of normal guyness.
All the time, Phil worked a variety of retail and office jobs from high school up through his late twenties, none of them all that spectacular or noteworthy. All the things you'd expect to happen at those jobs happened. And now that they don't, Phil makes a living solely off his ability to be entertaining while playing video games.
There's a trend here: take something average, turn it into something more. In a way, Phil's origins are a microcosm for a good Let's Player itself. Anybody can play a game, but it takes a certain mixture of outlandish personality and instant associability to make this gig work. You've got to walk the line.
A new hobby
The Let's Playing started out simple enough. Back in 2008, a few years removed from college and still in the midst of his office job, Phil posted an innocent, five-minute video entitled "Dead Space - Scary as Hell! - Chapter 2." You can probably guess what happens — our friend Phil gets scared, we laugh.
Phil says that it wasn't supposed to mean anything at first. "At the time I'd just been diagnosed with a serious back condition that limits my mobility. So I was just getting back into casual gaming and kind of retiring from the competitive game scene. I'd seen things like the Angry Video Game Nerd" — one of the pioneers of gaming-themed web comedy, and a major influence for Phil — "and wondered: what if I pointed out the annoying parts of modern games like he did with classics?
"At the same time, I'd seen lots of gameplay videos on YouTube without commentary, and they just seemed boring. So as a new hobby, I decided to pull my old-ass digital camera out of the closet and record myself playing games. I didn't really have any goals or expectations at all. I just wanted to have fun playing games and share that with others. And it eventually took off."
Phil was doing well. He had his own place, a steady job and an increasingly large group of strangers eager just to watch.
Single videos became full playthroughs, and a few pockets of fans became a dedicated collective. Suddenly, some guy wisecracking his way through Fallout 3, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Heavy Rain gained himself a cult-like following.
Phil was doing well. He had his own place, a steady job, a great competitive gaming legacy he could look back on fondly and an increasingly large group of strangers eager just to watch him do what he enjoyed most. It was nothing unbelievable, sure, but it was comfortable.
Then it wasn't. Like too many over the past half-decade or so, Phil was laid off from his office job of five years in the fall of 2010. His company underwent a reorganization that left him, in his words, "in a totally new position on a totally new team under a relatively new Vice President." Another round of layoffs came down from the top, and eventually Phil was cut.
"It's a lot easier to cut someone you don't know than somebody you do know … so yeah, just the wrong place at the totally wrong time."
You don't need to read an article to know this. Phil himself first broke the news to his then-sizable group of fans in a vlog called "LAID OFF – My Reaction." You can probably guess what happens — our friend Phil reacts to losing his job, we feel bad for him.
Watching "LAID OFF" is at once fascinating and heartbreaking. It's the moving picture (literally) of a man on the verge of tears, grasping at whatever's floating around in his mind and just saying it. "We're going to stay positive," he repeats throughout the vid, and it's never truly clear whether he's talking more to the camera, or to himself. The rambling goes on for 18 minutes, and with each one you can see the sense of dread growing on Phil's face. It's like watching a group therapy session if the dude talking was blindfolded the whole time. You can watch it, but at the same time you feel like you shouldn't be. It's depressing and modern all at once, like most of the internet.
All the time he's wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a middle finger and his name on it.
So why share it? "I've found my ability to be startlingly honest with my fans to be a lot of things," Phil says. "[It's] refreshingly therapeutic to know people are interested in what I have to say; and it's useful when I get inspiring and interesting feedback."
The top comment on the video reads: "Phil I know I'm going to swear here so sorry for that but..............You are a Fucking Legend !"
"Being that I knew I was going to try making YouTube work as a job, and that major changes to my life and the content I'd be putting out were coming, I decided to immediately be as honest and forthcoming with my audience," Phil continues. "That way I had time to relate my real, raw feelings, and thoughts before I had time to really let them settle in. And I think it's that raw feeling that really comes across in that video."
All the time he's wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a middle finger and his name on it. It was a messy time, to be sure.
So Phil gave the YouTube gig a shot, knowing full well that "it was a total shot in the dark and it could have gone horribly."
It didn't. The previous success Phil maintained when Let's Playing was just a hobby continued to expand, he got the coveted partnership with Machinima and enough people kept watching. Phil could now survive off of his first love.
"It blew up almost immediately, which was amazing. Once I saw that it could work, I never looked back, just forward." Add two more years of near-constant uploads and you now have the career Phil enjoys today.
As he discovered after filming his "LAID OFF" vlog, the key to Phil's growth was, and still is, "being an extremely honest person." In this time of constant connectedness, a time where the people that used to seem distant are now only an few finger presses away, Phil's willingness to essentially let people enter into his life is what causes his fans to adore him the way they do today.
Seriously, when Phil says that he "shares almost everything" and that he feels he has "nothing to hide," he really means it. In the past, he had a particularly popular series called "DSP Tries It" which would find him taking various products and, well, trying them. Dozens of thousands of people would watch as Phil ate breakfast sandwiches, sampled energy drinks, played with RC cars and, yes, showered, among other things. Another series, "Poorly Cookin" w/the King” brought viewers into Phil's kitchen to watch him whip up such delicacies as hot dogs, quesadillas and paninis. Practically every vacation Phil has taken over the past three years has been recorded in some capacity, from his latest trip to Orlando to his visit to E3 earlier this year. It wasn't long after he met his current girlfriend, a new Let's Player herself, that the pair were filming a special Valentine's Day message to the omnipresent public.
The top comment on that one: "if they make children, the kids would be the luckiest kids ever. like 2 gaming parents, that would be awesome."
Even Phil's standard gameplay footage is uploaded in bulk, putting you on the couch with him for four to six hours of game time on an average day. Spend some time looking into DSP's videos and it's clear: this is someone who takes the basic Let's Player concept to its logical extreme. You're not just watching a gamer. You're watching another human being go about a good chunk of his life, a life that is fundamentally centered on video games.
For the average viewer, it's undeniably fascinating to see someone be so open with people he'll never meet. For the longtime fan, it borders on voyeuristic. This Let's Player, this "normal guy," turns into the closest thing the industry has to its own EDtv.
After a while you'll expect certain things from him — how he'll act if this thing happens, what he'll say if that one does. Glue yourself to the monitor long enough and you'll see what it feels like to know someone you've never met.
Phil understands what he's doing. He understands that "this intense honesty makes people feel that they have a special connection." He understands that even the seemingly insignificant technical details, like filming with a camera in front of his couch instead of using directly captured footage, makes his channel seem far less "computerized" and "impersonal." He understands that finding other Let's Players willing to share the things he shares is a "rarity these days."
But he also understands that "it's worth carrying around a camera and pressing record" if that means "putting a smile on somebody else's face."
Pushing the limit
It's not all rainbows and high view counts. There are some elephants in this uploaded room that are worth mentioning.
If you've clicked on any of the links to Phil's videos, then it's probably pretty clear that his brand of humor isn't going to jive with everyone. He can be crass, boisterous, obnoxious even. He's called things that annoy him "retarded." He's infamous among many YouTubers for raging when he can't get through a certain part of game (this is probably the worst one). He's definitely taken more than his fair share of troll abuse too. With every video he puts out, it's almost guaranteed that he'll offend some group of people.
When he goes on rants like this one railing against the press — and when he says that "the major 'gaming media' are desperate to stay employed in any way possible" — DSP can come off as a bit ignorant sometimes. At the same time, plenty of others would argue that it's ignorant not to recognize how such statements resonate with much of the internet gaming populace, for better or for worse. Some will see this article and undoubtedly call Phil whiny, sexist, dumb or what-have-you after viewing one or two of his videos. Others will laud him as a no-bullshit truth teller. He's as much some dude from down the street as he is a successful, self-started entrepreneur.
But again, Phil's aware of what he's doing. "Safe humor is boring," he replies in response to his lightning rod persona. "The best humor is based off of the risqué, the taboo, pushing the limit and the edge. Being a George Carlin and a Howard Stern rather than a boring blasé PG nobody.
"I find it funny when this style of humor is now branded as 'crass, dumb, and puerile' because it takes the right kind of person to make it successful," he continues in defense of his product. "Or else why isn't everyone just yelling obscenities over generic videos and 'making it' on YouTube? It's not that simple."
You can make your own judgments. Plenty of others already have, for what it's worth.
A wave of popularity and positivity
So how long will this last? Phil doesn't know. To be honest, he may not even care. If and when the burnout comes, he'll handle it. But that's not now.
If that means the line between Phil Burnell and DarkSydePhil gets a little blurred, so be it. He doesn't quite know if that's a good thing, but such is the nature of his business.
"At least this far down the road, I haven't had any negative consequences in the ‘real world" for being so open and honest.
"Nobody can predict the future," he says. "Right now, I'm doing very well and I'd be stupid to plan on changing my career. But nothing is forever.
"Right now, I'm too busy riding my 'wave of popularity and positivity' to care about possibly changing careers. I'm having too much fun doing what I'm doing now to change."
In a career largely brought about by circumstance, it's only fitting for Phil to focus on the moment, on the "right now" above all else.
Why not, right? Games end. Videos are cut. Waves crash. Friendships die. A time and a place for everything and everyone. His just happen to be a couple clicks away.
"As long as people are entertained, it's all good."