If Smosh Games represents the era of YouTube past, where does the game-playing comedy troupe fit into the biggest network’s future?
YouTube executives are constantly playing catch up with the site’s community. The definition of what’s hot changes from one second to the next. One moment it’s Let’s Plays and cover songs, the next it’s livestreams and diss track wars from the top “drama” creators. YouTube is a network serving the needs of just about everyone, but every new trend makes a creator who caters to those demands the most talked-about in the moment.
Whether it’s gossip vlogger Philip DeFranco talking about demonetization, the divisive personality iDubbbzTV taking on an equally divisive creator in his “investigative” Content Cop series or, yes, PewDiePie responding to another controversy, they all know how to play the game. It’s why they’re at the top of YouTube searches and some of the more well-known names within the YouTube community.
Then there are groups like Smosh Games. Created on Sept. 25, 2012, Smosh Games was the seventh channel launched by its parent group, Smosh. When the division was first founded, Smosh creators Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla joined cast member Mari Takahashi in a collaboration with the team from ClevverGames (Matt Sohinki, Joshua "Jovenshire" Ovenshire and David "Lasercorn" Moss. The new subdivision of Smosh would focus entirely on different game-centric videos, including reviews, news and gameplay videos.
The success of the channel took off, with Smosh Games becoming one of the biggest Smosh divisions for the brand. In 2014, Wesley "Wes" Johnson and Amra "Flitz" Ricketts became members of the cast and three years later — just earlier this year — Smosh Games added its most recent crew members, Ericka "Boze" Bozeman and Damien Haas.
Between the time that they launched and now, Smosh Games has published more than 2,000 videos and amassed more than seven million subscribers, far surpassing that number in channel views. Smosh Games has become one of the most successful gaming oriented channels on YouTube, but the world they exist in now is different from the YouTube they first joined years ago.
As YouTube continues to evolve and creators learn to adapt, the team at Smosh Games is left wondering what’s next for them. They don’t want to become a drama-infused channel and their shining light of positivity can often feel isolating on a network known for its prevailing negativity; but they’re not without a plan.
TIME TO BE GAMING-ADJACENT
Sitting around a wobbly round table in a backroom at New York Comic Con, the Smosh Games team is full of energy. Coming off of a successful panel and an announcement confirming they’ll be teaming up with Ubisoft for a new series about Assassins Creed Origins, the ragtag bunch are lively, energetic and thankful. They’re excited about the position they’re in, being able to sign autographs for fans while helping define what the future of gaming on YouTube looks like.
The motley crew behind Smosh Games defines themselves as “personalities first, gamers second,” a key ingredient to surviving the new understood definition of what YouTube has become. They define their work as “gaming-adjacent,” which means that although their series are based on games they’re playing, like Grand Theft Smosh, which occurred within the world of Gand Theft Auto Online, the goal is always to put their personalities out there first. Unlike Let’s Plays and livestreams, which Smosh Games also tried over the years, the Smosh Games family know that what the YouTube audience wants is people they can connect with.
“I'm actually hearing that personality-driven stuff is way more popular from way more game developers,” Matt Raub, Smosh Games producer, told Polygon. “The sit-downs and Let’s Plays aren't really hitting the way that they used to because it's hard to sit down and sift through it. Something like where we're taking Assassins Creed Origins, that is gaming-adjacent and it's talking about a game without just sitting in a room. That type of video is something that we've gotten a hold on in the past three years and something that we want to do more of.
“We're personality first, gamers second and that's probably where the future is headed.”
Raub describes what Smosh Games has been doing — and wants to continue doing — as a blend between reality television and scripted comedy. Raub doesn’t want to devolve too much from that style, keeping the mom-and-pop shop vibe of friends playing video games together. It’s a shared vision among the team, Joshua Ovenshire told Polygon.
“As we evolve and get bigger, that essence that we had at the beginning is still there. Even with the new cast, we're just a group of friends. The moment that Boze [Erika Bozeman] and Damien [Haas] came on it was like, 'Oh, no I l really like you. Hey, do you want to hang out and play video games with us?’”
As one of the newer members of Smosh Games, Bozeman told Polygon that she’s just happy to learn some tools of the trade from her more experienced Smosh family members. Despite being one of the newer members, Bozeman isn’t a stranger to YouTube or the communities that surround other popular YouTube personalities.
Gaming channels that focus on drama on YouTube and big issues facing the community tend to pick up more traffic. Bozeman and her counterparts are aware of the direction many YouTube channels are heading in, but Bozeman reiterated multiple times of the course of our interview that Smosh has no interest in becoming one of those channels.
“That's something that's different from us, our energy on camera is so positive that we attract a very positive audience and that's why it's so easy for them to connect,” Bozeman said. “I don't see a lot of other communities on YouTube, so I'm so stoked to be a part of that.”
Considering that Smosh Games’ audience demographic skews younger, it’s integral that Smosh Games stays positive going forward. The team at Smosh Games doesn’t view other popular gaming personalities on YouTube like PewDiePie or Boogie as existing in the same line of YouTube work that they want to be in.
They want to be role models for those viewers and teach them how to deal with difficult events going on in their lives. Instead of responding and engaging in the negative aspects of YouTube culture, Bozeman, Ovenshire and the rest of the team go out of their way to keep their disposition blindingly sunny.
“We're kind of their role models,” Mari Takahashi said. “I think remembering that an audience for anyone is a privilege and what you put out there, well it goes back to responsibility. You are responsible for people listening and negativity isn't something that you should spew out. If you do, perhaps remember about the audience you’re serving. There's a level of consciousness and mindfulness that is easy to forget. Being around other people, we keep each other in check, and it's an advantage for all of us.”
Being positive for the audience of more than seven million people isn’t a 9-to-5 job, either. Thanks to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and more, being a front-facing talent and member of Smosh Games means being aware that they’re on for an audience 24/7. It can get frustrating at times, but Takahashi’s sentiment is something that team takes to heart and thinks about often.
“I will put some of my feelings out there, but I won't put my situation or private feelings out,” Bozeman said. “I keep my private life to myself, but I'm really open to my fans about how I'm feeling because they may be feeling the same way, too. That just might be another way to connect with them.”
It’s important to the Smosh Games team that their audience feels included in the community, not like an audience that’s sitting in front of a screen. YouTube can feel impersonal at times, the team said, which is ironic considering people are watching these videos in the safety of their bedroom a lot of the time.
“I think it's difficult,” Ovenshire added. “You're always sharing and sharing and sharing. When you're like, 'Oh, I'm going to keep this part of my life to myself,' it's almost like, well how do you? Finding the lines between what is the private life and what is the life that we put out there when they blend so well together gets to be difficult. We're personalities and just people at the same time.”
There’s another advantage to keeping themselves PG-13, their content positive and maintaining a Nickelodeon aged-audience: Many of the problems facing the rest of the YouTube community don’t apply to Smosh Games.
Think of the biggest topics that have made headlines in recent months because of YouTube changes. Demonetization from content that is deemed unfriendly for advertisers, concerning top creators and bigoted groups using YouTube to spread hateful messages are all problems that YouTube says it is trying to combat. As YouTube struggles to curate content and keep top advertisers happy, smaller channels are sideswept in the process.
Smosh Games isn’t a small YouTube channel, but as members of the YouTube community, they’re aware of the biggest problems the platform is facing. While some consider it growing pains, there are concerns about what the ramifications will have for YouTube in the long run, and not just for gaming-related content.
One of the questions they think about often as YouTube grunts its way through its tedious adolescent period is what the next 10 years of YouTube look like.
YOUTUBE, THE BIGGEST NETWORK IN THE WORLD
Between the time YouTube launched in 2006 and now, the site has far surpassed the numbers of every other modern network. Both major cable and traditional networks, like HBO or CBS, and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu can’t compete with YouTube. To put it into context, by 2015, YouTube had amassed more than 2.6 trillion views. That’s more than all of the traditional networks and streaming services combined over the last five years.
YouTube is more than the world’s biggest network; it’s a shapeshifting beast, one that looks remarkably different every year. The “who’s who” of YouTube changes every six months, with the exception of the top few at the very top, and that brings with it a cavalcade of issues for the platform. If YouTube wants to be treated like a network, it needs to take responsibility for the talent it produces.
Positive content isn’t fostered as much as negative, drama-driven channels because that’s not what the audience wants — and is willing to spend hours watching. There are only a few top gaming creators on YouTube who have earned incredible success without resorting to cheap tricks like clickbait thumbnails, calling out other channels or mocking fellow YouTubers. Markiplier, Vanamoss and Smosh Games are among them.
As prominent members of the YouTube community, they’re not immune to industry ongoings and conversation, especially when it comes to fellow gaming creators. When Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg began making headlines earlier this year for controversial content, which sparked threats of mass exodus from top advertisers, it rippled through the community.
The Smosh Games family gets noticeably uncomfortable when the subject is PewDiePie, not wanting to spend time talking about someone they’ve known for years. Raub mentions he, and many of his fellow cast members, have been friends with Kjellberg for years and collaborated with him in the past.
“We know that he plays a character. We know that he does things for shock value, which is something that he's been doing for years,” Raub said. “We don't have much of a comment on the recent things that he's done but he does things for shock value. That's always what he's done and we play ourselves, that's always what we've done. That's something that we want to make sure our audience knows that we do and is something that our audience can take away for themselves and do themselves. They don't have to put on a costume, take on a persona, play a character and say things for shock value.
“I've known Felix for years. He is one of those untouchable YouTubers where he's at the top and he's kind of looking for something and things to do. The things that he says and does aren't necessarily things that we agree with, but it's a different type of community.”
Kjellberg doesn’t concern Raub or the rest of the team as much as YouTube’s response to his actions. The prevailing, loud and constant debate reverberating through YouTube’s interconnecting tunnels has been about one topic: demonetization.
To make YouTube more family friendly and assuage advertisers’ fears, the algorithm YouTube uses to mark content as unfriendly for advertisers was tightened, meaning that thousands of channels were caught up in the effort to clean up YouTube’s pages. The outrage from YouTubers prompted a response from Ryan Wyatt, YouTube’s head of gaming and content, who asked YouTubers to work in collaboration with the company to better the algorithm they’ve put in place.
It means that if you see a yellow icon in your video dashboard and feel our automated systems got it wrong, PLEASE APPEAL. With 400 hours of video uploaded every single minute, we rely on machine learning to evaluate content across the platform. But no system is perfect. When you appeal, our reviewers take a look and their decisions help our systems get smarter over time. Deleting the video and re-uploading won't help.
YouTube’s new monetization policies don’t affect Smosh Games, whose content has always been created for a family friendly audience, but the team is worried about the ripple effects this will have across the community for newer channels.
“We're never going to say or do anything that is construed as harsh or intense and we're never going to take a stance on global conflicts or anything like that so in terms of demonetization about what we do, it doesn't really affect us,” Raub said. “It's probably going to have an effect on the rest of the community.”
“But when you have YouTube as a company that gets afraid of the top five marketing companies going, 'Well, we don't want to put commercials here anymore,' it's going to affect us in a very large way,” Ovenshire said, jumping off of Raub’s comments. “That opens up a conversation about censorship, free speech and it's going to affect not only new media, but all channels, all media. I think it's a very cautious tale of what we can see in the future and what we accept now is really going to affect the next three years.”
Ovenshire is passionate about the subject, as someone who has built his career on YouTube, joining one of the network’s biggest groups in 2012. Ovenshire is worried, but hopeful, that YouTube will remember it was the passion of the creators and the audience who discovered those personalities that turned YouTube into what it is today. Ovenshire said he understands that, as a company, YouTube needs to address frustrations from advertisers, but stresses the importance of keeping YouTubers happy.
“YouTube needs to know that, yes they are a company, so they need to do what's profitable for them, but we — and I mean we as in all YouTubers — have helped get this company to where it's at,” Ovenshire said. “So, grow with us, evolve with us, but don't change the system and then hope that we can keep up with you. We deserve more than that.”
The future of YouTube is both certain and uncertain. Financially and socially, YouTube is going to be more than fine. The success of the company will grow but at what cost? Creators are unhappy, monetization policies are growing and resentment is building within the community.
For Smosh Games, a team who found a home on YouTube and a surrogate family with one another, the future of YouTube isn’t something they want to think too much about. They’re more concerned about the future of Smosh Games, of what that looks like. With new series, partnerships with game studios and the potential for cast members down the road, Smosh Games is on the up-and-up.
For Ovenshire, a leading figure in the group, the future of Smosh Games remains in being able to adapt to YouTube’s changing landscape. He believes that as long as Smosh Games stays true to themselves, always attempting to better their content and remaining loyal to their fans, there’s nothing to worry about.
“We definitely started Smosh Games where there were a lot of Let's Players out there, but we didn't want to do that,” Ovenshire said. “That's kind of why we broke down the fourth wall and became just friends hanging out. But then over time, YouTube has become a different beast where the popular channels are drama channels or challenge videos. Making sure that we stay what we are from the beginning but do better content. That's been our goal.
“What are we good at? Let's just keep doing that but better. Always better.”