How a new wave of YouTube stars is blurring the line between creator and fan.
YouTube is also ubiquitous within the gaming community. According to Google, 95 percent of all gamers regularly use the site for information or entertainment. Case in point: PewDiePie (born Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg) and his 11.6 million subscribers. Along with Brooke "Dodger" Leigh Lawson (371K), Toby "Tobuscus" Turner (5.2 million) and the channels Yogscast (5.7 million), Machinima (8.8 million) and Smosh Games (2.9 million), Kjellberg is at the forefront of one of the most disruptive entertainment forces of the last decade, and not just in gaming.
Better with pie
PewDiePie's motivation is as humble as his moniker's origin: his usual gaming tag "PewDie" (as in "the effect of a laser") and the "Pie" addendum for his YouTube channel ("because everything is made better by putting pie on it"). "I wanted to make gaming videos for a long time before I actually started making them, even before I knew about YouTube," he says. "I thought the fact that you could record your gameplay and share it with others was awesome and I knew I wanted to try it out."
PewDiePie (or "Pewds," as he's affectionately known by his fans) had embarked on an economics and technology management degree at Chalmers University of Technology before finding success online and developing his signature horror-themed Let's Plays and geeky vlogs full-time. While running currently the most subscribed-to channel on the entire site, he's still down-to-earth. While making his (winning) appearance at the Social Star Awards in Singapore, PewDiePie reportedly ignored security warnings in order to spend time up close with a horde of camped-out fans.
It can be a logistical nightmare keeping track of them, though. "As my channel has been growing, it has been more difficult to maintain," he says. "For example, I used to be able to reply to all my fan messages, but now that would be impossible. I've been doing streams lately because it takes away the time I have to spend editing, plus I can talk to fans directly which is cool." His Twitter account is testament to this: a slew of responses to fan messages, the occasional apology for his fans spamming a site or video he's linked to and complimenting fellow YouTube stars' parents: "@AmazingPhil Thank your mum for me, she's a powerful woman."
Dar Nothaft is VP and general manager of the collaborative gaming and geek culture network Polaris, part of Maker Studios, the multi-channel network (MCN) that represents PewDiePie, Dodger, Tobuscus, Yogscast and many more.
"What we're seeing now is really the rise of professional fans," Nothaft says. Of course, it's still difficult to pinpoint exactly what accounts for such a level of popularity, but Nothaft has a theory: "People like Felix stand in for the fans. They're the voice of an aspirational fan. People don't want an 8/10 review; they want to share an 'Oh, my God!' moment."
"Oh, my God" moments are perhaps not so easily found in traditional editorial and gaming websites, which raises the question of whether hobby gamers in general might be experiencing apathy toward current gaming media and reportage.
"It's a false dichotomy between traditional press and the more subjective stuff. It's more a fluid continuum," Nothaft says. "The baseline level of integrity is rising; there's an explosion of audience interaction and these voices have a more significant role than just helping people beat games."
Penny Arcade and its Child's Play charity drive generated one of the first high-profile examples of gaming-for-good, and PewDiePie seems intent on following that example. After winning the 2012 "Gaming King of the Web" award, he donated all his winnings to the World Wildlife Foundation, and he's in the middle of running a Charity: Water campaign to celebrate hitting the 10 million follower mark, encouraging his bros (a totally non-gendered term in the world of PewDiePie) to donate to the cause. As of August 8, 2013, the drive has raised $192,120 of a $250,000 goal. Bristol (U.K.) based Yogscast, fronted by Lewis "Xephos" Brindley and his partner-in-banter Simon "Honeydew" Lane, regularly over-achieves on its Charity-cast targets (recently to the tune of 274,000 pounds raised for Oxfam).
"What's so great is that for a lot of young people, this is their first proper engagement with a charity," Nothaft says, "though it's easy to boil down moral influence in hindsight; it helps them find and understand their place in the universe."
Though older gamers might look up to figures like Valve's Gabe Newell, Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins or 22Cans' Peter Molyneux, those role models are not as dedicated to interacting with the community as the new generation of YouTube gaming stars. Although not (yet) in the business of making games, PewDiePie et al are more indicative of Generation C, meaning those passionate about "connection, curation, creation and community," and from whose ranks many future developers and game makers will derive. It's a generation that is arguably already redefining the hardware landscape, and you need only look at the concessions Sony and Microsoft have made (the Share button on the PS4 controller and the backtracking on DRM issues respectively) to understand how.
Lawson might not be so involved in charity drives, but she champions a different kind of authenticity. Appearing in her recent, informal news vlog "Coffeh Time," she complains about feeling "unprofessional" compared to her appearance on a more slick, Polaris-produced news show. One proud commentator pleads for her retain the authenticity: "A lot of people stop watching TV and traditional media in general and turn to the internet, because TV looks 'fake.'"
"I think one of the biggest challenges YouTubers have is trusting themselves," Lawson says. "You're constantly getting opinions from viewers, friends, family, etc. about your content and how to make it better but in the end, you have to be making something that feels fulfilling and fun. It's good to take advice but if something doesn't feel right, it's OK to trust that."
"I rarely deal with companies directly or with article websites and press pages but I think I come across as an average person."
Yet for all this, such channels and their creators still meet plenty of skepticism. On one forum the comments range from, "Just watched PewDiePie's channel for the first time. If that's what it takes to get the hits, I'm out" to "He's forced to tell people how 'wacky' and 'random' he is — as if [people] couldn't figure it out for themselves." Despite his number of fans, PewDiePie's also become a scapegoat for some, with forum posts claiming that "he has ruined some of wider (sic) society's perception of gaming, because of his ridiculous popularity on YouTube."
Regardless, PewDiePie refuses to justify his popularity: "I just want my videos to be something that hopefully lightens up someone's day. I usually keep a positive attitude in my videos and I think people are drawn to that."
Lawson is similarly and unapologetically unconcerned about her place and reputation in the mainstream gaming industry.
"I have no idea when it comes to press," she says. "I rarely deal with companies directly or with article websites and press pages but I think I come across as an average person with an optimistic attitude and I am perfectly happy with that. I'm not amazing at games but I love them and I think that applies to most of us in the community."
Turner's sense of perspective seems similar.
"I've made a lot of videos I'm proud of at E3 — I love doing interviews and dancing like a crazy person," he says. "I think people see me as a guy who sucks at video games. But that's OK. I've come to terms with it."
A common thread is that of not claiming even to be especially skillful, and of the value of infectious positivity. These are passionate amateurs. Jaded ranting has its merits (see commenters Francis and Yahtzee) but perhaps it's had its heyday.
Turner sums up his raison d'être further: "I started making YouTube videos to make my friends laugh. Laughing is my favorite. I always wanted to make a video that would make people laugh so hard they were sore. I want to cause abdominal pain. I'm a laughter sadist."
Only recently signed to Maker Studios, Turner's still prolific, approaching PewDiePie's level of popularity across three distinct channels. Turner also acts as a viral video consultant to commercial clients and brands, and has dabbled in performing as a comedian and musician. He's six years older than PewDiePie and so bridges a generation gap, and equally is possessed of a broader, more hybrid appeal.
He's also making a game.
"I love my job and my fans so much, and I'm really pouring myself into this game."
"Last month we raised money on IndieGoGo to make a video game," Turner says. "I'm still in disbelief about the whole thing. Fans contributed over a half a million dollars to help me make a video game. They really believe in me; it makes my heart do weird girly heart stuff." In fact, the campaign nearly tripled its goal and the game based on Turner's web-cartoon Tobuscus Adventures will therefore launch on Steam as well as the Android devices it was originally intended for. As he explains on the campaign page, "I have a few games I'd like to make in the Tobuscus Adventures universe, and we're starting with a game that I feel is both fun and can be produced and launched relatively quickly."
This success of combining a dedicated community with crowd-funding engines like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo would seem to have limitless potential, but success comes at a cost: having a life.
"I love my job and my fans so much, and I'm really pouring myself into this game," says Turner. "It's going to be good, but viewers want new material all the time — it's not like TV where you can produce 12 episodes and then spend the rest of the year sipping martinis in Bermuda, or whatever it is Brian Cranston does when Breaking Bad isn't filming. So whenever I'm trying to do outside projects like music or movies, it's a real push."
Lawson is similarly ambitious, but aware of her limits: "My interests have always been extremely far-reaching, even as a kid. I want to do everything but I know that's not possible so I just try to get involved in as many things as possible without going full zombie mode."
Another consideration is that commenters' fans don't just clamor for the next episode, but for increasing transparency and intimacy. PewDiePie often includes his girlfriend and fellow YouTuber/blogger Marzia (aka CutiePie) in his Let's Plays, and regularly discusses living arrangements in vlogs. So too does Lawson, whose bedroom is often therefore on display.
"If I think something I say will infringe on the privacy of a friend or family member, I don't say it," Lawson says. "I'm willing to offer up information about myself but I have no intention of making the people in my life uncomfortable about what I do. This is usually the reason I won't talk about my dating life!
"Overall my friends and family have been extremely supportive and understanding when I suddenly say, 'Oh, sorry, I have to go record a vlog; I'll be back in a few minutes.' They get it and my viewers have always been very respectful about omitted information."
Turner feels similarly. "It's a delicate dance," he says. "Part of me wants to be completely honest and open about my relationships, but I also don't want to shove them into the spotlight to be trampled by the trolls. I have a lot of love in here though, and I would like to be loud about it when I'm ready. Also I'm getting old; I gotta make some babies or my mom is going to punch me in the throat."
It's symptomatic of the social media zeitgeist. "I think the idea of privacy has been changing for everyone, not just celebrities. A lot of my fans have their own channels and vlogs — even my dog Gryphon was thinking about starting a YouTube channel but he doesn't have opposable thumbs, so he's found filling out the online forms to be too difficult."
YouTube creators are changing the gaming vernacular, from Let's Plays, vlogging and casting to the individual channels and episode names themselves. Relatively speaking, it's early days for all of them, too; and as awareness and budgets grow, there are numerous possibilities for evolution and growth.
"I don't really see YouTube as a competitive thing, and I don't think many gamers on YouTube do either."
However, wary of hubris and of pigeonholing themselves, Lawson and Turner respectively cite their biggest assets as "my cat," and "my sideburns, definitely," while PewDiePie earnestly claims, "You'll have to ask my fans what they see in me. I honestly have no clue."
It's perhaps by being so self-effacing that these personalities are so trusted. To open yourself up to dialogue and the criticism of millions every day as they do takes courage, more so to admit you don't have all the answers.
Unlike game publishers, which which often put up professional appearances, PewDiePie says YouTube commenters don't often compete for attention: "I don't really see YouTube as a competitive thing, and I don't think many gamers on YouTube do either. I mean we play video games for a living; that's enough to keep us satisfied. I like to see it more of a community where we help each other out with cross-promotion. It's a 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' thing."
Dodger, too, seems totally contented with her lot. "Neither [gaining new or engaging more with current fans] is more important. My content is always going to be whatever I enjoy making and whatever makes me happy, so if it reaches more people, that's fantastic! If it doesn't, that's also perfectly fine because the people I have in my community now are amazing ... I don't plan on changing how I'm received."
"At some point I learned that I have to be true to myself in my content and my attitude," says Turner. "If someone stumbles onto my page and dislikes me, that's OK. I try to keep my content appropriate — I want parents to be able to watch my stuff with their kids. Also, it's more of a challenge for me to make a joke without going the obscenity route. Saying a silly word angrily is funnier to me. Like, 'AAHHH BUCKET!' I love that one. 'AAAHHH FUUUNN.' If I have to resort to swearing at some point, though, I'll be all right. I'm good at it."
What does the future hold in store? "I use a Magic 8 ball. It says the outlook is good," Turner says, after his popularity soared 15 percent between June and July. With a new console generation on the horizon and with Forbes reporting from E3 that "we live in a social-media world with a social-media market," it's possible that the line between fan, creator and celebrity will soon blur even further.
Images: Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, Dar Nothaft, Amy Finnerty, Lilly Ladjervardi
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan