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Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon

What do YouTubers do? Who are they? Why does it matter to you? Gamasutra looked into the phenomenon and created a handy guide so you can get up-to-speed on it.

"Gamasutra Explains" is a new format meant to help you understand the news that affects your profession as a game developer.

Lately, you've likely heard a lot about the rise of the YouTuber. Gamasutra, of course, has spent a great deal of effort reporting on it so far

It all stems from the fact that audiences have been flocking to their output. Famously, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg has the most popular user-run channel on YouTube -- and generated $4 million dollars in revenue last year.

The movement has been building for some time, but the ubiquity of game streaming equipment and video services to host its output, audience interest in videos, and the financial viability of making a living from them has reached an inflection point. We are now smack in the middle of a trend that will only gather steam, as late-movers and aspirants enter the space, and developers and publishers scramble to take advantage of the phenomenon. 

This guide is designed to help you understand this complex topic.

"YouTubers" are affecting how people make games 

YouTubers were originally a response to the rise of YouTube as a platform and video games as a medium. Video games are now responding to YouTubers.

"I now believe there's a direct correlation between how good your game is and how many unique YouTube videos it can yield," Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski recently said. "The YouTubers have taken over, folks!" The way games look on video is now fundamentally affecting how Bleszinski makes them -- and he isn't an upstart, but someone who's already found massive success making games.

Bleszinski may be one of the biggest developers to change so radically and publicly, but he's far from the only veteran developer shifting how he makes games for the YouTube era. "We have already decided to change our genre and gameplay for the next game designed around getting attention in the new world we live in," veteran developer John Ardussi wrote in a comment to his recent blog post on YouTubers.

Game developers aren't just thinking about whether their game is good to play, but also whether it is good for others to watch.

This trend will only intensify as the relationship between YouTubers and game developers gets closer. 3BlackDot, that startup from popular YouTube personalities SeaNanners and Syndicate, has launched a game called Zombie Killer Squad that features the YouTubers as playable characters in the game -- and, in turn, they promote it to their fans. Game makers are going beyond the pre-roll ads, and incorporating popular YouTube personalities into their games, for promotional purposes.

Trends don't occur in isolation, either; even developers who don't actively use YouTubers for promotion are affected. Plenty of games are released at alpha; still more get post-release patches for new content, bug fixes, and to address community concerns. In that universe, how YouTubers play can become a roadmap to fixing -- or altering -- your game. 

Key Quote: "Well, I think a lot more about how fun games I make are to watch, that comes with the sacrifice of certain design roads though. But, at the same time, it puts the limelight on some overdue roads too... randomization and emergent systems, namely." - Tower of Guns developer Joe Mirabello   

What do "YouTubers" do? 

YouTubers play games, record their play sessions -- and themselves -- and then post the results to YouTube. Many also stream at Twitch.tv, or do both. 

The movement grew out of the basic Let's Play form, which began in the pre-video era with screenshots and text commentary on web sites. It's expanded to encompass more varied forms of content, but that's the gist of it. 

It's a bit silly to merely explain when you can simply watch the top YouTuber, PewDiePie, in action: 

The number of YouTubers has recently begun to explode, and each has his or her own approach. Some carefully craft videos using a mixture of live action footage, motion graphics or animation, and gameplay footage; others practice and rehearse their play before recording; still others simply play games and record video, and then post whatever comes out.

The content of the videos can be very loose or extremely tightly controlled; it can be heavily edited or just flow freely in realtime; it can be serious or comedic. A video might be a deep exploration of what makes a game tick, or just somebody screwing around while a game is running in the background.

In general, however, it's recordings of people playing games and their reactions to them. We're starting to again hear the word "infotainment," which last had cultural currency in the 1990s when news shows like Inside Edition (which sought to entertain as much as inform) were ascendant. In this case, it refers to the fact that these videos are in themselves entertaining, yet don't have the same goal as traditional editorial content, like video reviews produced by core video game sites like IGN.

Key quote: "What I and other YouTubers do is a very different thing, it's almost like hanging around and watching your pal play games. My fans care in a different way about what they are watching." - Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg

Who are these people?

There are lots of YouTubers -- and more every day. One of the most striking things about the phenomenon is how it's possible to suddenly hear of someone well after they've already picked up a million or more subscribers.

The biggest name in the game is 24 year old Swede Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, who has over 29 million subscribers as of this writing -- making his the most-subscribed channel on the site that's not an automatically generated category like "music."

The top-subscribed game-related YouTube channels, ranked by total subscribers

1. PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) - 29,143,000
2. Machinima - 11,614,000
3. SkyDoesMinecraft (Adam Dahlberg) - 10,224,000
4. VanossGaming (Evan Fong) - 8,067,000
5. CaptainSparklez (Jordan Maron) - 7,791,000
6. TheSyndicateProject (Tom Cassell) - 7,746,000
7. Rooster Teeth - 7,666,000
8. Yogscast Lewis & Simon (Lewis Brindley and Simon Lane) - 7,065,000
9. RocketJump - 6,957,000
10. TobyGames (Toby Turner) - 6,730,000

As you can see from the chart above, PewDiePie sets the standard -- by some distance. Other notable names include Adam "SeaNanners" Montoya, (4,657,000 subscribers), John "TotalBiscuit" Bain (1,726,000 subscribers), Jon "JonTron" Jafari (1,156,000 subscribers), Ryan "Northernlion" Letourneau (339,000 subscribers), and the Game Grumps (currently formed of Arin "Egoraptor" Hanson and Leigh Daniel "Danny Sexbang" Avidan, with 1,674,000 subscribers).

This is just a sampling, of course, and the number of YouTubers (and subscribers) grows daily. Notably, while most of these channels are run by individuals and generally hew to the "Let's Play" format we've described, others veer into different formats (Machinima posts publisher-supplied trailers, for instance; Rooster Teeth produces Halo-inspired comedy series Red vs. Blue. While RocketJump focuses mainly on games, it also posts non-game related comedy shorts.)

(Note: All subscriber numbers have been rounded off and are current as of this posting.)

Key Quote: "I keep replaying the baby part and each time I laugh harder and make a really ugly face. Just sayin'." - A YouTube comment on a PewDiePie video


Another reason for the attention: Money 

Money always creates interest. We've already reported that PewDiePie generated $4 million in 2013. Disney recently acquired the YouTube multi-channel network (or "MCN," in YouTube culture) he works with, Maker Studios, for $500 million.

While Maker has many shows outside of games, that acquisition illustrates two things: that mainstream media companies are interested in the YouTube space, and that the entertainment establishment views YouTube as a distinct market and medium from its closest analogues, TV and film.

That kind of heat generates a lot of light; everyone is now closely watching the space. While not every company will be acquired -- some will see investments, and others may flounder -- the Disney deal alone is enough to stir up the pond. As always, old media companies are desperate to stay on top of new trends.

New companies will also emerge; YouTubers that started off as individuals will grow into collectives, and then into new businesses -- which has already happened with Yogscast and 3BlackDot, a marketing and content company co-founded by SeaNanners and Syndicate along with two ex-Machinima staffers. 

Key Quote: "We've noted for some time now that a lot of our younger audience spends a lot of time on YouTube. ... We wanted to propel ourselves further in that arena in as quickly and as high quality a way that we could." - Disney exec Kevin Mayer 

We said it before, we'll say it again: Money 

YouTubers also take money from game developers -- and make money for them, as Howard Tsao writes in this blog post about Guns of Icarus Online and its partnership with YouTube network Polaris (including popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit.)

Tsao paid the company to promote his game; the YouTubers played the game; once posted, the videos generated sales of the game.

Guns of Icarus Online monthly sales show boosts from Yogscast, TotalBiscuit, PewDiePie, Polaris 
(chart by Howard Tsao)

And with developers paying YouTubers to cover their games -- in relationships that are getting tighter all the time -- and partnering with video portals for distribution, the amount of money moving every which way around this phenomenon will both ensure its continuance and everyone's interest in it. 

Key Quote: "For instance, one YouTube video had incredibly generated over $35K in sales for us on its first day of going live." - Guns of Icarus Online developer Howard Tsao

How do they reach audiences? 

YouTubers appeal to their audiences in different ways from traditional game journalists. That's obvious when you consider the medium itself -- printed text versus video -- but it goes beyond that. After all, game websites long pioneered the use of video; many of the gamer-oriented publications also have a "we're just like you" ethos.

There's still a wall there.

The ad-hoc, direct-to-fan approach, and most importantly the entertainment focus of these YouTube videos sets them apart.  They're convenient, direct, clear, and funny. They connect.

While it's obvious that some viewers are influenced to buy games based on the YouTubers' experiences and criticisms, it's just as obvious that many simply check them out to see what it looks like when someone plays a game they're interested in.

But if you watched that PewDiePie video embedded earlier in this article -- whether you enjoyed it or you didn't -- it's obvious that it is, in and of itself, a piece of entertainment, not criticism.

Whether or not you ever play the game featured in a video, you can enjoy the YouTuber's treatment of it. That's one of the reasons that the phenomenon has taken off, and why the most famous series Game Grumps has ever produced is its full playthrough of Sega's notoriously awful 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog reboot.

"My name is PewDiePie"

YouTubers are approachable, accessible, and fun. They're providing something that established media -- both in the form of the online enthusiast game press and entrenched corporations like Disney -- was not equipped to: a simple connection. They treat games as players do; the games press, well, it's still the press, and can never shake that off.

Kjellberg chalks up his success to "breaking the wall between the viewer and what's behind the screen." The oldest video still active on his account? A Minecraft session with a friend.

This article by Maddy Meyers is essential reading if you're trying to understand the appeal of Kjellberg and his cohort.

Key quote: "The implication of this jealousy is that being funny on the internet is easy, and that Kjellberg’s audience is too stupid to realize that they’re supposed to be reading long-form feature stories. I would say that my fellow journalists need to think harder about what Kjellberg offers to his audience that they do not." - Maddy Meyers, "In Defense of PewDiePie" 

Their ethics are under the microscope

If you've been reading Gamasutra, you know we did a recent dive into the ethics of YouTubers. We're not alone, as this excellent article by Simon Parkin illustrates.  

The short of it: Some YouTubers are accepting money from developers and publishers to feature their games, and their disclosure of this fact may not meet legal standards. Even if it does, well... Is it quite on the level to take money to talk about games when you oftentimes do it for free, and it's hard to distinguish which is which? Maybe not.

There's a lot more to the issue than this quick summary, but you've either already read the articles linked above -- or you should do so immediately. One sign that this is a developing issue, however, is that John "TotalBiscuit" Bain has now said that, moving forward, his sponsored videos will include a splash screen that clearly identifies them as paid-for.

Key quote: "Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that, and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it." - The Federal Trade Commission's Mary Engle


What do publishers and developers think?

The reactions run from one extreme to another. While some just aren't quite sure what to make of the phenomenon, others have made up their minds pro or con.

Fez developer Phil Fish recently spoke out against YouTubers on Twitter, angered that they "freely distribute" games on YouTube and make money from it. This stance makes some sense; with single-player, puzzle- or narrative-based games, YouTube exposure has the possibility of severely harming their commercial viability. By now, you may have heard someone say "I'll just check it out on YouTube."

Nintendo, for its part, seems to feel similarly to Fish -- that YouTubers are profiting from its hard work. The company had YouTube shut down videos of its games or claimed their ad revenue; it's now in the process of drafting an affiliate program that would allow YouTubers to split ad revenue with the company.

And right now, Kerbal Space Program is offering to share revenue with YouTubers when viewers purchase the game via official affiliate links placed in their videos. 

Rather than a punitive "take it away, and then give some back" measure ala Nintendo, this is perceived as a good thing by both developers Squad and the YouTubers. By doing this, the developers incentivize people to put easy "buy" links in their videos that they might otherwise omit; meanwhile, the practice opens up a new revenue stream for the video producers.

What are some of the companies involved, and what do they do? 

Companies involved in this space sometimes act as networks, sometimes act as brokers for ad deals, and other times help develop talent or work to increase their audience share. PewDiePie, for example, operates his own channel, but he works with Maker Studios -- which brokers ad deals for him -- rather than going it alone.

There are a number of companies involved in the space right now; some (like Felicia Day's Geek and Sundry and Chris Hardwick's Nerdist) were formed by established talent; others (like Yogscast) grew from their initial success as YouTubers to become networks.

Still others, like Machinima, were formed for entirely different purposes -- in this case, hosting original video content created in game engines by fans -- but eventually went down a different road as it became more lucrative and culturally current.

Maker StudiosA very popular "multi-channel network," or MCN. Home of PewDiePie, and acquired by Disney for as much as $950 million. 

PolarisAnother popular MCN, which has worked with TotalBiscuit and PewDiePie. 

YogscastYouTubers who became a collective, and now produce a number of popular shows. 

3BlackDotA startup co-founded by YouTubers Adam "SeaNanners" Montoya and Tom "Syndicate" Cassell, which produces videos, marketing, and even games. 

Geek and SundryA production company and network founded by actress Felicia Day, who found success on the internet as creator, writer, and star of web series The Guild.

NerdistStarted by comedian and TV presenter Chis Hardwick, Nerdist produces content for both the web and television. 

Revision3Another production company/MCN; originally a startup but now owned by Discovery Communications, owners of The Discovery Channel. 

MachinimaOriginally founded to showcase original videos made in game engines (known as "machinima," hence the name) it has shifted focus towards being a video-game related MCN. 

AwesomenessTVA MCN which seeks to develop new YouTube talent from the ground up. 

FullscreenAnother Hollywood-based MCN that has been targeted by takeover speculation. 

--

YouTube sign image by Flickr user jm3, provided under Creative Commons license BY-SA 2.0.

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