The YouTube personality with the most subscribers isn’t Justin Bieber (8 million) or Rihanna (12.5 million). That honor goes to a 24-year-old Swede named Felix Kjellberg, better known by his YouTube handle, PewDiePie.
PewDiePie doesn’t sing or dance, no. PewDiePie has made his name—and a fortune—posting videos of himself playing video games. In one November video, for instance, he plays the Xbox Indie game “Techno Kitten Adventure,” helping a feline avatar navigate dangerous terrain filled with unicorns and narwhals, and shrieking in frustration each time his cat crashes into an obstacle.
“What am I supposed to do?” he wails shortly before his grey kitten with a jetpack dies. “It doesn’t get more hardcore than this.”
In another, featuring the game “Trouble in Terrorist Town,” PewDiePie controls a military gunman who gleefully mows down other soldiers. Together, these two clips have attracted nearly 7 million views.
In his videos, PewDiePie laughs, swears, and goofs around as if he were hanging out with his best friend. But 23 million people subscribe to his YouTube channel.
PewDiePie is a Let’s Player, one of hundreds of gamers who post “Let’s Plays” online (as in “Let’s Play Super Mario Bros.” or “Let’s Play Grand Theft Auto”), videos that are part “Mystery Science Theater,” part Siskel and Ebert reviews. As a Let’s Player navigates a game, he (or more rarely, she) provides running commentary, usually funny and profane.
Difficult as it may be to believe that online audiences throng to watch strangers play video games, Let’s Plays have surged in popularity. The top five Let’s Players collectively have more YouTube subscribers than Peru has people. A user-generated Wikia page tracking current Let’s Players, their subscriber totals, and their videographies lists about 950 players with active YouTube channels, collectively followed by more than 60 million subscribers. And the Wikia page acknowledges that this isn’t a comprehensive list.
Let’s Players aren’t driven only by love of gaming. Many hope to one day make a living playing games on YouTube; a few already do. PewDiePie’s estimated monthly revenue from YouTube ads fluctuates between $140,000 and $1.4 million depending on viewership, according to Social Blade, a company that monitors YouTube channels.
Other players bank much smaller paychecks. Matthew Varrone, 20, makes between $600 and $1,000 a month in ad revenue from his videos—not enough to rent an apartment, so he still lives with his parents in Milford, Connecticut—but still impressive considering he earns it doing something millions of people do every day for fun, for free. His YouTube channel, “Awesomefaceprod,” has drawn 20,000 subscribers since he started Let’s Playing in 2011. He’s otherwise unemployed, and hopes eventually to support himself by playing video games.
Because YouTube’s advent eight years ago made it possible, albeit unlikely, for young gamers to become millionaires, online talent agencies, dubbed “networks,” have sprouted around the Let’s Play phenomenon. PewDiePie’s network, Maker Studios, a Hollywood media company, provides marketing and publicity exclusively for “YouTube artists,” taking a cut of the proceeds. Maker Studios, like the company that represents Varonne, Fullscreen, Inc., represents various kinds of YouTube content creators, such as gamers and musicians.*
Although players realize that their chances of making millions are slim, many plan to parlay the skills they’ve acquired on YouTube into careers in video editing, game testing, or software design.
Typical of Let’s Players, Varrone’s interactions with viewers, other players, and Fullscreen take place entirely online. He has never visited the Fullscreen office in Los Angeles, met an employee in person, or even talked to one by phone.
“A lot of my life now exists online,” Varrone told me. “It’s pretty weird. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”
He does hang out with other Let’s Players at gaming conventions—such as the upcoming Penny Arcade Expo East (PAX) in April in Boston, which drew 80,000 visitors last year—and considers some his closest friends despite almost never encountering them in real life.
Also typical of most Let’s Players, Varrone was on the receiving end of a copyright claim. Over three years, Nintendo filed Content ID claims against 15 of his videos, and those videos’ ad revenues now go to the company instead of him.
Publishers use YouTube’s Content ID system to identify use of their intellectual property. If a video contains content that matches a publisher’s ID, owners reserve the right to monetize, block or track the user-generated video. In more extreme cases, YouTube will remove a video, or an entire channel, if a publisher files a Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint.
Players often face such threats of legal action. Although their videos help promote companies like Nintendo, and Let’s Players argue that they’re protected by fair use, the gaming industry isn’t thrilled about Let’s Players siphoning ad dollars from its intellectual property.
But murky legal issues haven’t prevented gaming videos from drawing a huge chunk of YouTube’s audience. Four of the top 10 YouTube channels ranked by Social Blade are gaming channels run by Let’s Players. Players started uploading gaming videos to YouTube almost as soon as the site launched in February 2005. As its popularity swelled, so did Let’s Plays; today 95 percent of all gamers flock to YouTube for information and entertainment, according to a Google report last year.
Outsiders might assume these players are lonely nerds, but the audience for Let’s Play videos is broader than they might expect. Varrone’s viewers, for example, range in age from 12 to 25, and 46 percent of them are female.
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The chance to earn money, let alone a living, by playing video games was an adolescent fantasy until YouTube launched its Partner Program in 2007. It allows eligible YouTube users to make money through Google AdSense, which runs targeted commercials alongside user-generated video. Users who join the partner program get 55 percent of advertising revenues—the amount determined by the type of ad, its price, and how often the video is viewed—while YouTube keeps the remaining 45 percent. A few hundred views per month hardly generates pocket change; tens of thousands might pay the rent.
The millionaire PewDiePie is an outlier, but a few Let’s Players do earn a modest living. Emile Rosales, the popular Let’s Player ChuggaaConroy with over 750,000 subscribers, rents an apartment in suburban Atlanta and lives off Let’s Plays, which provide his only source of income. Players partnered with networks aren’t allowed to disclose their income, but Social Blade conservatively estimates Rosales’s yearly earnings at $62,000.
As an alternative to YouTube’s Partner Program, users may seek membership in multi-channel networks (MCNs), like Maker Studios or Fullscreen, companies that manage YouTube channels and offer members such benefits as cross-promotion, product merchandising, tech support and perhaps a more desirable revenue split. Details are hammered out in individual contracts.
Varrone, a Fullscreen member, says his subscriber count has quadrupled since he joined. “As a partner I’m sort of obliged to say Fullscreen is a good network,” Varrone said, laughing. “But I can honestly say that.”
Once a YouTube video is monetized, as long as the players can woo eyeballs to their channels, they receive a reliable income stream—unless the video gets slapped with a copyright claim. In most cases Let’s Players don’t own the copyright to the games they record and profit from. Whether or not this is legal remains unclear.
Let’s Play videos exist in a gray area of the law. On the one hand, players appropriate footage—sometimes wholesale—from copyrighted video games and run ads on them. Game developers argue that this amounts to intellectual property theft, and is illegal without a license from the games’ publishers. On the other had, a Let’s Play video isn’t simply a recording of a game; the player adds his narration and changes the experience for viewers. In legal language this is called “transformative fair use,” and players believe that because they repurpose an original work, they should be allowed to continue. Let’s Plays also provide free advertising for the games developers wish to sell.
Since game developers and Let’s Players have never gone to court, there’s no precedent to shed light on the legality of Let’s Plays. Greg Lastowka, who teaches Internet and property law at the Rutgers School of Law-Camden, finds the players’ transformative fair use argument a solid one. He predicts that as Let’s Players gain economic power, they may start challenging developers in court. Or developers may start to bring Let’s Players into the fold, offering them licenses to make Let’s Plays while taking a cut of ad revenue.
“We’re going to have these authorized amateur creators that are out there, and then we’re going to have other people not realizing you need a license,” Lastowka said. “As the market matures there’s going to be a need to really clear up what the lines are.”
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When they’re not at conventions like PAX, Let’s Players stay in touch online, Skyping and Tweeting, drawn together by how much they love gaming.
For players like Varrone, online activities have become a full-time job. He spends up to 30 hours every week playing games and recording, editing and rendering video on YouTube. He records his videos out of his makeshift recording studio—his bedroom in Connecticut—where he placed a red light outside his door that he switches on whenever he’s recording to alert his parents and sister not to bug him.
He records long Let’s Plays in bits and pieces; a game that might take 40 hours to complete gets chopped into 60 episodes, each 20 minutes long, that he uploads one by one in a playlist. He meticulously edits each video to eliminate mistakes or awkward pauses in his commentary. A 20-minute episode might take five hours to record and edit.
When Varrone started Let’s Playing in 2011, quite a few real-world friends thought he was wasting his time on a dumb activity. Now that he gets a paycheck every month, they’ve changed their tune.
“They’re working their normal jobs that they hate,” Varrone said. “And they’re like, ‘I’m really kind of jealous of you.’”
Older generations tend to raise an eyebrow, however, when he explains what he does for a living. But his parents never had a problem with his job. “I’ve always been supportive of him,” his dad, James Varrone, said via email. “He has found a way to turn his constructive outlet into a source of income and that's nothing to be ashamed of.”
So the question that Varrone—and other players—wrestle with is whether Let’s Playing can be sustainable in the long run.
“I’ve thought about, when am I going to quit doing this?” he mused. “It’s an argument you have to have with yourself. When are you too old to play a video game? And when should you focus more on a ‘real’ career path?”
For now, Varrone and his ilk don’t plan to quit anytime soon. In January, 3,500 YouTube viewers tuned in to watch the first video of Varrone’s newest Let’s Play series, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds,” one of Nintendo’s more popular franchises. He loved the game, and relished controlling Link on his new adventure, spelunking through dungeons and hacking away at monsters. About halfway into his third video, Varrone unlocked a treasure chest that contained one of the game’s more unusual items: monster guts.
“I just went out of my way to acquire the dead corpse of a monster,” he told his viewers, matter-of-factly. “What am I doing with my life?”
* This sentence originally stated that Fullscreen, Inc. only represents gamers but not other kinds of content creators. It has been corrected.