Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Gamasutra Explains: The YouTuber Phenomenon

July 31, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

"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, 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

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

Forio — San Francisco, California, United States

Web Application Developer Team Lead
Forio — San Francisco, California, United States

Project Manager / Producer (Games)
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — Troy, New York, United States

Assistant Professor in Music and Media
The Workshop
The Workshop — Marina del Rey, California, United States



George Burdell
profile image
As games become "more watchable" for youtube, will they also become "less playable" ?

Javier Degirolmo
profile image
Not necessarily, usually those situations that make them watchable end up being even more interesting when you're the one playing. The problem would be if you shoehorn "watchability" on a design that doesn't lend itself very well to that (which usually results in both the gameplay suffering and the game not being very fun to watch either).

Christian Nutt
profile image
It seems not. What many YouTubers seem to like (and it's partially generational, I expect, but also has to do with showmanship, so to speak) are games that offer a lot of unpredictability. Minecraft is a big star, of course, because it's so popular but also because it offers a lot of changeability and randomness. But other sandbox / procedural games do well. Linear, storytelling games, less so, because they're set.

So this is influencing game design away from that, at least in cases where people want to appeal to YouTubers. But so are other factors, like the popularity of Minecraft, the popularity of sandbox games on Steam (think DayZ, Rust, The Forest) or even Kerbal Space Program, which is really player-directed if not sandbox.

Peeeeersonally I don't have a lot of interest in these kinds of games for a variety of reasons, but I wouldn't call them "less playable" in some sort of inherent way even if it is the case on my part.

Emile Tynures
profile image
Very much agree with this, the less player agency the less the videos will tend to differ from both other videos of the same game by other channels and from the game experience someone could get by going out, buying, and then playing, the game.

In addition the more player agency the more it allows the individual content creators 'personality' to show through and make the video unique - which is the selling point of most channels, not the content but the personality behind them. The more the personality can impress their unique brand/persona/style on the gameplay the better the video. Generally.

Benjy Davo
profile image
Indeed Amnesia Dark Descent was a youtube marvel due to its systemic gameplay. Even the makers admitted they traced a decent portion of their sales to youtube.

Steve Fulton
profile image
Another great example of a younger generation taking the tools supplied to them by an older gen, and doing something unexpected.

Matt Robb
profile image
In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons the YouTuber phenomenon has caught on as much as it has is because you almost never see real gameplay in any of the marketing done for any game. You see a few flashy bits, a lot of clips from cinematics, and various non-game artwork and the like.

A lot of the traditional media coverage has been co-opted by the game companies themselves, whether through direct paid reviews or just an unwillingness to play ball with media companies willing to put actual criticism into their reviews. As we've seen lately, this problem is leaking into the "YouTuber" space for the same reasons.

You're basically stuck with demos and trying to find bloggers and/or YouTubers you feel you can actually trust. Game demos seem to be becoming less and less common. F2P games are getting more clever about pushing the paywalls out far enough for you to feel time/effort invested before you hit them. That really leaves YouTube or piracy if I want to see what a game is really like before buying.

Emile Tynures
profile image
Note that important info (at least in my opinion) in regards to the MCNs listed at the end has been missed:

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

Polaris. Another popular MCN, which has worked with TotalBiscuit and PewDiePie.

Yogscast. YouTubers who became a collective, and now produce a number of popular shows."

Yogscast is actually PART of Polaris, and Polaris is in turn part of Maker. Not a huge distinction to someone on the outside but I think it is important to note.

Christian Nutt
profile image
That is important and I have to admit, it's been hard to untangle some of these relationships.

SD Marlow
profile image
I don't subscribe to any of those top 10 channels, and looking thru their videos, I'm not about to start. The "personalities" I do follow provide more in-depth or behind the scenes kind of videos, or are just interesting people who's uploads I can watch over coffee or when I have lunch at my desk (which happens way more than it should).

The trend I don't care for is the over-produced, almost TV-like eye candy videos that are more about flash and "look-at-me look-at-me" antics. The most recent was a painful "junky" of a video about comic-con... just the look on a female cosplayer's face when the guy said something about her cleavage. Ouch. NOT entertained by that.

Steven Christian
profile image
Could you share some of these "personalities"?

Simas Oliveira
profile image
I'm in the same boat as SD Marlow, never even heard of most of this top YouTubers, so I can provide some great channels that you could watch over coffee, or more likely over a meal. This is stuff I find really good, in arbitrary order of preference:


Hope you find some of these channels good for your tastes!

Jonathan Murphy
profile image
It's just another social craze. Remember the waves of 2-5 million players who jumped from one MMO to the next? How about the massive fitness craze of the Wii, then motion controls finally dying with the Kinect. Facebook was a big deal. One day it'll join Myspace, Aim in the pile. I'm more concerned with indie games getting a free pass on critical reviews. Games that have a goat with rag doll mechanics(and that's it). When I think $10-$20, I think Cave Story, or Bastion. With all crazes it'll settle down. The new fad will replace it.

This is mostly Television's fault. The amount or garbage they try to pass off as entertainment has made people move onto Netflix, Youtube. When the History Channel started coverage on Ice Road Truckers. I said, "Good bye you fkers."

Kyle Redd
profile image
Does anyone know of a "Let's Play" channel that does gameplay videos of current games, but with little or no audio commentary by the player? I'm interested in these videos because they provide a clear, unedited look at how a game actually plays (making them much more informative than trailers or other publisher/developer-created videos), but I want to hear the actual audio of the game instead of all the endless yammering.

The only channel I've been able to find that advertises "no commentary" is Alzu Gaming, but they play big AAA games almost exclusively. I'm looking more for someone that focuses on $10-$30 PC games.

Loren H
profile image
I'm not quite what you're looking for, but I don't know maybe you'll find it interesting. I mainly like to play games (not necessarily new) and just stream them without really any commentary on Twitch. I also have a YouTube channel, but both of these avenues I don't post a lot. I guess I don't feel super motivated to do so, what with a lack of views/user engagement. But regardless, if you care to check my stuff out here's the relevant info for ya:

I threw my twitter in there because if I decide to stream on twitch you'll see me tweet about it.

Mike Higbee
profile image
What you're looking for is Long Plays.

Kyle Redd
profile image

Thank you. I searched around and found several Long Plays I was looking for.

Todd Boyd
profile image
Have never seen a PewDiePie video before today. By the end of it, I was laughing myself to death, tears streaming down my face... in my cube at work. Whoops.

Bernie M
profile image
Erm, ... nope. Everything starts with a good game. After that, various media outlet (like Youtube) *might* pickup your game. But games first!

Erskine Blue
profile image
Nothing new here, make a good game. Ship something with glitches and the tubers will eviscerate it and make money while doing so.

Terry Lugviel
profile image
So artistic integrity is being sacrificed in favor of looking good on YouTube? Everything the indie game market achieved has just been dismantled. I guess it's back to making video games as a business instead of an art form.

"that features the YouTubers as playable characters in the game -- and, in turn, they promote it to their fans."

That's one way to get a site to give you a great review.