Latest posts by Alexander Vandewalle (see all)
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Originally founded by PayPal employees in 2005, YouTube has been a successful media platform ever since it was created. It has played a vital role in shaping popular internet culture and, over the course of its current thirteen year existence, has undergone multiple significant technological advancements (live streaming, 360° videos, etc.). Its power has been recognized by multiple day-time and night-time television shows, and a large amount of talk-show hosts (Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, Ellen DeGeneres, to name a few) have been utilizing the medium to post small excerpts from their shows in order to create a larger and more international revenue.
For a large part of those thirteen years, YouTube has housed a plenitude of gaming channels. YouTube gaming has become such an expansive internet sub-culture, seemingly profitable without end and increasingly crucial in video game business strategies. For this post, I’d like to take a further look into the main characteristics of the phenomenon and how gaming translates itself onto YouTub. Usually, this is the place where I write something cliché like ‘Let’s dive in!’, but since we’re talking about gaming, I’m changing it to something more gaming appropriate. Let’s press X to start!
The main challenge with putting out YouTube content for a living is actually getting people to watch. It’s 2018, people are busy and have become accustomed to consuming media content at an increasingly fast pace. Why should they watch your videos? Or, put into industry terms: How can you make them watch your videos? A couple of years ago, the American talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel faced a large amount of backlash when he made fun of YouTube gaming, claiming he didn’t understand why people would watch other people play video games instead of just playing the video games themselves. Ultimately, famous gamers Markiplier and MissesMae “educated” Jimmy in the ways of YouTube gaming, which resulted in this video:
In the video, Markiplier says that one of the main reasons he thinks people watch people playing video games is because it’s like watching your (online) friends play something. And true, when I was a kid I would often go to the houses of my friends to play video games, either together or by waiting each other’s turn (I still do that, actually). While playing the games yourself was of course a big part of the fun, I remember the best part actually being together with your friends and having these random moments of glory, like having an awesome kill, unlocking a secret level, and whatnot. I think there really is something to Markiplier’s statement, and that by watching YouTube gamers you sort of get “acquainted” with them. So one of the most important things to keep in mind as a YouTube gamer, I think, is to make yourself easy to sympathize with. No one likes to watch someone they hate.
In line with this is the fact that it’s important to create a personality and a community around yourself. In the end, people go to YouTube to be entertained, so it helps if you can turn yourself into an entertaining personality that people will look forward to returning to. So how do you create a personality? One way YouTubers tend to draw attention to themselves is by making some notable changes to the way they look (changing the color of their hair, etc.). Another frequently used strategy is by having inside jokes and/or insider terminology. The YouTube channel ToasterGhost, for example, used to have a show called “Bad E-Sports”, where they had two players go against each other in multiple video games. However, they had this thing where every now and then, the so-called “increase armadillo” would show up, which would drastically change the course of the match. The “increase armadillo” is of course something they made up, but having these insider terms helps in establishing a loyal community bound to return to your channel. A third strategy is by having a group of gamers on camera, where every member has his/her “place” in the team. Smosh Games is a channel that really benefits from that. In the Smosh Games community, the member Jovenshire is for example known for his excessive “Joven rages”, which basically means he would start throwing controllers whenever he would mess up at a game. Wes, another Smosh Games member, is for example known for his “#Wescuses”, where he would blame a personal video game failure on a technical malfunction (lagging, glitches, and the like). This all helps to create a steady fan base that ‘knows’ these YouTubers as if they were their friends.
Essentially, YouTube gaming is a performance. To be an on-camera presence, again, you need a certain amount of personality that might even require a little bit of acting. When I play a video game by myself, I rarely speak, for example. I’m focused on the game, and I might say some angry stuff if something ludicrous happens (so I was playing the new Fortnite mode a couple of days ago; the storm was closing in and I saw the Infinity Gauntlet just lying there on a hill in front of me with no one near me to pick it up, so I go there to get it but just when I reach the spot the Gauntlet disappears and gets thrown in the new safe zone, leaving me there at like two feet of the storm border. Yep. I got angry.). In a YouTube gaming video, though, you need to be speaking at all times to not lose audience interest, and you need to comment on everything that’s happening exactly when it is happening.
In order to appeal to a big audience, it’s also important to be caught up with all the latest YouTube trends. YouTube gamers often participate in “traditional” non-gaming video trends (try not to laugh challenges, everyday vlogging, and such). These videos help in reaching different (non-gaming) audiences, and therefore in expanding the amount of people watching your content. A good example of this is the so-called “hot pepper challenge”, which involved YouTube stars having to eat a Habanero pepper, which is one of the hottest peppers in the entire world. The challenge quickly took over YouTube gaming, and even resulted in a specific gaming channel called Hot Pepper Gaming, where famous YouTube gamers reviewed popular video games after having eaten said pepper. You can see Melonie Mac‘s hot pepper review of Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015, Crystal Dynamics, Square Enix) here:
From an industrial standpoint, gaming has quite often become serialized and branded. If we return to the example of Smosh Games, then it is striking how the channel has become a large and influential part of the Smosh brand (currently owned by Defy Media, that also owns such popular channels like Screen Junkies, The Warp Zone, The Escapist or the entire Clevver brand). Smosh Games is but one part of the larger Smosh brand that includes other channels like the main channel Smosh, Smosh Pit (previously “Smosh 2nd Channel”), or Smosh Cartoons (although that channel has been inactive for more than a year). Smosh Games has a more or less fixed release schedule every week, with Mondays reserved for “Maricraft” (a.k.a. the group playing Minecraft (2011, Mojang), initially led by the group member Mari Takahashi), Sundays reserved for “Board AF” (a.k.a. the group playing board games), and so on. This means that the channel revolves around an episodic structure, much like traditional TV broadcasting where it is extremely important to program the right content at the right time. The Smosh brand is kind of the YouTube equivalent of that, I think.
To finish off here, I think it’s kind of amazing to see how video games have become a part of contemporary popular entertainment culture. I like Jimmy Kimmel as a talk-show host, but his comments about the gaming community, even when looked at through the comedy perspective, just feel weird and undeserved. Video games have earned their rightful place in popular culture next to film and TV (among others), and watching other people play video games is just a whole lot of fun. I think that’s the main take-away here: to have fun. Throughout this post, I have talked about how the YouTube gaming is a performance constructed by personalities with the intention of entertainment, and that entertainment value is the most important thing about it. Whether you play a video game or watch someone else play one, the most important thing, I think, is that you have fun.