Throughout its existence, the video game world has been viewed by many as juvenile; pure entertainment with no real “culture” (as the word is misused nowadays, conjuring images of mahogany desks and bow ties) associated with it. Games are routinely accused of being a waste of time, and the amount of accusations and lawsuits involving game developers regarding violent crimes is mind boggling.
I’d say that these prejudices have led to the gaming industry never really being taken seriously. Although the massive release of Grand Theft Auto V may have turned a lot of heads (USD$800,000,000 in one day tends to do that), in comparison to the much more highly regarded film and T.V industries, video games are rarely considered an economically sound investment by the “outside” world.
I use the term “outside” deliberately. As someone who relishes in the culture of video games, i can attest that it does often seem like “we” are in a socially constructed bubble that other lifestyles often misunderstand. As different as the industries are, however, every area of entertainment has its own performers, and its own celebrities, and video games are no exception. Although they are all celebrities in their own right, In this post I’m not talking about famous competitive gamers or game developers. Music has its Bieber, film has its Depp, and we gamers have our Let’s Players.
In the ever evolving context of YouTube, recent times have shown that a large majority of the most subscribed, most watched, and highest earning channels belong to hugely popular video gamers. In fact, the top 2 highest earning channels (as of May 2013) are gaming channels, namely The Yogscast (a company grounded in Minecraft videos) and PewDiePie, a lone let’s player. I’m also going to talk about another entertainer, RoosterTeeth, who have a history grounded in video games and a very high ranking YouTube channel.
PewDiePie, or Felix Kjellberg, is currently the number one most subscribed channel on YouTube. Kjellberg’s channel, which consists almost entirely of Let’s Play videos, has gone from 3.5 million subscribers to over 20 million in the past year alone. Keep in mind, this is a channel entirely owned and operated by one 24 year old Swedish man. Estimates put this guy’s earnings per year between USD$650k and USD$6.1 Million based solely on ad revenue.
The Yogscast, in contrast, is a company consisting of many employees, an office building, and several channels spearheaded by Lewis Brindley and Simon Lane, and its first and most popular channel “YOGSCAST Lewis and Simon” (formerly “BlueXephos). This channel has over 6.5 million subscribers, however taking into consideration the other channels under the “Yogscast” banner, the subscriber count is over 17 million. Estimates put the main channel earnings in the same ballpark as PewDiePie.
Finally, we come to RoosterTeeth, a 10 year old entertainment company based in Austin, Texas. The company came to fame for their use of the video game Halo: Combat Evolved, which they effectively used as an engine to create a sci-fi/comedy web series, Red vs Blue, in what was essentially the first “Machinima” series to gain widespread viewership. Since then, the company has evolved from four friends to a production company with 50 members of staff, boasting departments dedicated to animation, Let’s Plays, an anime series, a live podcast, and live action comedy sketches. Their two main YouTube channels have nearly 9 million subscribers, and have collectively amassed almost 3 billion video views.
Without getting too bogged down in statistics (although I already am at this point) PewDiePie’s profit is through the roof. His expenditure on his channel pretty much just consists of buying video games, which costs next to nothing when your income is as high as his. The Yogscast would undoubtedly have a higher expenditure rate, due to their “company” business model requiring a headquarters and such. RoosterTeeth, in turn, have a different business model with much more staff, and many different areas to what they do.
The reason I have (over)used these three specific examples, is to show the wide variety in which playing video games can create a career. From Kjellberg’s one-man-with-a-computer operation to RoosterTeeths 50-person staffed facility, video game performers connect with their audience, and occasionally make a damn nice profit along with it. I personally have seen people walking around Queen Street touting Yogscast Tshirts, and RoosterTeeth bags. The fame of these people has stretched to little Auckland, New Zealand, and it did so riding on the back of video games. In any case, it is important to think about these figures when involved in discourse about the industry. Games are labelled as time wasting and no one would think of them as in any way a career, let alone the path to fame and fortune. But people like PewDiePie and companies like the Yogscast and RoosterTeeth built careers from essentially just PLAYING games. This is not to mention the hundreds of thousands of jobs that involve gaming, from developers, coders, animators, journalists and so on. No-one might believe it, but gamers are just as legitimate in their performances as any singer or actor.