YouTube and Twitch have changed the way people engage with video games.
Interested viewers can now stream their favorite teams in an EVO match, or watch a dedicated player speed run through a favorite game. These aspects of gaming culture are far from being a niche phenomenon; Let’s Players including Pewdiepie, Markiplier and PeanutButterGamer have achieved a “celebrity” status and enjoy the same viewership as many primetime television shows.
Of course, playing video games professionally is something only a few people have the privilege to enjoy. Perhaps some look for money or fame as a long-term goal, but this, like other forms of celebrity status, isn’t guaranteed. The vast majority of Let’s Players run their channels as a hobby.
Let’s take, for example, Anthony. At 7 a.m on a Tuesday morning he’s likely checking video he rendered overnight for his channel Sea Otter Gamer. He has an aggressive posting schedule, uploading one or two videos every weekday. He does this before leaving for his full-time job; he leaves weekends open to spend time with his wife and two children.
For many Let’s Players, running a channel is a part-time gig that forces them to balance the requirements of growing their channels with their personal and professional lives. How do these up-and-coming Let’s Players grow their audience and market themselves? What drives people to play games in front of an audience?
I had the pleasure to open up this series with an in-person interview: Anthony, a fellow resident of Denver (and Colorado native, unlike most of us in this city nowadays) who his started his channel Sea Otter Gamer a couple years ago.
“I was just looking for a hobby to fill my spare time,” Anthony said. “I started watching a lot of other gaming YouTubers and said ‘this looks like fun so I might try it.’ [I] got pretty much instantly hooked and [now] I’m still doing it almost three years later.”
Anthony decided to start out his channel playing through a childhood favorite game, Hook for the Sega Genesis. “It was a game I played a lot as a kid so I knew it very well,” Anthony said. “I decided to record that because it was easy to play and easy to record.”
Anthony said his channel evolved, “kinda as I figured out what I was better at and what I had fun playing.” Given that he hasn’t narrowed himself into a particular genre, his channel has featured both Indie games and AAA games.
Like anything else worth pursuing, growing a YouTube channel takes patience and dedication. “You put out videos and you don’t get a lot of views on them like for a really, really long time,” Anthony explained. “YouTube is very much a slow game, you’re not gonna grow very fast in general.” It took him about six months before he hit 100 subscribers.
It’s a hard truth that very few channels see growth. Anthony explained to me that most channels have less than 100 subscribers. “Something like 84 percent of channels [has] under 100 subscribers, so once you hit that you’re like in the top 16 percent,” he explained. “Once you hit that, from most channels I’ve seen, you start to get a pretty steady… kinda like one subscriber a day, maybe two, and it fluctuates up and down. About a year and a half [into my channel] is when I started going from about two or three subs to about nine a day and it’s been just kinda growing from there. It’s definitely non-linear, it’s definitely something that’s a little bit more exponential - as you get more subs, more people find your videos and you get subscribers faster.”
I think… a lot of people get into YouTube and have this go get ‘em attitude like ‘I’m gonna see a lot of growth, I’m gonna have a lot of views,’ and they don’t realize that it takes months if not years of hard work to get to that point.
Anthony believes the number of inactive channels has to do with how people underestimate the time, energy and patience needed to gain traction within the YouTube space. “I think… a lot of people get into YouTube and have this go get ‘em attitude like ‘I’m gonna see a lot of growth, I’m gonna have a lot of views,’ and they don’t realize that it takes months if not years of hard work to get to that point,” he explained. “They get burnt out and they don’t see the return on investment that they’re putting in and they quit. I see that a lot.” Sea Otter Gamer crossed the 3,000 subscriber threshold this July.
Finding Your Niche
Inactive channels aside, Let’s Players face the challenge of separating themselves from the other channels out there. “For most people, we create very similar content,” Anthony said. “When you’re starting out, there’s always this drive to find your niche and somehow distinguish yourself from others in order to give people a reason to watch your content.”
For many, this means focusing on a few niche titles that have a devoted community. “The biggest game on my channel right now is called Realm of the Mad God, it’s a four-year-old MMO, permadeath, bullet hell game, and it has a really awesome, dedicated community but not a lot of YouTubers. I’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth just because I record and put out videos for that game.”
Indeed, the channel’s three most popular videos deal with Ream of the Mad God, with the most popular (“Ep. 104 - It’s raining White Bags!”) having over 18,400 views.
Despite this focus, Sea Otter Gamer also runs a First Look series, where he plays new indie games for the first time. Games played in this series include Battleborn, Dark Souls III, and Paladins. “There’s a lot of research that goes into… trying to find the new upcoming game, what’s the next one that’s going to really explode on YouTube. If you can get ahead of that curve and put your videos out, that’s where you see your growth.”
I asked Anthony about his process for finding new niche and indie games to play. “One of the biggest parts of YouTube gaming that most people don’t realize is it takes an incredible amount of research,” he explained. “And now there [are] a lot of good areas you can go to. There’s itch.io, you can look at Steam Upcoming games, you can put your name down on press lists and you get an incredible amount of email from indie devs and other developers giving you information about their games, and then there’s a gaming press list that you can get on where basically all the developers just dump all their data into it and comes out once a day with a newsletter saying here’s all the stuff coming up. I [also] talk to a lot of other YouTubers. We have a very dedicated group of friends that all kinda say ‘hey, this is a game I found, what do you guys think?’ and we share all of the cool new games coming out.”
The Appeal of Twitter
When it comes to social media, Anthony’s favorite platform is Twitter. “I talk to a lot of people on Twitter,” he explained. “Subscribers, viewers, other YouTubers, other people in the games industry, developers, that kind of thing.” “Twitter is much easier. It’s quick, you can post a quick link and a little blurb and then be done with it.” Sea Otter Gamer currently has over, 1,300 Twitter followers.
Today marks 3 years of me creating content on @YouTube. I'm actually kind of shocked it's lasted so long xD— Sea Otter (@SeaOtterGamer) August 23, 2016
(that's what she said)
Other social media avenues don’t offer, for him, this same balance. “Very rarely I’ll post to Reddit. Reddit is kind of a dangerous beat. You could get… a lot of people love it, get a lot of views from it, and you could also get a lot of hate and downloads and people going onto your channel and trolling, which is not usually what I’m looking for.”
“With Reddit, really what you wanna do is find a subreddit that allows you to post and have a very specific thing kind of made for that and say ‘hey I saw a lot of people on here that were having trouble with this so I made a video on it to hopefully help you out.’ And you post maybe once a week, maybe once a month, not very often, you don’t wanna feel spammy.”
Facebook is another platform that he doesn’t regularly use. “I feel like it’s not as easy of a platform to reach out to people. It’s not as quick as Twitter and it doesn’t feel as robust.” Anthony has created a profile for his channel as opposed to a page, and primarily uses this to share his tweets.
Engaging with Viewers
“It was kinda weird,” Anthony said when describing the first comments he received from viewers. “It was like ‘oh, somebody actually took time to watch my video.’ But you get used to it, but it’s also this really cool feeling that somebody watched something that you made and liked it enough or disliked it enough to take a moment of their time to just send you a quick message.”
Nevertheless, Anthony considers engaging with viewers the most rewarding part about running Sea Otter Gamer.“The YouTube community and the gaming community are two of the very best communities I’ve ever been a part of. Very passionate people, very nice people usually. A lot of the comments you get are just like very simple ‘nice video’ or ‘thanks for hosting this’ type thing. Usually on long-form games like let’s plays you’ll get a lot of those [types of comments]. I also get a lot of [comments] like ‘do you need help with this?’ and giving me advice.”
“I get a lot of what I would consider spam, like ‘hey check out my channel’ type of comments, which usually I just mark as spam and move on. I do get a very small amount of ‘hey, get good’ or ‘hey, you suck at this,’ and that’s pretty much it.”
When handling excessively negative comments, Anthony refuses to reply and feed into that type of content on his channel. “I try and host a very positive channel, I feel like I’m a fairly positive person when I’m playing the games and honestly I just don’t have time for that, so sometimes I’ll just delete ]those comments], or if they’re consistently posting hate spam I’ll just block them from the channel.”
Other Aspects of Gaming Culture
“There was a time where I was ‘hired’ by a team called Kaizen eSports to do videos for them. I started doing videos for their organization, and about a week later their organization kinda went bust. I tried to get into that side. It didn’t really work out [and] I haven’t really tried since. I do watch a lot of Counterstrike, a lot of Overwatch.”
In the community “I do a lot of tutorial-type stuff and help out other YouTubers… behind the scenes, usually on Reddit or on some of the other community-type [forums] that’s separate from my YouTube channel.”
Of course, finding some sort of balance can be said of just about any adult nowadays, and this optimal balance is different for everyone.
“Right now, it’s not really a business for me because I don’t make enough from it. It’s very much just a passion project. There’s no reason for me to stop unless something happens in my personal life that forces me to stop, or maybe [YouTube changes] their copyright policies to where you can’t post videos on games anymore. There’s always that kind of overarching doom with YouTube that they’re gonna do something stupid and it’s gonna just shut down a whole bunch of channels.
Anthony keeps to a strict schedule, posting one or two videos every weekday. “I sacrifice a lot of my personal time. I have a full-time job and I have a wife and two kids, and so my recording time is basically after everyone else has gone to bed. I’ll get on about 8 or 9 at night and record and edit and then render it overnight and then post it the next morning. I try and record as much as I can during the weekends, but usually, I don’t have time to. I’m using that time as family time to hang out. Usually, what I’ll do is record and edit the night before and then post it the following morning.”
Ideally, Anthony would like to transition to a variety channel, which features a lot of different games. “Realm of the Mad God is great, but the channels that focus on one game, in particular, can see a lot of growth… but the problem is when that game dies, or if it dies, your channel dies with it. “I’ve begun that transition. It’s hard because I can say ‘I can get this many views with this content and I’ll get maybe a tenth of it with other content.’ But you have to do it and you have to transition and you have to take that loss in order to see bigger growth in the future.”
Anthony is also considering streaming to supplement his channel, though he understands that streaming poses its own challenges. “In order to be kinda successful at streaming, you really have to have a very set, rigid schedule and a lot of times you have to stream for, I’d say, at least two hours, so that’s kind of difficult for me most of the time.”
Two hours a few times a week can easily cut into the little free time Let’s Players already have. Building oneself as a Let’s Player can be rewarding, but it’s something that requires true dedication and the tenacity to persevere despite what often is a slow and demoralizing start. As I continue this series, we’ll undoubtedly speak with streamers who market themselves differently, target different viewers and find different aspects of the let’s player journey more appealing than others. Such differences will raise important questions about the nature of becoming an e-sport celebrity and how to best approach the task.