By Michael Mendis
So far in this biographical series, we have focused on some of the biggest names in game development (Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmack, Jade Raymond). This time however, I wanted to look at someone whose interaction with games is quite different, but no less important in the overall landscape of gaming. This time we are going to look at Felix Kjellberg, better known by his YouTube name PewDiePie.
Born on October 24, 1989 in Gothenburg, Sweden, Kjellberg grew up with a love of video games. As a kid he often made his own drawings of famous video game characters, and he was known to skip class to play games with his friends at the local internet café. He started his YouTube career while in college, and in 2011 dropped out of college and started selling hot dogs to support himself while he made Let’s Plays (videos where he records himself while playing video games). According to an interview with Rolling Stone, he realized he had potential to hit it big when he started recording himself playing horror games:
One day, in a video of him playing Amnesia, a first-person survival horror game, Kjellberg revealed his now-legendary cowardice in scary games: screaming, running and cursing at the first sign of danger. Commenters immediately asked for more. “At that point I realized, ‘Okay, I’ve got something here.’”
Just like that, he’d found out how to become a star. Screaming at the camera, telling some immature jokes, and hurling profanities (in both English and Swedish) while playing games has made PewDiePie not just a success, but one of the biggest successes in gaming. In 2012, PewDiePie became the most subscribed channel on YouTube, and today it boasts over 46 million subscribers and a whopping 12 billion total views (some perspective: at the time this article was published, some of the most popular music channels on YouTube, including Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber, each have less than half as many subscribers as PewDiePie). In fact, a survey conducted in 2014 for Variety found that PewDiePie (along with several other YouTube personalities) are substantially more popular amongst teens than mainstream film and pop stars. And Kjellberg no longer has to sell hotdogs; In 2015 alone he raked in $12 million dollars from his videos.
While Kjellberg’s personal success is a testament to the popularity of gaming amongst youth, it also has an impact on the gaming industry itself. PewDiePie is so well liked and well known by so many people, that some games (particularly small indie games) can find big success overnight if they are played by PewDiePie. It’s the kind of exposure that a small studio can only dream of; they can’t afford to hire a big publisher to promote their game, but attracting the attention of a well-known YouTuber (especially PewDiePie) introduces the game to potentially millions of new people who might otherwise have never heard of the game. And while having your game picked up by a big YouTuber doesn’t guarantee success, PewDiePie’s effect on indie game sales is in fact a well documented and highly discussed topic in the industry (for just a few articles, click here, here, and here).
It’s may seem odd that anyone could have such an impact on gaming simply by recording their reactions to playing games, but in a way it actually makes perfect sense. People love sharing entertainment experiences with others, and gamers are no different; YouTubers like PewDiePie share their gaming experiences with everyone on the internet, and their commentary adds humor and insight to their playthroughs. In a way, it’s like reality TV for gamers, but unlike shows like Survivor or The Bachelor where the reality TV stars are in situations that most of their viewers will never find themselves in, YouTube Let’s Play stars are playing the same games that their viewers are, which makes it that much easier for the viewers to sympathize with the people they are watching. It’s an incredibly fascinating aspect of gamer culture that shouldn’t be overlooked.