While some may ask themselves, “How did someone like PewDiePie become so famous, he was once named one of the Time 100," their children have been addicted to the kind of videos he produces for years, a genre called “Let’s Play."
In PewDiePie’s Time 100 citation, “South Park” creator Trey Parker called Let’s Play videos “the birth of a new art form. And I don’t think anyone should underestimate its most powerful artist.”
That was in 2016. In 2019, the medium’s most powerful artist has moved on. Kind of.
Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg still produces plenty of gaming videos. But in the past few years, he has become better known as a purveyor of memes with his regular show “Meme Review,” which has featured Elon Musk and Ben Shapiro. He also creates a variety of content that focuses on his opinions and personality.
His prescient shift coincided with other changes in YouTube culture, including the takeover of Viners, such as Logan Paul, and the rise of daily vlogging. Other prominent YouTube gaming channels such as Markiplier and Game Grumps now feature other content on top of their regular Let’s Plays. Markplier recently posted about his wisdom teeth removal, while the Game Grumps duo now have a regular “Ten Minute Power Hour” variety program, where they do activities like make cheese sculptures of each other.
Even Hollywood star Jack Black made a running joke of Let’s Plays. His channel’s name, Jablinksi Games, is ironic because every Friday, Black promises gameplay footage, and then the video is mostly him spending time with his kids.
His first video featuring any video games was him mocking the Let’s Play format, and also possibly mocking YouTubers who tried to get in on the trend by pretending to play while actually just watching other people’s videos.
“Oh my thumb’s getting so tired from gaming so hard,” Black deadpans, clearly not playing. He shouts out a gaming company name (mocking another trend of influencers) before angrily tearing down his green screen and muttering, “I can’t do this. This is bulls---.”
At their core, Let’s Play videos feature running commentary on top of video gaming footage. The format was christened as Let’s Play on the SomethingAwful message boards, allowing forum members to get involved in the story. It wasn’t until 2007 when a user named “slowbeef” (real name Michael Sawyer) uploaded audio commentary along with his game recording of “The Immortal” for the Sega Genesis (Kotaku published a comprehensive history of the genre). Thus, the birth of a new art form.
Parents are likely familiar with the “Minecraft” videos their kids grew up watching. PewDiePie became famous first for screaming at jump scares in horror games such as “Amnesia.”
Longtime Let’s Player Woolie Madden, 32, of Canada, says viewers are looking for at least one of three factors in Let’s Play content: The videos have to be informative, entertaining or reactionary.
“If you’re all three, that’s fantastic,” said Madden, who was part of a larger YouTube channel called Super Best Friends Play before the personalities broke up last year. “If you only have one out of three, it needs to be a 10-out-of-10 thing. As times have gone on, people are looking for a bit more of just that one thing.”
Many gaming personalities have been shifting toward streaming. Even slowbeef, acknowledges the shift from the curated Let’s Play format to a live experience. Not only does the “chat” experience of a live stream feel more civil and moderated, but it’s “slightly easier to carve out a steady income on streaming services due to the stability of the subscription system," rather than relying on ads, Sawyer wrote.
YouTube could not provide statistics on Let’s Play content, partially because it’s so difficult to define the genre. A YouTube spokesperson said people watched more than 50 billion hours of gaming content on YouTube in 2018, with most being video on demand, rather than streaming.
“While live-streaming has grown, VOD has never been bigger for gaming,” the YouTube spokesperson said.
YouTuber GrayStillPlays found success in the past three years despite the shift. With 1.5 million subscribers, the Florida resident in his late 30s says that even though the market is saturated, there are ways to be creative and find success. He focuses on independent simulations, experimenting with games that allow him to “give the world a crippling debt” and build a city with a 0 percent income tax rate.
“It goes back to being a canvas,” he said, alluding to Let’s Plays as an art form. “You can’t paint the same picture over and over again. When you think about Let’s Players and all the famous ones that come to mind, they have fulfilled certain needs for the audience base. If you just try and fulfill the same need, what are you really doing?”
Madden agrees and says finding a voice in the crowd is tricky. Before Super Best Friends Play dissolved last year, the team reached early success by being part of a YouTube network, an old way of doing business on YouTube before the model blew up.
“What YouTube likes to see and what it pushes and encourages has morphed into something different,” Madden said. “Certain videos that were very short with a big face reacting? That doesn’t fly as well as it used to.”
Madden also now regularly streams on Twitch. However, he still believes in posting Let’s Plays on YouTube because YouTube still commands such a large audience. Often, he edits his Twitch live streams and uploads them to YouTube, like his recent playthrough of “Resident Evil 2 Remake."
“If you get 20,000 viewers, that’s okay, whereas 20,000 viewers on Twitch is a massive success,” Madden said. “Until that comes closer together, I think we’re still going to have YouTube as a main outlet.”
Let’s Players on Reddit also express frustration that YouTube isn’t doing enough to support small creators, particularly since Google’s video platform is now courting large studios and advertisers.
“YouTube’s moving into the TV business, so pretty soon small creators are going to be screaming in the dark,” said Reddit user RelleMeetsWorld. “The other issue is YouTube has no real competition. There’s no viable space that actually nurtures small creators, because, at this point, YouTube is the household name, even though it’s an uncaring environment.”
The genre still has new believers. Haylee Slusser, 26, of Sacramento, started Haylo Plays in March and has 15 subscribers. She began 2019 losing her job, and friends have told her she has a pleasant voice. She likes playing games, so why not try to make some money?
She’s starting with the tried-and-true template of playing games she likes, and they just happen to be scary games. She has watched many of the larger Let’s Players and took notes.
“In some ways, they’re walking so I can run later, hopefully,” Slusser said.
As a woman, she has been hesitant before because of the Internet users’ reputation of abuse. But she says she has put it aside and wants to be as authentic as she can be.
“I’ve gotten to a point with being comfortable enough with myself to just acknowledge that people are terrible on the Internet,” Slusser said. “And even though they try to make it personal, it’s almost not, in a way. It’s obviously more about them than it is about you.”
Another Let’s Play rookie, Air Force veteran Kyle Shepard, has been at it for five months, with more than 10,000 subscribers to his Tobel Plays channel, which focuses on independent management simulators. He found a community of players interested in similar games and built his channel from there.
“Some of those users went out and advertised on my behalf,” said the 35-year-old Nashville resident. “My biggest challenge is time. I’m going back to full-time work.” Hence, he has begun streaming his gameplay on Twitch, since streaming doesn’t take hours of editing work.
Sawyer, the original Let’s Player, wrote in Polygon that as market forces and algorithms change, talking over gaming footage might just die. But that’s likely not the case.
“What’s more likely is that both methods of playing games on video will somehow learn to live next to each other," he wrote.
Madden is the only one of the former Super Best Friends group committed to the old-school style of Let’s Play. Yes, the editing issues are time consuming and the pressure is higher, because it requires cutting hard-to-watch footage of ambling gameplay and commentary.
“But the end result is something I really, really feel proud of. It’s more measured than a Twitch stream. And it ends up feeling like a very complete look and journey through a game," Madden said. “I still enjoy that, and I’m going to keep with it until ... well, I guess until I don’t have that feeling anymore.”
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