If you don’t know the name Felix Kjellberg by now, you’re in the minority.
In the past three months, the 25-year-old YouTuber has scored a lengthy profile in ESPN and the cover of Variety. He’s written a book for teens that is already among Amazon.com’s most popular — a full month before its release. And on Sunday, he added a new record to his résumé: He’s the first person to ever reach 10 billion YouTube views. (For reference, there are only 7 billion people on Earth.)
Despite all this, Kjellberg isn’t exactly a household name — and not just because his name is difficult to pronounce. The majority of his fans are teenagers with a keen, preexisting interest in video games; when another YouTuber asked adults to watch Kjellberg’s YouTube channel for a reaction video in 2012, he caught a mix of incredulity, bewilderment … and annoyance.
“The humor, I just don’t understand it,” Kjellberg’s own mother once said. “I’ll see in the comments, ‘Check out 4:26. I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.’ I’ll go there and don’t find anything that resembles a joke.”
How PewDiePie got his start
Kjellberg, who goes by the moniker “PewDiePie” online (“pew” for the sound laser guns make, “die” for death, pie for … no particular reason), was born in Gothenberg, Sweden in 1989. His parents are both high-powered corporate executives who encouraged him to enroll at Chalmers University of Technology, a competitive school. While he did study industrial engineering for a time, though, Kjellberg far preferred making art and playing video games, and felt he didn’t fit in well. Dropping out to play games full-time on YouTube was, he has said, “not easy” to discuss with his parents.
From more or less the beginning, though, Kjellberg’s videos were a hit. He founded PewDiePie in 2010 and began uploading videos of himself playing horror games, which he would narrate in absurd, exaggerated ways.
By 2011, he had attracted an international following. By 2012, he had moved out of his parent’s house and begun dating one of his fans, an Italian woman named Marzia Bisognin. (She’s now a YouTube star in her own right, and a regular fixture in Kjellberg’s videos.) Since then, Kjellberg has built YouTube’s largest audience and signed to Disney-owned Maker Studios. In 2014, Kjellsberg made more than $7 million — so much that he felt he had to justify it in an explanatory six-minute video.
What those wacky YouTube videos are actually about
That video, published two months ago, makes a good example of Kjellsberg’s range: While he’s commonly described as a video-game commentator, it’s probably more accurate, at this point, to call him a general-interest vlogger — someone whose appeal lies in his lifestyle and camera-ready demeanor.
His short, under-produced videos can pivot from first-person game reviews, to conversations between him and girlfriend Bisognin, to lengthy, stream-of-consciousness updates about his pugs and his personal life in Bristol, England. Generally speaking, though, these videos always share two things: their lingo (fans are “bros,” for instance, and always addressed that way), and their absurdist, over-the-top treatment of whatever is on tap that day.
Kjellsberg’s YouTube persona is almost hysterically enthusiastic; his delivery is underproduced and unscripted, complete with uhms and false starts and curse words. Best of all, Kjellsberg seems to possess a voice actor’s range of weird tones and accents, which he deploys at random. (Critics often pan Kjellsberg’s “girly screams,” which are, er — distinctive.)
To many people, Kjellsberg’s mother included, this makes for a baffling performance. Kjellsberg isn’t a particularly witty or nuanced comedian. His commentary on gaming isn’t all that incisive. Instead, he embodies a cultural value that’s particularly important to the YouTube generation: He comes across as 100-percent authentic. Watching a PewDiePie video is like listening to a friend; not a super witty or insightful friend, generally, but a friend who is consistently fun to hang out with.
Where you’ll see Felix Kjellsberg next
The evidence suggests that we’re all about to hang out with Kjellsberg more than we may have anticipated. Historically, he’s described himself as media-shy and uncomfortable with attention; he’s long been skeptical of sponsorships, partnerships, conferences, award shows and other trappings of YouTube success.
Speaking to the Swedish magazine Icon, Kjellsberg complained that his level of influence was already “almost scary” and that it had “almost gotten to the point that I don’t want it”; gamemakers have observed a kind of Oprah effect, wherein sales surge when Kjellsberg mentions them.
More recently, however, Kjellsberg’s fear of the spotlight appears to be changing. On top of the book, titled “This Book Loves You,” Kjellsberg is also purportedly working on a video game. He’s currently taking a break from his channel to appear on TV. And when Variety named him its No. 1 digital star over the summer, Kjellsberg — once famous for refusing every interview — agreed to be photographed for the cover.
“YouTube breaks the barrier between the audience and the creator,” Kjellberg told the magazine. “They feel a connection to the one they’re watching.”
Whatever the audience feels when they watch Kjellsberg, it’s clearly working. As of this writing, PewDiePie has scored 10,048,642,273 views — and counting.
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