According to estimates, there are over 50 million active channels on YouTube. Spotlighting any single creator — or even a whole mess of them — means leaving out tens of millions of others. YouTube learned this the hard way in 2021, when its annual Rewind year-in-review series crashed and burned after repeated criticisms that it omitted quintessential creators and defining moments in favor of advertiser-friendly sheen. Now, with this weekend’s Game On event, YouTube is trying a different tack: Highlight specific communities and let creators do the talking.
In this case, YouTube is focusing on its video game community, which has been a pillar of the platform nearly since its inception. YouTube is billing Game On, a live stream that will take place on Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern time, as a celebration of “notable games, top creators and popular trends that define gaming culture.”
The stream will last two hours and feature over 60 high-profile creators including Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach, Matthew “MatPat” Patrick, Bella Poarch, Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Ali “Myth” Kabbani across segments like “Real Professionals Play a Video Game Simulator,” “Spooky Survival: Which Senior Will Survive in ‘Poppy Playtime’?” and “‘Mortal Kombat’ Tournament: Beat Bella.” These segments will include interactive elements like polls to let fans vote to decide outcomes, choose your own adventure-style, or bet on who’s going to win.
“I think the huge range of what YouTube is in the eyes of all different creators and all different viewers is just too big,” said MJ Johnson, YouTube Gaming senior director of global marketing, when asked about “Rewind’s” retirement in 2021. “It’s just very, very hard to concisely be everything to everyone. So ‘Game On’ is a celebration of this set of creators and this set of viewers.”
Game On also comes at a time when full-scale events are gaining traction in the world of live-streaming, across both YouTube and Twitch. The so-called “events meta” has seen numerous big names launch their own game shows, fitness camps and real-life, viewer-controlled re-creations of “The Sims,” often to record viewership numbers. Twitch, meanwhile, has sponsored events and collaborations for years via programs like its competition-focused Rivals series. Now YouTube wants a slice of the live event pie.
The demand for live, often in-person events from viewers makes perfect sense to Matthew “MatPat” Patrick, a Game On host and longtime YouTuber who specializes in content that analyzes video game lore and theories. Part of it, he believes, is a matter of momentum; video games are mainstream now, and with that comes additional advertising and production dollars that can match big creators’ ambitions for live shows. There’s also the elephant in the room: the pandemic.
“We’re coming off two years where everyone was locked down and the only way they could engage with each other was in virtual formats,” Patrick told The Washington Post. “You had people doing graduations in ‘Minecraft’ and museum tours in ‘Animal Crossing.’ Gaming became a bigger centerpiece in people’s lives because that was the place they could escape or interact with friends and family. Now we’ve moved past that, and people are eager to see each other and engage. We’re looking for exciting, fun celebrations — and gaming is now a part of our lives.”
YouTube is hosting Game On at the end of a 12-month span in which it’s signed away several top Twitch streamers, but it’s not just focusing on Twitch-friendly megaliths like “Minecraft” and “Grand Theft Auto.” While those games are the centerpieces of Game On segments, so are largely YouTube-grown hits like “Poppy Playtime,” a 2021 indie horror game set in an abandoned toy factory.
True to form, Patrick has some theories about why “Poppy” has taken YouTube, specifically, by storm. Part of it comes down to playtime; indie horror games are often just a few hours long — shorter than many Twitch streams, which tend to focus on infinitely replayable multiplayer games instead. And of course, viewers love to watch YouTubers react to jump scares. But the last explanation lands squarely in Patrick’s wheelhouse: People want to understand that which frightens them, so as to gain a measure of power over it. That’s where lore deep dives on YouTube enter the picture.
“People want to have the answers presented to them, and a lot of these games are smartly done where they kind of give you enough clues that you can pick them apart, but not all the pieces fit cleanly, or there might be a couple dangling threads,” said Patrick. “So that keeps the conversation going. … Then you go to Reddit, you go to the YouTube comments, go to these places and see how your experience compared with your favorite creator.”
YouTube’s inclusion of games like Poppy in Game On demonstrates awareness of what makes its particular gaming community tick — though it remains to be seen if the challenges around streaming a game like “Poppy” can be overcome.
Despite the celebratory nature of this event, however, Johnson said YouTube also recognizes that it still has room to improve. This is especially true when it comes to uplifting newer, less-established creators and games — a common criticism of YouTube as it attempts to build up a live-streaming community of its own largely by attracting established streamers who’ll have an audience no matter where they end up. Johnson pointed to YouTube’s promotion of events put on by individual streamers as a step in the right direction, but the platform still lags behind services like Twitch when it comes to livestream-specific tools and community building features. And of course, the algorithm remains ever fickle.
“The most popular session [at our last gaming creator summit] was everyone sitting down with one of our engineering leaders and just talking about the algorithm,” said Johnson. “It really feels like there’s a desire almost of like, ‘How can I game the system? How can I use the algorithm to my advantage?’”
According to Johnson, creators’ best bet these days is to use all the tools YouTube provides: VODs, live streams and shorts — and to study resulting analytics closely. But when it comes to gaming, YouTube hopes to more consistently do its part, as well.
“We’ve got to just get better at more ongoing celebrations of why gaming is so fantastic on YouTube. We’ve got these big, one-off moments that are highly visible,” said Johnson. “But there’s new creators every day that we want to be highlighting and showcasing.”