And now, for Mega64’s greatest stunt: Aging gracefully!
By Luke Winkie
February 17, 2023 at 8:00 a.m. EST
Mega64’s Shawn Chatfield is the father of four children. When he shows them off in photos on Twitter, his smile beams out from a salt-and-pepper beard. Rocco Botte has a few laugh lines indented around his mouth; he’ll be turning 40 next December. Derrick Acosta is the youngest member of the group, which means he was a teenager while the other two were in their early 20s. Now, he’s 37.
The three of them have been making Mega64 — a foundational web series in American video game culture — for almost two decades, and if you passed through GameFAQs forums and IGN comment sections in the early 2000s, then you probably discovered the troupe in their native state; risking humiliation and debilitation in psychedelic public stunts, a la “Jackass”or “The Tom Green Show,”except drawn from the gamer’s canon.
In one vintage sketch, Rocco scoots around a strip mall dressed as a bulky TetrisL-block — barely ambulatory, mostly blind — while a cameraman soaks in the distressed reactions of the bystanders. In another, Shawn fashions himself a “Katamari Damacy” costume, which clings to his lithe frame like a wet suit, and rolls an inflatable beach ball around a park, guileless and free, before getting tied up in a heated confrontation at a softball game. In perhaps Mega64’s masterpiece, the trio memorize the choreography to the whacked-out DS rhythm classic “Elite Beat Agents,”and perform it with gusto at a Mexican restaurant before getting escorted out by security.
I watched these clips over and over again in high school, laughing and screaming at their audacity; the wondrously raw id of Mega64. But if you count yourself as one of the gang’s earliest fans, then you, just like them, are staring down the same ultimatum. We’ve gotten old, and video games — especially video game creator content, particularly within the “Jackass”vein — tend to be the terrain of young men and women. Mega64 is attempting to age gracefully. Perhaps they can light the path forward, one more time.
“There’s been a shifting of the scales in what causes the anxiety of going out in public. When I was younger it was this fear of authority. Like, ‘I’m just this kid, and some older person is going to get mad at me,’ ” Acosta said over a Zoom call from Mega64’s studio in San Diego. “Now that I’m older, it’s like, ‘I’m too old to be doing this s---. Society is going to look at me like I’m a loser.’
“I’ve always had to tell myself that this is the job. This is what we get paid to do. Trash men go take out the trash, and Mega64 go f--- with the public.”
From ‘little stupid thing’ to a career
The principal members of Mega64 met in their high school theater department, in an age long before YouTube or Twitch. Botte owned a camcorder, and recorded all of the behind-the-scenes high jinks that teenagers get up to during the dog days of Shakespeare rehearsals. At the wrap party for each production, Botte would edit together a highlight reel of the funniest candid moments he captured, which became something of a class tradition within his grade.
“There was literally a talk in our group that was like, ‘After Rocco graduates, who’s going to make the videos?’” said Acosta.
But Botte was not a digital native, and at the turn of the millennium there wasn’t yet a computer in every American household. In those days, Botte spliced together his theater clips using two VCRs.
“Derrick was a little younger and had a new technique,” Botte said, remembering. “He’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, why aren’t you editing this on a computer?’ ”
Mega64 was born then. They just didn’t know it yet.
“The infrastructure was already in place by the time we were out of high school. We had already made hours worth of content that was well-received among our friends,” Acosta said. “We wanted to keep the project going, but we didn’t know what to do next.”
Just a few years later, the answer might have been obvious. Acosta, Chatfield, and Botte would have uploaded their project to YouTube, with high hopes that the algorithm would shine brightly upon them. But simple home video distribution was much harder to come by in 2003, so the earliest version of Mega64 emanated from public-access television in San Diego. You can still find those broadcasts on the internet: They’re scruffy and aggressively lo-fi — crackling with home-movie noise — clearly drawing from the sort of disestablishment VHS tapes you might find at a local skate shop. In particular, Botte cites “The Tom Green Show” and the CKY films released by a very young Bam Margera as primary influences. It wasn’t a worthy prank unless the threat of a beating — or an arrest — loomed. (Case in point: One of the most beloved public access-era Mega64 sketches is called “Aggressive Caroling.” The troupe sings “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” to serene onlookers, before pivoting into an ugly, violent mosh pit.)
But more importantly, those public-access broadcasts allowed the troupe to stumble toward an overarching body of fiction to buoy the stunts they were releasing — a universe to call their own. Botte took the role of an evil genius, who was forcing two captives, Chatfield and Acosta, to test his new video game console that implanted the minds of its players directly into the code, which is why they might find themselves suddenly wandering around a plaza dressed as a Tetris block. The name of that imaginary console? The Mega64.
The first block of Mega64 programming was filmed with acutely low expectations. Chatfield, Acosta, and Botte were barely out of high school, and without any metadata to parse, they kept track of the project’s traction through their personal webpages. If they managed to achieve 20visitors in a day, that counted as a massive success. (Botte would later pitch the show to G4, the nascent cable channel dedicated to early-00s video game culture, but was let down easy.)
Without any linear bankrolling, the gang released a double-DVD set of their material through the video publishing arm of Something Awful in 2004. It was called “Mega64 Version One,” and it unfolded like a zero-budget sci-fi romp: gonzo sketches bracketed by the faint whiff of long-form, anime-ish world-building. Those DVDs circulated across the country, and before long Mega64 had a genuine national audience through word-of-mouth momentum.
“They were definitely part of an early wave of people making comedy about games in the 2000s, along with Electric Playground and a few other shows,” said Merritt K, a game maker and journalist who was an early Mega64 fan. “Their influence can’t be understated — while some magazines were experimenting with games-related comedy throughout the 80s and 90s, the explosion of people goofing around with the medium that happened on YouTube in the late 2000s can trace its lineage back to them.”
None of the members are sure why, exactly, Mega64 caught on, but Chatfield has a simple theory: There simply wasn’t much video contentabout games in the early 2000s. The presence of anyonecelebrating the culture as a fan — rather than a critic or a developer — was novel. Mega64 was silly and cheaply rendered, but the people on screen clearly loved games in the same way we did. Maybe that’s all it took.
“Before we knew it, there were magazine articles written about this thing we were doing, even though we weren’t pushing it that hard,” Chatfield said. “We hit the sweet spot. We got noticed right away. Now, there’s 10,000 new YouTube channels a day.”
As the Mega64 brand grew, so did their guest list; suddenly, Mega64 skits featured cameos by Hideo Kojima, Gabe Newell, and Shigeru Miyamoto. They held down booths at conventions around the world, and sold out theaters to debut new material. The founding members still had day jobs — Chatfield was taking college classes until 2007 — but eventually it became clear that despite Mega64’s inauspicious origins, it had transformed into something close to a legacy brand.
“I never focused on making money,” Acosta said. “We had day jobs, and Mega64 was something we did for fun. I was totally happy with that. And if people were watching? Cool. But maybe it was inevitable that it would grow and become more popular, and maybe it took years for that inevitability to take over.
“The only thing that really changed was the way I talked about Mega64. When I was younger, it was this stupid thing I did with my friends. But now it’s been my career for 20 years. I was still referring to it as this little stupid thing, but this little stupid thing was more of a career than a lot of people dream of having. We just kind of found ourselves.”
From stunts to sustainability
The troupe still delivers on the public stunts that became Mega64’s calling card. Just last year Acosta slathered on some fake gore to do his best Ethan Winters impression, much to the befuddlement of the locals of San Diego’s Old Town. But as the members got older, so too did the contours of Mega64. Today, Chatfield, Botte, Acosta, and longtime collaborator Garrett Hunter have mostly ditched all of their grand television-esque narrative ambitions — an evil genius and his hapless prisoners — to lavish most of their attention on the brand’s weekly podcast. The show is plenty funny, but also a lot more sedate than the trollishness of, say, “Aggressive Caroling.” In general, Botte tells me that creatively speaking, he’s less interested these days in the shock value of the group’s early work.
“Our fans are dedicated,” Acosta said. “We have less of them, but they’re more dedicated to our work. I think we accomplish more than a lot of bigger channels. We have less soldiers but they’re stronger soldiers.”
“Always outnumbered, never outgunned,” Botte added.
On Twitch and YouTube, new channels bloom out of thin air as aspiring influencers — seated in front of neon PC cases and gray-foam microphones — publish an endless deluge of content, desperate to keep the numbers going up. More subscribers, more views, more clicks, and more donations necessitate a long catalogue of identical video game-themedclips. Ubiquity is the primary goal; creative fulfillment takes a distant second.
Mega64 — perhaps because they belong to a different generation, or perhaps because they are simply blessed with an alternate set of priorities — have chosen sustainability over expansion. It turns out, you can age gracefully in games media.
“It’s very cool to know that these guys who I watched back when I was in college are still having fun,” said Merritt.
“I work with bands who can’t even agree on what they want to be,” Acosta said. “‘Do we want to make this kind of music? Or this kind of music?’ Mega64 has never been one thing. It can be a public access show where we go out and mess with people, and it can be a podcast where we talk about our lives.”