I can still remember the first time I sat down and typed “youtube.com” into my web browser. It was during the Easter break before my GCSEs and there was only so much about magnetism and circuitry I could read for my upcoming Physics exam. The video that caught my attention was a Star Wars parody, which had nothing to do with Star Wars. It was a series about “Chad Vader”, a Darth Vader-like character in the role of a grocery store shift manager who weirded out his colleagues.
It dawned on me just how amazing this “Web 2.0” version of the internet could be, where faster broadband speeds were helping to deliver high-quality videos and music. The internet became a stable source of entertainment while I was growing up and struggling to hold onto my love of Pokémon. (Don’t worry, this love has survived and is still going strong. Guys, we need to catch ‘em all!)
Since then, many internet stars have come and gone, but one has continued to grow in size like nobody else. Felix Kjellberg, more commonly known by his internet moniker PewDiePie, is a 25-year-old Swede who has remained YouTube’s biggest star since 2013, accumulating just under 40m followers on his channel. What’s fascinating about his staggering popularity is that his videos have been watched over 10bn times, but he’s still relatively unknown to most of the public.
PewDiePie, or simply Pewds, is part of the “Let’s Play” phenomenon, where gamers upload videos of themselves commentating and reacting to computer games as they play them.
I know what you’re thinking. At first I was sceptical about this vast genre but now that I’ve spent time watching some of these videos, I’m baffled by those who don’t understand it, or people who scorn when they learn others do this as a profession. After all, an awful lot of people enjoy watching and listening to men kick a ball around on a Saturday afternoon. Isn’t this just the digital equivalent?
His popularity stems from the unique style of his videos. They usually start off with a high-pitched, signature declaration of his name before descending into sarcastic, over-the-top reactions to gaming fails, such as trying to get a slice of toast across a room, before ending and thanking his “bros” for tuning in.
Despite his antics, the main reason he’s so popular is simply how good he is. Anyone who’s played a computer game can understand the frustrations when the story progresses and you reach an immensely difficult part, or the rush of dopamine when you suddenly overcome it. Pewds is able to personify these emotions into a wacky 15-20 minute serving for us to absorb each day, especially if we don’t have time to play the games.
However, the opportunities to play games is growing. The gaming industry has exploded in the past 15 years, having long overtaken both the film and music sectors. There is also a huge range of games available, not something you can say about the never-ending stream of superhero junk served by Hollywood. The quality is also becoming breathtaking and ambitious, especially from small, independent companies, with games such as Journey, Limbo, and the dizzying MirrorMoon. These types of small indie titles are what make up the majority of his videos.
And let’s not ignore the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets which have flooded screens with games, wherever you find yourself in the world. I’m always comforted during a delay on the Tube by being able to control a deranged, digital goat on my phone.
Although many of us play games silently as if we’ve lost the ability to express emotions, Pewds does it in the completely opposite way. “They feel a connection to the one they’re watching. It’s almost like you’re hanging out,” said Felix in an interview with Variety earlier this year. But it’s something more fundamental than that; he connects with his audience very genuinely.
Just watch him talk about reports of his earnings or that his recent travels have left him tired after months of planning and working, which is unsurprising given the amount of work required to make these short bouts of adrenaline-packed videos.
To make one, he has to set up the game, adjust the camera, microphone and lighting, record a good chunk of gameplay, edit out most of what was recorded, add hilarious effects (think PowerPoint animations on steroids), create a YouTube thumbnail in Photoshop, and then the final upload. Pewds continues to control all of his output, taking very few sponsorships, and gets any assistance he needs through Maker Studios, a Disney subsidiary which helps internet stars with production. Within 18-24 hours, 1-2m enthusiastic fans will have already clicked on his newest video.
But don’t let his public antics fool you. Felix has stayed away from much of the media spotlight outside his own channel, choosing instead to live in Brighton with his partner Marzia Bisognin, who is also a successful YouTube personality going by the name CutiePieMarzia. Whereas Felix’s videos are fizzling with energy, Marzia’s are much more subdued, focusing on fashion, travel and general day-to-day vlogging. Let’s hope their relationship lasts, at least to save on any public displays of awkwardness.
I was able to see Pewds recently, after queuing for many hours for a selfie, and collected a signed copy of his book, This Book Loves You. Before arriving, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the number of people there or their demographic, but any preconceptions I had were immediately undone. There were teen fangirls, young kids accompanied by their parents, people in their early twenties (like myself), people in their early forties, and ethnic diversity as well. And did I mention the teen fangirls? His influence is clearly much wider than any YouTube stats report can possibly produce, and after four hours in Piccadilly Circus, there wasn’t any sign of the queues dying down.
Pewds won’t be giving hints about his future ambitions any time soon. Think of him as this generation’s Björn Borg, the legendary tennis player who was known for staying calm and reserved during his matches – except Pewds swaps a racket for an Xbox controller.
What is clear is that the internet is constantly changing the media landscape, even with everyday services like YouTube now firmly in the mainstream. Other YouTube stars have successfully transitioned into radio, made films or (also) released books, trying to appeal to new audiences. However, the unique connection YouTube stars have with their fans is in their ability to make videos catering to them directly. And Pewds, who has the biggest following of the lot, is showing no signs of stopping serving his tens of millions of loyal followers.