Looking at the landscape of gaming on YouTube in the last few years, one thing has become quite difficult to deny–gaming is no longer the bringer of consecutive hits for content creators that it was in its prime. Even juggernauts like PewDiePie, Jacksepticeye, and Markiplier, consistently complain about the algorithm’s propensity to systematically demote their content in recommendation channels, reflecting an eroding interest from both viewers and advertisers in the genre.
Anyone who watched this space as closely, could’ve probably foretold its steady decline years before it happened. It wasn’t just because gaming YouTubers were in the early aughts loathed for their lack of originality–resulting in a lot of memes spawning over the excessive amounts of Minecraft and Call of Duty on their channels. But it’s also partly due to YouTube’s ever-changing nature of what public perception it wants to have, along the content trends informing such a shift in PR messaging as the platform was looking to distance itself from becoming yet another depository for serialized, low-effort junk content that has only become increasingly-difficult to maintain as controversies surrounding its creation kept arising left and right.
Before online video became mainstream, the hardware for recording footage off of a console (or even a PC) wasn’t as readily available. The only entities with access to the means to produce such content were TV channels like G4TV, which in the pursuit of advertisement money and in an effort to appease television’s established status quo, meant often that their content was often more tailored towards marketability than the genuine fun of playing video games. That disparity, would come to define itself as one of the distinguishing factors between old gaming content, and its soon-to-be-successor on YouTube.
The transition to online video wasn’t without its pains. Before gaming content would find its way on YouTube, gaming outlets like IGN and GameSpot would be among the first to experiment with an online video strategy, supplementing the great volume of traditional written content they already had. It gave rise to quite an interesting collective of personalities, some of whom — like IGN’s Greg Miller — would subsequently go on to make content on their own terms, forgoing the entire corporate bureaucracy that was a staple of old gaming videos before YouTube shuttled into the mainstream.
When YouTube first got its start, the infrastructure allowing videos to be more than just blobs of noise and encoding artefacts was basically non-existent. Furthermore, the hardware to grant individual users the ability to capture content from their games was not only expensive, but it often had to account for having a fully decked-out editing den, and perhaps most important of all, connected to the internet in such a way that videos didn’t take an eternity to upload.
The rise of gaming on YouTube had coincided with a boom in online multiplayer as games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took over the world by storm. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were the freshest push by Microsoft and Sony to make online play mainstream, and that didn’t only provide a hotbed for competitive play to thrive, but it also meant a lot of people were seeking out gameplay that wasn’t their own, as part of a new-found appetite for watching people play essentially a virtual version of traditional sports. Part of that demographic would go on to form the foundation for modern esports, but it didn’t mean that pure gaming commentary where no competitive aspect is involved was going away–quite the contrary in fact.
The first hints of modern gaming YouTube were starting to take shape as a select few gaming commentary channels rose to premonition and accrued an incredible amount of followers in record time. Chief among them were the aforementioned holy trinity of PewDiePie, Jacksepticeye, and Markiplier. The first’s ascent into fame is of particular interest because of how it violated nearly every online fame directive known to man. As the channel is comfortably heading towards the 100 million subscriber milestone, its origins were steeply rooted into trends that all observers of gaming content on YouTube would come to immediately recognize.
It was in August of 2013 that PewDiePie would become the most-subscribed to channel on YouTube, cementing gaming’s reign over other genres on the platform. Back then, it was hailed as a victory because of how the system had been propping up label-backed music artists and corporate channels as YouTube was individual creativity’s last refuge. By mid-2014, the 100 biggest gaming channels on YouTube would bring in a collective whopping 3.5 billion views a month, the highest of any genre on the platform, with PewDiePie accounting for just shy of one-tenth of it.
This meant that Gaming YouTube wasn’t only one of the platform’s most lucrative avenues for creators, but it was also a marketing juggernaut for game developers who’d on top of having run their habitual marketing campaign for games, were now offered notoriety on an unprecedented scale for the low price of free. MatPat talked about this phenomenon in detail in his “YouTube is Ruining Gaming!” video, where he specifically mentioned the billions of views Minecraft content would come to accrue, resulting in an explosive rise of game sales prompted by the infamous “PewDiePie Effect”. Gaming on YouTube had morphed from being a pure conduit for creativity, well into a real opportunity for companies to capitalize on free publicity. But even the wealth of business opportunities permitted by the space didn’t prevent major advertisers from deeming the platform unfit for their needs, due to concerns about strong language, explicit nudity and depictions of violence.
As the platform continued to grow, and audience tastes changed, gaming content started to lose the allure it once had. The community for watching gaming videos was segmenting itself into smaller niches instead of crowding around a small cluster of big creators, and the rise of Twitch as a viable platform for smaller creators meant that whatever prospect of having Gaming YouTube shot with fresh blood was basically lost. Big creators would continue to rake in massive numbers, but as interest in the genre is slowly diminishing, and as YouTube started to spread its recommendation algorithm’s wings more liberally, gaming on YouTube — even if it hadn’t died per se — became now a lot smaller than it used to be. A great sum of its audience had either shifted into other corners of the platform, or is now the de facto target audience of a new wave of gaming streamers like Ninja, shroud, Tfue and Dr Disrespect on platforms like Twitch and Mixer. Jacksepticeye — the all-father of variety gaming on YouTube — said as much on a video uploaded a few weeks ago, giving us a tiny — if insignificant — glimpse into what his multi-dozen-million subscriber base says about the genre’s decline in the last few years.
“Something that I’ve been sitting on, and haven’t given my thoughts on yet at all is, how gaming on YouTube in general has just changed a lot” says a half-distraught McLoughlin. He then goes on to reluctantly affirm that “it’s not exactly a secret at this point, that gaming is kind of dying on YouTube. […] Huge variety gaming seems to be dying.” Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg echoed similar sentiment when he spoke about why he had to abandon gaming for roughly two years due to declining interest.
McLoughlin’s observation about the wider state of Gaming YouTube bears out in every single sense of the word. Especially for the types of videos that Jacksepticeye does — being the quintessential gaming YouTuber on the platform — the yields are no longer as big as they used to be. “I remember in 2016, you could upload any game you wanted– you would upload any single game. As long as you were having fun, YouTube would push it and people would watch it” remarks McLoughlin, lamenting that it’s no longer the case. Sean also cited the decline of interest in gaming as one of the motivating factors for him dipping into vlogs, reaction videos, and meme commentary as a way to keep his channel afloat midst the regular shifts YouTube’s algorithm goes through year-round.
It is safe to say that gaming on YouTube — in the traditional sense — will be forced to evolve if it has to exist in a space where as much as an eggplant in Luigi’s hand is credible grounds for demonetization. Minecraft’s resurgence on the platform as a result of PewDiePie picking up the pace on gaming content again seems more like an algorithmic fluke and less like a sustaining trend like the ones before it. But what’s sure to come out of YouTube’s changing landscape for gaming, is less of a focus on gaming as a singular brand for channels, and rather just one of many offerings alongside other genres of content. Times have changed, and lest royalty craves being thrown out of its castle, it needs to heed the call of the masses. Those who made gaming a central theme of their channel would either have to migrate to streaming, or diversify their catalogue to survive.
If interest in gaming on YouTube seems to be dying off, new strands of it have garnered new-found traction. There’s thoughtful critique channels like Errant Signal, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, Raycevick and Mark Brown, who, aided by the rise of crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Ko-fi, are able to deliver high-quality content at the fraction of advertisement money you’d typically need; channels like Noclip spearheaded a new trend in documentary-style content delivery, delving deep into the machinations of the video game industry; gaming outlets like IGN, GameSpot and Game Informer have all shifted into content deals with game developers to premiere new gameplay of upcoming games, and host conversations with game makers as a way to offer something players cannot seek elsewhere; while channels like Game Grumps and Kinda Funny prove the incredible staying-power of personality-led gaming channels. If the deck is stacked against gaming now more than ever, creators have shown incredible resilience even as the algorithm is at its most-volatile.