Marques Brownlee Remains Tech YouTube’s Incontestable King
The work ethic is beyond anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else on the platform.
If you drilled down the content rabbit hole in Tech YouTube even five years ago, it’s unlikely you’ll have noticed something out of bounds, or unconventionally creative with how it covers the gadgets we’ve been accustomed to using for a great portion of our lives. Tech coverage has for the longest time been confined to this restricted space of “Here’s what the gadget is, and here’s what it does” but as consumer awareness grows thicker, it becomes an important order for tech journalists and reviewers to really nail their coverage outside the usual conventional lines of spec breakdowns and feature walkthroughs–this is where a YouTuber like Marques Brownlee comes in. He takes on the formula, he picks it apart, flips it upside down, turns it inside out, puts it back together, and the result is nothing shy of impressive on any and all fronts.
To be a tech YouTuber in the past was not that major a hurdle to clear. It mainly consisted of running down the features of a product, maybe a price comparison with other competitors on the market, and a physical overview that often disseminates from the “Unboxing” format folks like Unbox Therapy have been able to perfect for quite some time now. But tech didn’t use to be as pervasive as it is currently. It’s only as our use of it became more intertwined with our daily lives, that our coverage of it matured to include human cost and effect.
Especially when YouTube started out, most videos were very experimental–basically another way of saying they were really bad. So YouTubers were still trying to find their footing in putting out quality content. Some have done it to great effect like Marques Brownlee, and others like Vox Media publication ‘the Verge’ took quite a bit of time to build a comparably large audience. And now that equipment is available a B&H-store-page click away, the only barrier between an aspiring content creator and a potential audience, is merely motivation in both material, and emotional form.
The joke for a while was that Marques’ video that kept popping up on recommendations was his first true archetype of a modern tech video–it’s an overview of a Windows Media Center (remember that?) remote. It was packaged with the HP Pavilion dv7t laptop–reminiscent of an era where Microsoft OEM partners’ portfolio was a wild west of gadgets ranging from incredibly useful, to borderline pointless.While the video doesn’t age all that well content-wise, it’s still quite a sobering view to behold, especially knowing the point Marques Brownlee is at in his career currently.
The video is shallow, its quality is pre-HD glory, and the video was shot in the laptop’s webcam–a far cry from a multi-thousand-dollar RED sensor-shot video hosted on YouTube’s newly-acquired 8K HDR capabilities. But this video’s existence serves a particularly useful barometer by which to judge just how far we’ve come since the early days of online video–when this video was uploaded, the standards to entry was so immeasurably low, that a video of that tenure could fly no matter how fine a microscope you put it under. Shooting videos on a webcam was not the exception–it was the norm. And it wasn’t that long ago YouTubers were hotly debating whether TV was eventually going to get phased out by YouTube’s business model as the younger generation expressed more interest in their platform more than they ever did in traditional television, and while that segment of the market has been largely usurped by streaming services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, YouTube got to carve out its own niche, its own community, its own sense of cult following that makes it so prone to virality, and just as suitable for personality-based content more than it is for corporate entities.
YouTube’s appeal to post-boomers isn’t only that the content is far more relatable than the scripted, often-robotic tone of TV, but it’s also the peculiar sense of parasocial attachment they tend to cultivate with whomever they’re watching. Simply put, Marques Brownlee isn’t only MKBHD, the YouTuber–he’s also the Tesla Roadster future-purchaser, the RED camera guru, the cinematography-inclined phone reviewer, the “via Twitter for iPhone” police officer, the “black dude who reviews tech”, Tech YouTube’s poster child; and simply the platform’s own Stevie Wonder in creative terms. And his influence holds intrinsically more value than him simply doing his job–he now has transcended the sum of his parts, well into the intangibility of becoming a fully-fledged brand.
What’s Marques’ brand you might ask? It’s an amalgamation of parts mentioned prior, but it’s also a culmination of his commitment to a stupendously assiduous work ethic. The Verge’s Nilay Patel made this passive comment on one Vergecast episode that they don’t work with 4K footage since it’d be a logistical nightmare (basically code for not wanting to overburden editors and animators with work they can barely scrub through on their underpowered Mac laptops) but Marques went contrary to the convention–he grabbed those fancy 8K RED sensors, fitted them with optics of the finest glass-material, and lots of granular control to spare, and he edits the whole on an uber-powered 18-core hyper-threaded iMac Pro monster of a machine. For Marques, there’s simply no such a thing as going overboard–if anything, the great make-up of a tech video is using the extremes to illustrate the engineering prowess our most impressive gadgets tend to be made on the back of.
For every MKBHD fan, there’s a video they might’ve seen at first that got their cogs spinning, but for me, and while I was already following the channel for quite some time, it was the Camera Robots video that really broke through to me with something I hadn’t seen previously.
The video opens up with Marques going over traditional camera movements allowed through pre-existing mechanical rigging, but once he’s done that, the video just takes off with the might of a rocket engine. The camera starts doing all these complex moves, and short of knowing what the video is already about, you immediately start to wonder “WTF just happened?”. I know I certainly did as the sequence ended, and that just got my eyes to lock towards the screen as Marques continued to marvel at the intricacy of it all.
He talked with the guys in charge of the project about what they were using to achieve this technology, he showed how the software works with a gamepad to keyframe what was happening, and then he did what any gear-head would do and produced some quality shots with the few gadgets he had at close disposal. The video in context of what MKBHD had already been making doesn’t sound all that impressive, however, when you factor in a video of this caliber would’ve probably been nothing more than a spec-sheet breakdown and boring boilerplate somewhere else, it starts to make a lot more sense why this video in particular is quite a weird snapshot in YouTube’s relatively short lifespan.
For one, if this were made for TV, all the quips, fun facts, and talking-head segments would’ve fallen victim to the chopping block of corporate insipidity. Marques on the other hand, made that video out of legitimate passion for videography, and what was immediately apparent after he ordered one of them for his own personal use, is that this wasn’t a gratuitous ad spot for a company who’s elsewise very well stacked with funds after their cameras had been used for professional shoots of music videos and movies–it was rather Marques’ inner geek child just salivating over the technology and taking us along for the ride from his own passionate videographer’s perspective.
Having talented professionals just show you the ropes — even if tangentially — of content creation isn’t something we’ve just been used to. It’s not like JJ Abrams is taking time off from making Star Wars and just vlogging his journey on YouTube as he discovers better ways to film his scenes. Sharing the technical know-how has been conventionally seen as a form of secret-spilling–you simply wouldn’t want your competitors to pioneer techniques you’ve worked a long while to hone, but Marques doesn’t see this as a competition; if his behavior is indicative of anything, is that he sees displaying the inner workings of his channel not as a violation of his professional code, but rather an extension of it. It’d be almost unfitting if Marques didn’t make a video about camera robots before he bought some for his own use. This is the stark distinction such a sharing-heavy platform like YouTube draws away from the traditional beats of a television broadcast.
Another great example of this was the cold open to a video on the Samsung Galaxy S10’s great display. Marques sets up the scene as him trying to reach over and get his phone — and as the video game ‘Portal’ lore has it, the entry point is a blue portal with properties of matter and energy are swiftly transported onto the other end of an orange portal — he does so as film trickery takes care of the rest. It’s such a signature MKBHD move to slap a distinctive visual palette — and in this case, sort of an easter egg — to his high-profile videos, that it becomes almost second nature to expect it at the start. This one completely took me off-guard in the best ways possible.
The OnePlus 7 Pro review boasts its own kind of weirdness in the form of a macro shot taken with a probe lens just in front of a carefully-lit environment where the screen takes center stage just as music with electronic future-adjacent elements play in the background, and the viewer is pulled immediately to take notice of how neatly the body of the phone presents its screen-filled front. The shot can be dismissed as fancy for its own sake, but from where I stand, it is none other than Marques’ ability to turn what could be quite an unpractical tool of photography, into a serious weapon to diversify and switch the tone of the videos as required. Marques very ingeniously cut through the visual mundanity of seeing a phone screen by compositing this incredible breathtaking shot of the OnePlus 7 Pro, and it is to him and his hard-working team of on-set and post-production talent that the spoils should go.
Yet another occasion where you see that sense of complete comfort over masterful cinematography is the ‘Tesla Model 3’ Auto Focus episode. The cold open is standard exposition, but as Marques slowly walks up to a Tesla charging station, he sticks the charger in and you’re slowly awoken to the fact it is indeed the subject he’s reviewing within full view. Marques has a knack for introducing the products he’s reviewing in very subtle ways, but this one almost resembled a Top Gear video more than any gadget review he did–the filmmaking skills at play here at very different. There are drone-shots, there’s a greater reliance on a secondary camera crew to track the car at high speeds, an overzealous use of stabilizers, and a greater technical know-how required to fully make sense of the car’s capabilities on the road. Marques was essentially a totally different person here than he was in the mostly-indoors consumer electronics reviews he was used to, and he did quite an exceptional job adapting to the new circumstances at play.
Examples of MKBHD just making creative artistic choices are plentiful. There doesn’t have to be a direct correlation between what he’s reviewing, and the decisions made behind the camera to make it all look good. It can get pretty repetitive to basically review what are essentially iterative products, but Marques puts his own spin on it that leaves each video with its own unique imprint. It’s not readily easy to come across a bottomless well of new ideas, or turn the ones you already have into better ones, and it most definitely wouldn’t have been as forthcoming to just find success on YouTube with a stroke of luck. Is some involved? Sure, but I don’t think there’s a lot you can attribute to chance when the hardware behind making these videos costs more than the average price of a brand new Corvette.
Marques is selling a very abundant commodity on YouTube–he’s basically making tech videos like many dozens of YouTubers already do. But what others so sorely lack that Marques delivers on quite impeccably, is the sense of personality each video has–you’re not simply going to watch a video, then as the next day rolls around, you’d pretty much forgotten everything besides the main takeaway. Marques’ videos use the language of filmmaking to such great effect in order to leave a residual footprint of the individual reviews even if their value can be easily narrowed down to a penchant for curiosity, or a quest after further information for a newly-announced product.
I can at least partly attribute my affinity for technology to Marques’ great ability to frame tech in such an endearing and fun light. It would’ve been so damn easy for him to fall into a trap where the gadget would be front and center, and the rigidity of the engineering codes conceiving them would transpire and put any but with an interest in the most basic rudimentary information straight to sleep. But since Marques infuses so much of his own personality into his own work, that fortunately never happens. Whatever it is, each individual video has an interesting quirk, or a feature that sets it from any other — either from Marques, or YouTube as a whole — and it’s an interesting lesson on how solidly your own brand can be melded with your own sense of professional commitment to creating quality content. It’s almost as if “good”, and “MKBHD” have become nigh-on inseverable.
Of course, all of this didn’t come easy to Marques Brownlee. For one, if you haven’t been able to quite notice, he’s black–and that’s a problem for many who would’ve otherwise been drawn to his content had they not been subject to any racial prejudice. But such is the pattern with black entertainers, some of them manage to swiftly break through the barriers and become the defining faces of entire genres. If Will Smith’s reign over Hollywood was uncontested once-upon-a-time, Marques had just as permanent an imprint on Tech YouTube’s distinct signature. He’s pretty much set the bar for everyone else to follow, and even publications with greater budget at disposal still struggle to keep up.
There’s this subconscious tier of YouTubers I’ve divided up in my head that judges upon different factors of expected quality, and cultural relevance, whether I should watch a video that popped into my subscriptions feed right away. Channels like Veritasium, Vox, ContraPoints, Binging with Babish, Vlogbrothers rank very high, but none quite match Marques Brownlee. If I’m allowed to inject myself a little bit into this story, it isn’t just that Marques has come up with so many great ideas to lively up his regular round of productions–it’s more just that he manages to be very consistent with his uploads. My version of his YouTube page is basically full of red bars since I watch all of his videos through completion. This doesn’t tend to happen very often with YouTubers as most of them span different sensibilities — and sometimes pump out multiple concurrent series — that it’s impossible for me to just be wholly interested into all that they do. Marques breaks that trend for me quite unexpectedly, and while it may be my bias for tech — having played with computers since as early as 2003 — one cannot strip themselves the honesty of calling Marques Brownlee not only a great YouTuber, but quite an anomaly in a platform that frankly, doesn’t show itself to be sufficiently appreciative of its channels’ creative prowess as it probably should.