PewDiePie’s Long Rocky Road to 100 Million Subscribers

It took nine years, but Felix eventually did it.

Few have defined the eternal strife between man and corporation quite like PewDiePie does. His ascent into the nine-digit subscriber club was weathered by the fiercest winds of policy change, algorithm tweaks, and a latter fight for the number one spot with T-Series that the internet would meme about ad nauseam before the Indian entertainment hub overtook Felix and shuttled safely into the top.

Kjellberg’s history on the platform is worth looking at, if only for the fact that the cards once seemed to be stacked against him in a significant way. Back when I’d personally heard of PewDiePie, it was always brought up in a negative context–“Why is this guy screaming all the time?” the strand of criticism usually went. While it is true that PewDiePie howled a significant way of his journey through stardom, what he’s done to distinguish himself from other creators by commanding a respectable knowledge of internet memetics and wielding it to better connect with his audience is nothing shy of impressive. To hit virality in the age of the internet, is to speak its language, and PewDiePie showcased a distinct ability to learn — and subsequently shape — that language as his channel continued to grow.

The legend of the brofist’s arrival onto YouTube was surprisingly late. If a few creators have already been opining about the daily grievances of college life in poorly-lit dorm rooms, PewDiePie brandished his affinity for gaming confidently from the start. This would go on to define his esthetic for years to come, forcing anyone else to either adapt, or surrender to oblivion.

Early on, the videos PewDiePie posted were unmistakably that of a gamer still trying to figure out an identity for their channel. There were the two defining characteristics of a gaming YouTube channel back then — Minecraft and Call of Duty. But very quickly, PewDiePie stumbled upon a goldmine of engagement — horror games. Very shortly after his debut — with barely a few dozen videos in — Kjellberg started playing Amnesia, and his audience responded positively to it. And from there on out, PewDiePie carved out a mold for himself that very few content creators had figured out midst a craze of axe-swinging and no-scoping–play a horror game, and perform the best scare short of peeing their pants. This yielded PewDiePie a new-found viewership, and within a few months of his first ever video, he’d go to crack the 2.5k subs mark in February 2011, celebrating with an ever-shoddily shot video of his own gaming rig. That subscriber count might look like very little, but back then, this was almost equivalent to hitting six digits currently. It meant that PewDiePie had a much bigger chance of being featured in YouTube’s recommendation channels, subsequently garnering him more engagement, which would later on turn into new subscribers.

When Kjellberg started out, there was no face cam to speak of. Just like the game selection, PewDiePie had followed established conventions of Gaming YouTube up until that point. You couldn’t see how Felix would emote in a fit of fright. But all of that would change in the least expected way possible–commenting over a Crysis 2 multiplayer match to announce he’d created a Facebook page to interact with his fans.

Having that visual reference along Kjellberg’s reactions to scary moments in horror games had somewhat hit a soft spot for those who watched early Gaming YouTube. The predominant criticism back then, was that Call of Duty and Minecraft commentary were used as but mere dressing for creators to keep churning out unoriginal content, with ever-so-detached voices from the content of the gameplay, and an elaborate excuse to eke out advertisement money by talking about real-life mundanities with irrelevant gameplay footage on top. That wasn’t what PewDiePie was selling at the time–his videos were a rare breed in emotionally-visceral reactions to content on-screen, and it was through the loudly-audible vibrations of vocal folds that Kjellberg set himself apart from the rest of the pack.

It was in January 2012 when PewDiePie hit the elusive 100k subs count. To celebrate, he put together a compilation of his scariest moments in the preceding last little while. The title has all the hallmarks of 2012 YouTube, with the word “funny” in all caps trapped between brackets, and a sensationalist title to boot. This was common courtesy for YouTubers back then to do–before YouTube moved to valorizing watchtime more than views, YouTubers were trying their damndest to make their thumbnails and titles pop the most. It’s now happening currently for differing reasons (mainly to maximize longevity by increasing clickthrough-rate) but at that time, just getting someone to click, was enough to cash it in.

By July, PewDiePie’s subscriber count skyrocketed, boasting ten times its original size in the span of roughly seven months. To commemorate the occasion, Kjellberg posted a vlog preceded by an animated intro, in which ample references are made to the “BroArmy”–a name he used to call his fandom. It was around that time that PewDiePie the myth, started outgrowing PewDiePie the man. Kjellberg was no longer playing in the smaller leagues–he was the model any content creator had to copy in order to touch a sliver of his success.

A year later, PewDiePie became the most-subscribed to channel on YouTube, overtaking the flurry of corporate-backed music artists on the platform. Kotaku’s Tina Amini celebrated the milestone: “Good job, Internet. I knew I could count on you to love video games more than cheesy pop music.” And quite surprisingly at the time, among YouTube’s top-billers were the now-defunct Machinima, Rooster Teeth, and Smosh Games. It signaled to the rest of YouTube that gaming is where all the money was being made.

And indeed it was. By mid-2014, the gaming space on YouTube had grown colossally. The hundred biggest gaming channels brought in about 3.5 billion views a month, with PewDiePie alone accounting for almost one tenth of that. As the year concluded, PewDiePie had accounted for a whopping 30% of all search queries. It looked like Gaming YouTube was going to subsume every other genre in its wake, but as MatPat of The Game Theorists pointed out, these trends come and go, and the explosive growth of gaming YouTube was starting to eat away at its spoils.

PewDiePie’s growth had barely slowed, but following through his journey in 2015, things looked stagnant at most. It was initially the unexpected virality of his Undertale series, and its spillage of views into his other horror-themed gaming commentary videos that kept the momentum going, but even as the same rate of exponential growth couldn’t be sustained, Kjellberg felt like he had to change to avert meeting the same fate as “Fred”.

The following couple of years would be where PewDiePie would start to adopt some of his most recognizable current sensibilities. The split between commentary-style vlogs and gaming videos started to skew more favorably towards vlogs, and the mold for what would become PewDiePie was beginning to take shape. For some, that time is more commonly-known as the “Edgy PewDiePie” era. It was when PewDiePie got suspended from Twitter because of an ISIS joke; had a mental breakdown due to creative burnout and seriously considered abandoning the platform; incurred a mass exodus of top advertisers; was barred entry from VidCon; and had YouTube cancel his own YouTube Red Original Series after he paid for a sign that said “Death to All Jews”. The damage done was so grave, that YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki had to personally apologize to advertisers, promising them better due diligence in screening content before approving it for monetization in the future. Those were decidedly dark times for PewDiePie as the platform that helped him reach unspeakable heights of notoriety, suddenly showed a greater reluctance to have his back when steeped in major controversy.

In subsequent years, YouTube has taken greater steps to distance itself from the “edgy” side of YouTube because of its unpredictable nature and its tendency to play with fire even when the community guidelines advise explicitly against doing so. 2017 was the beginning of a falling out with YouTube’s corporate upper echelons as the platform had forgone including Kjellberg in their Rewind annual tradition–something they’ve been doing consistently since 2013. “It’s sad in a way, that I’m not part of it. But I understand why. I’m not salty on YouTube for not inviting me or,” Kjellberg said, referencing his anti-Semitic stunt earlier in the year.

What follows afterwards is an indiscernible blob of personal stories and jabs at other YouTube celebrities, playing to the audience-favorite narrative of the common man vs the unseen hand of a powerful collective. But as 2018 drew to a close, the channel got a much-needed delivery of jet fuel to reprise its seldom rapid growth–the battle with T-Series.

The chart above showcases just how closely PewDiePie and T-Series kept trading blows throughout late 2018 after Kjellberg officially declared it a challenge to remain on top. The competition was so fierce, that Kjellberg’s old buddies Jacksepticeye and Markiplier got involved, both doing multi-hour livestreams to drive PewDiePie’s subscriber count upwards, riding on the infamous “Subscribe to PewDiePie” meme. The gap was decidedly close between T-Series and Felix, but YouTube’s pivot to catering to more sanitized forms of entertainment, compounding with India’s untapped online video market potential, meant that it was only a matter of time before T-Series would overtake PewDiePie–and sure enough, the delta is currently sitting at a whopping 9 million subscribers.

But even with that wide of a gap, Kjellberg rode a resurgence of interest in Minecraft videos and the much-anticipated marriage of his long-time girlfriend Marzia Bisognin, creating the perfect confluence for his channel to finally break the 100 million subscriber mark.

It’s hard to tell whether PewDiePie would ever retake the top spot at all, but his rise to the impossibly-exclusive club of nine-digit subscribers is a testimony to his genius in anticipating trends and riding them through perfection. In a way, watching PewDiePie throughout the years, the channel is a reflection of YouTube’s many phases and trends. What’s incredible is that the capper to all of this, is an intricate game of cosmic poetry, where the game PewDiePie started out with — Minecraft — would be the one to seal the deal nine years later.