Rooster Teeth’s Slow Descent into the Abyss

Once online video royalty, they’re now struggling to survive.

If you’ve been on YouTube long enough, chances are you’re peripherally aware of what Rooster Teeth is. The brand first shuttled into popularity when their Machinima co-production Red vs. Blue — premiered back in 2003 — introduced a unique take on gaming content well before online video became ubiquitous thanks to YouTube. Since then, Rooster Teeth have carved themselves a unique identity in the internet culture apparatus–they house some of the most consistently-watched gaming commentary channels online, but they’ve been simultaneously weathering the winds of wanting to take their business into more serious ground, riding on the popularity of productions like the animated series ‘RWBY’ in the hopes of solidifying their place in the entertainment industry.

What’s relevant to the company’s current state, hasn’t had much to do with what it used to be for a long time now. If Red vs. Blue was an initial driver of interest, Rooster Teeth has had to do quite a lot to sustain it. The company’s early YouTube presence was rehashing a lot of content uploaded on other platforms, so it had to stick the course throughout YouTube’s lifetime not to get left behind and wither into oblivion like Machinima eventually did. What that meant is chasing the algorithmic sway of content on YouTube without regard for establishing much of an identity, and that’s been to its ultimate detriment as it continues to shed talent, despite — and perhaps because of — the company being on WarnerMedia’s deep-run pockets.

Looking at Rooster Teeth’s business model, referencing YouTube in any capacity would seem quite odd–after all, the company has its own subscription service, and through its acquisition by WarnerMedia, is poised to move its entire catalogue on Time Warner’s upcoming streaming service ‘HBO Max’. But Rooster Teeth is different in that it uses YouTube as an elaborate advertisement scheme to entice potential subscribers into signing up for their service–the problem comes in when YouTube’s own incentive-structure undermines the value of high-quality content — evidenced by the platform’s lack of confidence in its Premium subscription tier — cannibalizes Rooster Teeth’s own reach, and that’s when the company’s reckoning with slowing growth was only a matter of time. Simply put, those who enjoyed Rooster Teeth’s content for the longest time, have been lured in precisely because of how low the barrier to entry was, and so there was little indication that this would translate into a recurring revenue stream for the company. Turning audience interest into a sustainable influx of subscription money is not easy–and as the streaming wars loom on the horizon, it seems Rooster Teeth’s inclusion in HBO Max would be more to its detriment than its benefit. The market for content is getting more crowded than ever, and Rooster Teeth simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to endure sustained loss on its assets without being gravely punished for it.

Early signs of potential restructuring showed up when the company started to slowly but surely phase out its longest-standing staples. The Know — the company’s gaming news commentary-focused channel — plagued with declining interest, eventually was rebranded to “Inside Gaming” and had its editorial duties shifted to the LA-based mildly more successful ‘Funhaus’; facing similar loss of interest, the producer of ‘Always Open’ Barbara Dunkelman has contemplated taking it off of YouTube entirely and just focusing on audio-only delivery; Sportsball — a channel focused on discussion of real and virtual sports — saw engagement take a nosedive even with Mia Khalifa as a regular co-host and was eventually canceled; Sugar Pine 7 — arguably Rooster Teeth’s most creatively-adventurous production of recent years — was recently canceled, with its skeleton of a channel now serving as a depository for an elongated post-mortem eulogy in the form of a podcast; Cow Chop’s existence now serves as an elaborate joke foretelling the channel’s steady decline since beloved co-host James Wilson left the team back in March; the star-studded ‘gen:LOCK’ — steeped in controversy over allegations of Gray Haddock’s workplace misconduct — suffered due to lukewarm critical and commercial reception, quickly being shafted to Adult Swim as a result; the studio’s latest foray into the gaming space ‘Vicious Circle’ was met with a collective shrug, dropping down from a meager few hundred concurrent players at peak, to the single digits in a matter of weeks; and a mass exodus of key employees Bruce Greene, Ellie Maine, Tyler Coe and Ashley Burns — among others — is sure not to cushion the blow anytime soon. Compound on top of it a recent round of layoffs where the company lost 13% of its employees, and reports of inadequate pay and toxic workplace culture, and you’ve got the threat of complete and utter collapse lurking in the background, awaiting a moment of vulnerability to strike.

The solution according to many fans, is to reprise what has made the studio great in the past. Rooster Teeth thrived on its unapologetic dedication to game-focused content, and lacing it with geek culture elements to resonate with its audience. But YouTube isn’t what it was when the studio first made headway into the platform–it’s not even the same as it was three years ago when their channel was on a sure way to get their Diamond Play button. Not only did that not happen, but Rooster Teeth seems to be going down a path of endless perpetual self-promotion–”We’re the ones who made all the things you like! Look at us!” the script often went.

It’s now become clear more than ever that if Rooster Teeth wants to survive, it either has to completely revise the way it approaches doing business on YouTube, ditch the least-profitable parts of its business with no half-assed closures, and potentially do away with all that made its past glory. It has to forge an identity away from the fragile trappings of personality-focused content. If audiences are to continue tuning into Rooster Teeth’s content, they have to be first and foremost attached to the brand, and seeing as the departure of a few key employees can cause as much of a seismic shift in the company’s dynamics is great proof the foundation it was built on was never that firm in the first place.