The Story Behind YouTube's Strangely Compelling 'Hot Pepper Gaming' Channel


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The Story Behind YouTube's Strangely Compelling 'Hot Pepper Gaming' Channel

How a simple tweet turned into hundreds of people torturing themselves while reviewing video games.

Nothing lasts forever, not even a YouTube channel about people eating obnoxiously hot peppers and trying to talk about video games. On February 6, Hot Pepper Gaming uploaded its its final episode, a tear-filled video about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim's recent remastering.

"It says less than a drop because otherwise it can cause loss of consciousness," said co-creator Jared Rosen, as he dripped Flashbang hot sauce onto a spoon.


Flashbang hot sauce, often featured in videos that warn of excessive vomiting and crying, ranks a whopping 3,500,000 units on the scoville scale, which ranks the heat of spicy peppers. Seconds later, as Rosen is supposed to drop the blazing sauce into his mouth, things take a much darker turn.

"Oh, it hit me in the eye" he yelps. "Oh, that's not going to be cool."

Hot Pepper Gaming started a little over three years ago, a collaboration between Rosen, Erin Schmalfeld, and Vernon Shaw. In 2013, the three were all working at Maker Studios, the massive YouTube network partnered with channel giants like PewDiePie. The whole pitch for Hot Pepper Gaming can, in fact, be traced back to a single tweet by Shaw from June 2013:

"This is genius," was the only response to the tweet.

Though the concept of eating hot peppers and filming your response wasn't exactly new, Shaw found himself inspired after catching an episode of Spicy News, where people would eat a pepper and try to riff jokes on the week's news.

The first episode, discussing the mediocre Deadpool game from Activision, involved Rosen downing a habanero pepper, a mere 100,000-to-350,000 scoville units. (If he'd only known what the future held.) The episode was produced for just $20, with a borrowed camera and supplies from a craft store.

"None of us thought it would go anywhere," said Rosen. "At Maker, we were surrounded by coworkers in their early 20s with terrible little five-subscriber YouTube channels, and after a while you begin to think in terms of the flavor your obscurity will taste. Ten subs? Fifty? At least we'd be able to share it around the office for a giggle. Then you get in the room with this jank-ass yellow set where the cats just took a shit, there's an iPad with Deadpool on it, $20 worth of whole milk from the liquor store, and suddenly you're directing fucking Casablanca."


The problem with starting any new YouTube channel, though, is getting noticed. Hot Pepper Gaming got their first break a week later, when Kotaku stumbled upon the video and wrote about it. "Jared Rosen is a fearless pioneer of video game criticism," wrote Kotaku's Mike Fahey.

They had what every YouTube channel is looking for: eyeballs. But no one expected anyone to pay attention to Hot Pepper Gaming this soon. The team hadn't even settled on a format yet.

"We were surrounded by coworkers in their early 20s with terrible little five-subscriber YouTube channels, and after a while you begin to think in terms of the flavor your obscurity will taste. Ten subs? Fifty?"

"We kind of had a moment where it was like 'Well, I guess we have to keep doing this now!'" said Schmalfeld.

Over the next three years and more than 200 videos, Hot Pepper Gaming became a genuine phenomenon in games, luring in the likes of Sony head of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida, WWE wrestler Xavier Woods, and others within gaming to torture themselves on camera. Things really turned a corner, however, when YouTube personality Arin "Egoraptor" Hanson, best known for creating cartoons about games, came on to discuss Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

Hanson had reached out to Shaw over Facebook and asked to come on. The result was Hot Pepper Gaming's first episode seen more than a million times, which prompted brands to get interested. Now, Hot Pepper Gaming was profitable.


The group behind Hot Pepper Gaming, celebrating after hitting 100,000 subscribers on YouTube. Photo courtesy of Jared Rosen.

"When you're living in what is essentially a no-bedroom hell chamber in an apartment block converted from 1980s hourly sex motels those $10k checks start to mean something," said Rosen.

Part of the reason the channel seemed to draw attention was its rawness.

"For all the talk about how 'authentic' online personalities are, there's still a very rehearsed, measured air to a lot of the content," said Schmalfeld. "Whenever a camera turns on and there's a threat of permanence to whatever you do or say, it's natural to assume some level of artifice, but all of that falls away pretty fast when you eat a pepper and all you can think about is the fact that your mouth is on fire."

When asked about the most ridiculous guest to come through, though, the group was unanimous: Andrew WK, the musician best known for partying hard. "At first I legitimately thought the dude was crazy," said Rosen.

Rosen picked up Andrew WK in his dirty 2010 Sentra, wherein WK rolled out an impromptu impersonation of actor Jeff Goldblum, wanted to passionately discuss "the impermanence of false memories," began making cat noises, and asked if Rosen would stop off at a store and pick up caviar for him to eat on the road.

"The whole time I was wondering if he was going to grab the steering wheel or tuck and roll onto the highway," said Rosen, "so I kept cracking jokes in that nervous way you do during uncomfortable parties. Turns out the guy is legitimately just an erudite, emotionally honest man who may or may not have magic elf powers."


The proposed "elf powers" came from a moment when WK entered Schmalfeld's bathroom, which famously had a door that wouldn't stay shut. This was a constant problem while taping episodes of Hot Pepper Gaming; eating obnoxiously hot peppers tends to make people poop. For whatever reason, when WK closed the door, it stayed shut. When he left, it was broken again. Magic.

When shooting started, the group thought WK had lost his mind.

"The pepper caused him to go almost dead silent for eight minutes and we all thought he was going to die," said Rosen.

WK managed to compose himself, however, recovering with a chilled glass of jagermeister.

"We asked what he wanted to drink and he said 'chilled Jaegermeister, please," said Schmalfeld. "It seemed like an odd request but the liquor store down the street actually had some in a fridge behind the counter. I think the rest of it is still in my freezer to this day."

"He drank [the] bottle of chilled Jäger in a fucking Super Bowl cozie," said Rosen. "And at the end of the night, I'm dropping him off and he grabs my phone, puts in his personal cell number and dead-eyes me with, 'You're awesome. Call me whenever you need me.'"

"I think it's a rare thing to collaborate with your friends on a silly little idea and have it mean so much to so many people."

The Andrew WK experience was one of many bizarre moments since they started experimenting with eating peppers in 2013. And while people kept watching new episodes, the group began to feel a desire to move on. Hot Pepper Gaming's joke seemed to have run its course, and though the channel made money, it wasn't full-time. It was still a side project that ate up time during everyone's increasingly busy nights and weekends. It meant they couldn't work on new ideas.

"The internet is an elephant graveyard of dead YouTube channels and forgotten websites that true believers worship in the dead of night," said Rosen. "But they're gone, and that feels shitty. Since we've all kind of moved on and the channel was really not growing—we called it 'being on auto-pilot'—we called a meeting and decided to just put a bullet in it, but classily."

As mentioned above, the final episode brought the channel full circle, with Rosen eating a pepper and trying to talk about a video game, before everyone got on camera to say goodbye. Though Hot Pepper Gaming is dead, Rosen, Shaw, and Schmalfeld plan to still work together. "I think it's a rare thing to collaborate with your friends on a silly little idea and have it mean so much to so many people," said Shaw. "We've all gotten to travel the world, make life-affirming friendships, and experience some of the most amazing and ridiculous stories that we'll be telling for the rest of our lives thanks to what, in its most basic form, boils down to one dumb tweet."

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