This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
If recent reports are to be believed, and they probably should be, the YouTuber PewDiePie—real name Felix Kjellberg, a 25-year-old Swede living in Brighton who primarily posts Let's Play videos—made $7.45 million in profits in 2014 (for his company, Pewdie Holdings AB). The gaming site Destructoid is amongst several to have picked up on figures published in the Swedish tabloid Expressen, their positive spin on the news leading to some predictable comments criticizing the internet celebrity's elevated profile.
"Joe" posts: "Good for him posting annoying videos on YouTube with an F-bomb every second? This is how people make millions on YouTube apparently? Holy shit idiocracy is real."
"The Laughing Owl" adds: "This guy is just as bad as Justin Bieber, if not worse…" (Note that "The Laughing Owl" fails to mention at what, as I don't think PewDiePie sings for a living, and Beiber's not in the habit of posting Let's Plays.)
Another user, "able to think," crashes straight in with some sweeping generalizing, because hell, this is the internet: "I've never seen him, but he seems like a twat based on what I've heard. He's popular with teenagers, which makes me more inclined to assume he's crap. Teenagers are terrible and like terrible things."
"able to think" makes a valid point: We were all teenagers once, or maybe you still are, and while at that age I've no doubt we all liked some terrible things. I, for one, would drink Miller Genuine Draft when it was on two-for-one at dingy rock clubs, and the me of today wouldn't go anywhere near that pißwasser. I also listened to some awful music in my late teens—remember VAST? Of course you don't, but I played the outfit's Benedictine monks-starring debut album over, and over, and over in my first year at college. What a terrible prick I was.
But to have never seen PewDiePie suggests you're doing the internet all wrong. This isn't some hot-right-now vlogger whose star's ascended to its peak and can only crash from here—PewDiePie's YouTube channel is the most subscribed in the world, some 14 million subscribers ahead of second place. He's almost permanently been top of the 'Tubers since August 2013, and has racked up the most individual views of anyone on the Google-owned video-sharing site—more than Rihanna, One Direction, Katy Perry, Ellen DeGeneres, and Eminem. He's the only games-content YouTuber amongst the world's top ten most-subscribed channels, the next being VanossGaming at 12, with "just" 13 million subscribers.
PewDiePie is to the internet what Piers Morgan, Jeremy Clarkson, Clare Balding, and Barry Scott are to British TV: always there, somewhere, so you can expect to trip over them during an evening's lazy channel-hopping. Except, he's much more than those opinion-splitting screen stars will ever be, and significantly less aggravating, as he's successfully targeted a youth market that's largely been abandoned by what its elders term traditional media. Linear broadcasting. Analogue entertainment. PewDiePie's brand of humor—crass, blunt, loud, but enthusiastic and big-hearted—strikes a chord with internet browsers in their early teens. He's a big brother figure to millions of strangers. He makes them laugh and shows them cool-cum-utterly-ridiculous stuff that they can subsequently pester their parents for. If the BBC could afford him, he'd be all over its flagging (and soon to go digital only) Three channel.
The rise of YouTube celebrities—to list many more here would merely be a scratching of the surface of the tip of an iceberg that stretches down into the very darkest, most depressing depths (but, gaming wise, you can also check out Stampylonghead's Minecraft-focused content; the PewDiePie-like Markiplier; and the slightly straighter-faced SeaNanners)—has been a Very Good Thing for the video games industry, which has by and large embraced PewDiePie and his peers. Kjellberg's uploads include playthroughs of cult puzzler Catherine, oddball comedy detective game Jazzpunk, and indie role-playing heartbreaker To the Moon. He consistently finds (or is alerted to, one way or another) the weird and wonderful in gaming, and presents these niche works to the very biggest audience.
Part one of PewDiePie's playthrough of 'Catherine.'
"It's the tool, right now," is how developer Mike Bithell sees YouTube. He's one of several independent games makers I've spoken to recently, as I'm writing a book on the indie scene, and he'll soon release his second "solo" game, Volume, the stealth-focused follow-up to the massively acclaimed puzzle-platformer Thomas Was Alone. "YouTube was massive in [popularizing] Thomas Was Alone, and Volume will be doing a lot of work to make sure YouTubers have copies to make content, and all the help they need. The value of one YouTube video from one big creator is insane."
Sam Watts of Brighton-based studio Tammeka, currently working on the virtual reality game Radial-G: Racing Revolved, also values the work of YouTubers, seeing it as growing in impact above traditional media. "We are seeing the rise of YouTube, with Let's Players, as well as Twitch streams and Reddit AMAs, as wholly viable ways to connect directly to fans, and your community, without having to spend mega-bucks on PR and marketing." Basically, someone like PewDiePie playing a game like Jazzpunk does infinitely more for that game's visibility than all the conventional reviews in the world. There have been over five million YouTube views for part one of Kjellberg's playthrough, and just 14,000 for its Gamespot review.
He might rub a great many casual viewers up the wrong way, and believe me I can hear why, but Kjellberg's popularity has been expertly managed. When he was criticized for making jokes that referred to rape, as many young men have been known to do (come on, it's acceptable to be young and naive, if it's checked by adulthood), he stopped making them and offered a frank apology. He defies security at public events to personally meet his fans—even though the resulting commotion can be akin to The Beatles landing in America in 1964. Anecdotally, I'm told by fellow Brighton games writers that he is regularly mobbed by fans if he so much as steps out for some milk.
He's also good with, and about, his money. As Destructoid's report states, he regularly donates to charities and has spearheaded several fundraising drives, with the World Wildlife Fund and Charity: Water amongst the organizations benefitting from his support. And while he's made commercial deals to plug movies and fizzy drinks in the past, he's not using his platform to, in his words, "max my income." Interviewed by Swedish magazine Icon in 2014, he said: "I think my viewers would call me on that right away, if I did. I've seen other YouTubers start selling and it's a mistake. It's more beneficial to me that my channel grows than it would be to make a few deals." Basically, Felix Kjellberg does not sound like a twat, at all. Sorry, "able to think," but you might want to think again.
I probably won't read his book when it comes out, and I don't make a habit of watching his videos. But I have a great deal of respect for PewDiePie. It's probably fair to say that his fame is part fortunate timing, part singular talent, as the boom in Let's Play popularity has coincided with his own brand's growth in such a way that if it wasn't him, it'd almost certainly be another gaming YouTuber who's getting magazine covers, global fame, and fortune, and the piss ripped out of him by online commenters. And this is something that he's accepted, gracefully.
PewDiePie plays Survivor Mode on 'Alien: Isolation.'
He knows this could all stop tomorrow. It won't, but all the same, he's prepared for it to. "I feel like I've gotten more out of YouTube than I ever wanted or expected," he told ESPN in June 2015. "I've always kept the approach that next month might not work out. That's the healthy way to be. I started YouTube because I was bored, not to become famous. It's not that important. I'm not curing cancer. It's not that special to upload videos on the internet."
True enough, but PewDiePie has been an unstoppable force in the growth of video gaming as a completely accepted mainstream pastime these past few years, and he's done wonders for left field titles that might otherwise have always lingered on the margins of public attention. Love him or loathe him, he's making a difference—it's not curing cancer, that's true enough, but his work is bringing pleasure, escape, laughs, and purpose to the lives of millions. So, what are you doing with your life?
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.