YouTube Millionaire KSI Talks to Us About Growing Up Online
An idol to millions but a prick to others, KSI is a modern megastar whose divisive videos have charted his progression to adulthood in the most public way possible.
KSI, aka JJ, aka Ksiolajidebt, or Olajide Olatunji to give him his full birth name, is a very contemporary celebrity. Aged 21, he's got what men (and women, for that matter) three times his age still dream of: ownership of a penthouse-style property, a car that's stupidly overpowered for the London streets criss-crossing his 360-degree view of the English capital like asphalt veins, and millions of fans.
He's a YouTube sensation, a "vlogger" if we must, whose channel is Britain's second-most subscribed, behind that of One Direction. His views run to over a billion, and much of his success has come from shouting a lot over footage of him playing FIFA. He's dabbled in music, too, and has a book out before the end of 2015, I Am a Bell-End. As he says in VICE's new eSports documentary, interviewed by Matt Shea: "I guess, essentially, I'm a 21-year-old millionaire through gaming, vlogging, and just my online experience. Yo, I'll take it."
He's also someone who divides the gaming industry. Evidently adored by a public that's wholly on board with his energetic brand of (often physical) humour, his electric personality and non sequiturs spat rapidly over the country's most-popular kicking sim, he's alienated several professionals in the games media by acting like a colossal dick.
At the Eurogamer Expo, London in 2012, he produced a "being awkward" video that documented his mission to "motorboat" as many women as he could find. Eurogamer subsequently banned him from their future events. In late 2013, after inviting him to perform at the UK launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft severed its own ties with KSI. When I mention to peers that I'm calling him up for a chat, their standard response is: why? To them he's toxic, a sad step backwards for gaming culture, and someone who they'd happily subject to more torment than a light roasting from Comedy Central.
But I wanted to hear about the JJ behind the millionaire grin, the young man who's grown up in the public eye, who's made the leap from impish teen to affluent adult in entirely unique circumstances. Has he regretted past mistakes? Does he do more with his money than just splash it on shiny toys and shinier trainers? Is there substance to him beyond, in comedian Michelle De Swarte's words, just a guy "obsessed with sex, wanking, and talking massive amounts of shit". So I got on the phone.
VICE: Cheers for taking this call, because I know you're busy right now. You've a book coming, you're doing more music, and then there's the YouTube business of course. When did you last give yourself a day off?
KSI: Um, I don't know. It was probably four years ago. And it's not like this doesn't feel like work. Work, for me, is when you're just doing something – so when I'm doing something towards, I guess, my brand, towards KSI. I'm always working on that, so I never have a break unless I'm sleeping. But even if I go on holiday, I'm still vlogging, I'm still on Snapchat, and I'm on Twitter and Facebook posting pictures. I'm always working.
So to have a break you'd have to disconnect completely from the internet, as that's your main means of communication with this 24/7 fanbase you have?
Yeah! But then I'd want to commit suicide at that point, if I was somewhere I couldn't get online. It'd be horrible. I remember going on family holidays, to this villa we had in the middle of nowhere, and it had no internet. It drove me insane.
Do you feel a real need to capitalise on your popularity as it is now, today? Because you're only as hot as these millions of subscribers say you are – and they can easily enough move on to whatever's hyped tomorrow. You are in an industry that can burn up its megastars pretty quickly.
I feel like my YouTube work's produced this snowball effect, if that makes sense. And that shows that the harder you work, the more you get out of it. So that's why I can't stop working – as soon as you do, in this business, it can just be a couple of weeks and people will forget you. Well, I think I've reached a point now where I can have a prolonged stay – I mean, I've been around so long now that I don't think everyone is just going to forget about me if I've not posted a video for a little while. I do want to maintain where I'm at, though, and keep doing as well as I can.
It's a high-pressure world, being a YouTuber, isn't it? If you're a musician and you don't have anything for your fans for, say, three or four years, maybe then people would consider a new record overdue. But on YouTube, that period's reduced to just days, right?
Yeah, exactly. If I've not posted anything for a while, I get messages like, "KSI RIP".
VICE's eSports documentary catches your big-spending side, with the car and the sneakers and the flat you've got. I'm going to sound like your dad here, but are you able to stay sensible with all of this income, and put a good deal of it aside for your future? Because you never know when this is all going to end, do you?
Oh yeah! I've been saving a lot, and investing in property – I've got plenty of houses, man. I'm not dumb with my money. I've been doing this properly, full time, for four years now, so I've saved up a lot. I don't know what my exact net worth is, but I know it's pretty ridiculous. I'm definitely in a very good position, and I'm unlikely to go bankrupt any time soon.
When I'm KSI, I'm a lot bigger, and a lot louder. That guy is crazy. But you meet me, and I'm just a normal guy.
How fortuitous do you feel you've been, coming through as a YouTube star in the time frame you have? Nowadays, I think it's a lot harder to achieve a profitable profile in that area, as it's become another platform for companies to monetise rather than an outlet for, well, craziness and creativity, which was how you started. You're a founding piece of YouTube culture as we know it now, rather than someone who's tried to break into it from the outside.
Yep, I feel lucky. I came out when, to me, YouTube felt like a bit of a baby, and nobody really understood it. People just saw it as a website where cats would play around and do stupid things. Nowadays, it's definitely advanced, so much. It's become so much more than it was when I started, and I do feel that a lot of the older generation still don't get it. They don't see it as this huge competitor to TV, and radio and other traditional mainstream media.
So you've no great desire to move from YouTube into television?
Oh no. Hell no. Why would I do that?
Well, you do never know when the next big thing is coming online. It wasn't so long ago that we were all on MySpace. Something else could come along and smash YouTube apart.
It could, but then you can easily just move over. You adapt, and that's what people working in my field do. I have Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram – I have all of these things and YouTube, and I've always found it easy to hop onto the next thing.
How many batteries do you carry around for your phone, if you're always on these things?
Not enough! I don't carry enough, man. I just go on airplane mode and save as much battery as I can.
The hyperactivity of your personality is obviously a USP, and a major part of your brand. But do you know in your head where, I suppose, KSI ends and JJ begins?
I definitely know the difference between me and the brand. When I'm KSI, I'm a lot bigger, and a lot louder. That guy is crazy. But you meet me, and I'm just a normal guy. I'm chilled, and I think I'm just really nice. At least, that's what people tell me. When people meet me, I think they sometimes are expecting to hate me, and to resent me. But they can't, because I'm actually nice. I've never really been a twat, or an egotistical person. I've always just done me.
But the KSI of the past got into hot water. That's not the KSI we see today, then?
He's had to grow, oh yeah. I got into trouble, definitely. And the bigger I've got, the more I've realised where the lines are. I'm talking to a wider audience nowadays, whereas before I could get away with a lot more things. Now I can't do that many stupid things, and I have to really watch what I do. I want to put out the right message, and I genuinely try to do that. Sometimes I mess up, but I'm human.
I saw your video for the I Am a Bell-End book, and noted one of the top comments on it (at the time, seemingly since removed) was, basically, something abhorrently racist. I know you're hardly innocent in dishing out discrimination in your teens, but how have you come to handle it when it's turned back at you?
I've encountered a lot of racial discrimination over the years, but that could be the same in any industry, not just gaming. Maybe because I've sort of grown up online, though, I've developed something of a shield. So when other peoples' true colours come out, I can ignore them. I suppose I've become accustomed to it, and grown a thick skin, and it doesn't affect me anymore. It definitely did for a bit, like, when I was starting out. I was younger then, and I'd never experienced abuse like that before. But nowadays I can just laugh at it. I almost find it funny. When I see someone use the N-word against me, I just find that hilarious.
I've encountered a lot of racial discrimination over the years. But now when I see someone use the N-word against me, I just find that hilarious.
That's the faceless masses of the internet, though. What about in person? Have you had any shit said to your face, for being a young, successful black guy in gaming?
Even if someone was in my face with that stuff now, I wouldn't react. I'm so above that – and you have to be. You can't show a reaction to that, it's just not worth it. Anyone can call me any word under the sun, and I will not react. I hope that things will get better, in the games industry, in the next couple of years, regarding this kind of abuse. It's one of those things that we have to work through.
You're best known in gaming for your FIFA videos, but as the VICE eSports doc shows, you don't consider yourself a pro-gamer, do you? Even though gaming is a day job for you.
I guess my relationship with FIFA is a lot like other people's relationship with it – it's just a game that I like to play. And people are entertained by what I do and what I say while I am playing the game. It's as simple as that. I'm definitely not the best at it, though, and I definitely don't consider myself a pro-gamer. I just enjoy playing it. I say some dumb things, some random things, and I try to be entertaining.
You're a showman amongst FIFA players, then. I guess the gaming equivalent of a David Ginola, or a Matt Le Tissier, an entertainer who isn't necessarily the best, technically.
Who? Who are they? I have no idea who those people are.
Sorry, I forget how old I am sometimes. Eric Cantona, then. You know him, and what I mean?
Oh yeah, I know him.
Have you ever really enjoyed any other football games other than the big two of today, FIFA and Pro Evo?
I guess This Is Football, but that's an old, old game. Like, that was way back in the day, but it was a fun game, and you could do some crazy stuff in it.
What do you play to relax with, if not FIFA?
The last game I got to just play was Dragon Ball XenoVerse, as I'm a massive Dragon Ball Z fan. As soon as that game came out I was straight on it, and I play that just to chill. But every now and then I play a random game. I played The Last of Us, and that was great. I don't put those games online because I like to just enjoy them, rather than getting the camera on and having to entertain an audience. I just like them for myself.
It'd be horrible if gaming became a chore for you, wouldn't it? That the fun aspect was lost to the work ethic?
Yeah, exactly. That's something I want to avoid. I don't want gaming to be a job that I have to do. I want to do it, and I want it to stay fun. But right now I enjoy everything.
Just finally, I know you're an Arsenal fan. I'm a Southampton supporter, so any chance you can you have a word with Arsene Wenger and get him to leave Morgan Schneiderlin alone, please?
Ah dude, Arsene gets who Arsene wants. He's consistent. I mean, how many years in a row have we exited the Champions League at this (last 16) stage?
Some, certainly. Cheers for chatting, man.
No worries, in a bit.
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