What comes to mind when you think about most-subscribed YouTube channels? Celebrities and musicians, right? But today's reigning channel is that of PewDiePie, a 24-year-old Swedish gamer who has over 23 million subscribers – more than Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, or any traditional celebrity.
PewDiePie is the alias of Felix Kjellberg, who joined YouTube in 2010 with a Minecraft video showing a zombie that had spawned in a minecart. He is best known for his Let's Play series, enthusiastic and profanity-laden playthroughs of video games like Amnesia and The Last of Us. And his fans, lovingly dubbed the "Bro Army," are taking over the Internet.
The channel has broken several growth records, going from 12 million subscribers in August 2013 to 20 million in January 2014. According to Tubefilter (with data from OpenSlate), PewDiePie received 223 million views in the month of December alone–an average of 7.2 million views a day.
With that many eyeballs, there's no doubt that PewDiePie is one gaming's most influential personalities. He's been credited with boosting sales and awareness for games like Flappy Bird and Backflip Madness. He has over 2 million followers on Twitter, where even his most nonsensical tweets get thousands of interactions. His "bros" write fan fiction on WattPad and submit PewDiePie art to Tumblr and deviantArt. (A recent deviantArt search yielded over 57,000 pieces of PewDiePie fan art.) He even has his own app, which notifies users every time he or his longtime girlfriend Marzia Bisognin (aka CutiePieMarzia), upload videos.
Part of PewDiePie's success comes from his involvement with Maker Studios, a video-focused media company that develops talent and programming, arranges brand sponsorships and cross-promotes channels. According to its website, Maker Studios channels attract 4.5 billion monthly views and 340 million subscribers.
But what's the appeal of PewDiePie? During one's first views it can be hard to see past the excessive screaming, weird voices and shout-outs to his "bros," but I'm starting to understand why Generation Z loves him. PewDiePie spends a lot of time talking to and about his fans, remaining active in YouTube comments and answering questions –resulting in an absurdly loyal following.
When it comes to his videos, they're long – often between 10 and 30 minutes – but gaming videos are extremely popular: 95 per cent of gamers say they watch videos associated with their hobby. PewDiePie's are imaginative and peppered with inside jokes, like his love of ducks and hatred of barrels. He regularly personifies game props, including a stuffed bear (Grizzly) and a golden statue (Stefano) from Amnesia, and repeatedly returns to them. His humour is random and often nonsensical, and I can see how his fans find it charming.
The Bro Army is particularly enthralled by PewDiePie's personal life, which he also documents, dominated by adorable pugs and his girlfriend, Marzia. Her YouTube channel (on style and beauty) is tastefully edited, and her calm personality balances out PewDiePie's general wackiness. Together they are a wildly attractive couple. It's easy to see why fans are always asking when they will "see a ring on that bro fist."
PewDiePie is also incredibly charitable. When he won King of the Web in 2012, he donated his prize money to the World Wildlife Fund. He also donated a chunk of YouTube Partner earnings ($34,394.75) to St. Jude Hospital, and encouraged his then 10-million subscribers to support the Charity:Water project.
Of course, PewDiePie is not without controversy. Like many young gamers, he makes a lot of references to being "raped" during his playthroughs, and even published a video called It's Raping Time. But unlike many young gamers, he listened when fans and critics alike pointed out their harmful nature, and resolved to stop making rape jokes last October. He has not, however, changed his tune about using "slut" as an insult.
Criticisms aside, the Bro Army marches on and PewDiePie is only getting more and more popular. And rich: Social Blade estimates that he makes anywhere between $123 thousand and $1.3-million every month. In the bizarre world of YouTube, it's not the polish and sobriety of network-style TV that gets you fame and fortune – it's your ability to rally the troops.