With 40 million fans, YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg could have his pick of broadcasters if he decided to move into television. But the man whose channel has more than 10bn video views plans to stick with his online community.
Television is just another promotional channel for his online work, rather than the next rung of the entertainment ladder, he argues.
“I started doing YouTube videos and that’s what I want to keep doing. It seems like maybe some traditional or old media feel intimidated by YouTube being a new medium,” Kjellberg said.
“I feel like we are the lucky ones doing YouTube. So I’m going to keep doing what’s fun.”
Kjellberg launched his YouTube channel in 2010, and has built a huge audience for his vlogs and “Let’s Play” videos, in which he plays a variety of games.
In 2014, his videos were watched nearly 4.1bn times and according to documents filed in the Brighton-based Swede’s homeland, the 25-year-old earned $7.4m (£4.8m).
Now, the traditional media world has come calling – and with it more mainstream attention. Kjellberg released his first book this week, This Book Loves You, through a publishing deal with Penguin Random House, and was recently a guest on high-profile US TV show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
“It’s been a certain group that knows about me, for sure. A lot of people are still like, ‘What is a PewDiePie?’ But it really is interesting to see, as one of the bigger names on YouTube, that right now there’s a transition phase where YouTube is becoming more popular and accepted as a medium by itself,” said Kjellberg.
The online fandom for its stars extends to the offline world too: 1,400 fans turned up to Kjellberg’s book signing in London last weekend, while he has been mobbed when appearing at online-video industry award ceremonies.
“I see the numbers that are there online: a lot of people watching and commenting. But you go to these events and think, ‘Oh shit! It’s actually real.’ It’s a really big transition,” he said.
That transition has also seen Kjellberg become an ambassador of sorts for gaming in general, and the genre of Let’s Play videos in particular. His Late Show appearance came shortly after a rival chat show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, mocked the phenomenon. Colbert, by contrast, treated Kjellberg and his viewers with respect.
“It’s so easy to make fun of because it’s new and different. But once you get into it and understand it more, you realise that it is something cool and awesome,” he said.
Kjellberg is mulling over his next moves, including a plan to experiment with new formats beyond Let’s Play videos on YouTube, perhaps with live streaming that could bring him closer to traditional television, but in his own way.
“A lot of people keep a looser approach to live streaming: they can just play games and don’t have to worry about editing. That doesn’t seem that appealing to me,” he said. “I’d do it shorter and really make a show out of it.”
Kjellberg is also preparing to make a scripted horror series with the producer of The Walking Dead, funded by YouTube for its newly-announced YouTube Red subscription service.
He is also learning to exert his growing influence on the platforms he operates on, from criticising YouTube for its often-toxic comments section in 2014, to bucking the dominant trend in the apps industry for “freemium” games that make their money from in-app purchases – Candy Crush Saga being the most famous example.
Kjellberg’s mobile game Legend of the Brofist costs £3.99 up front, with no in-app purchases. “I don’t think that all games that have in-game purchases are bad, but we didn’t think it would fit the kind of game we wanted to make. It was cool to maybe change people’s approach to mobile games: they don’t always have to be Flappy Bird,” he said.
That game was a sudden (if short-lived) craze in early 2014: Kjellberg’s videos of Flappy Bird were watched by tens of millions of people, sparking its initial surge in downloads.
It was an early sign that PewDiePie and his fellow YouTube gamers are the new influencers in the games industry, capable of turning obscure, independent games into hits.
“People think that YouTube is going to replace games journalism. I don’t think that at all: they both have a place, and a different approach to promoting games,” said Kjellberg.
“But when I released my own game, it was really cool to see exactly what the impact of just one video of a game could do. It’s clear that if a YouTuber plays a game, sales go up. That’s just how it is.”
Penguin Random House is hoping it will be a similar story for This Book Loves You, which follows chart-topping books from fellow YouTubers Zoe “Zoella” Sugg and Alfie Deyes.
But unlike Sugg’s novel, Girl Online, Kjellberg’s book takes the form of a collection of mock-inspirational quotes, spoofing the kind of over-solemn memes widely shared on Facebook.
The idea plays firmly to his core fans, who he said played a key role in the original idea for the book.
Kjellberg’s communication with his fans has had to evolve from the days when he published his personal email address for them to contact.
“That would be impossible now, it would just be ridiculous!” he said, of the likely deluge of emails. “But I think they know I still care and take their feedback incredibly seriously.”
Like a number of other YouTubers, Kjellberg has successfully mobilised his online audience for charitable purposes, raising $446,000 (£288,294) for Charity: Water in 2013 and $630,000 (£407,232) for Save the Children in 2014 through crowdfunding campaigns.
“The fans are so engaged, and I think that’s what’s cool about YouTube: we have that engagement and we can use it for positive stuff like that,” he said.
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