It’s perhaps an unusual concept to some – the idea that people would like to, and even rather, watch others play a video game on the internet than play themselves – but with the simultaneous growth of YouTube and the launch of the HD generation of games consoles, that’s exactly what millions of people, myself included, began to do. From being a novelty in the early days, back in 2006/07, it has become a livelihood for many of the most successful Youtubers because of advertising revenue and the creation of TV-style “networks” such as Machinima.
However, the golden age of YouTube gaming may be coming to an end. The boom in channel growth has slowed considerably, and Google/YouTube’s increasingly authoritarian policies are beginning to cripple even the longest-running channels. From those posting videos for fun to those doing it for a living, making game videos for YouTube is becoming a bureaucratic nightmare and there is growing calls for a shift away from the number one video site on the internet.
The early days were perhaps the most wholesome. Although some production companies had already made gaming videos as far back as 2003; when the PS3 and Xbox 360 were first released people began to buy their own PVRs (Personal Video Recorders) or capture cards (a computer “attachment” that allows you to record video) and capture their own footage of games. Initially, quality wasn’t great – with many people choosing cheaper PVRs such as the Dazzle to record their footage in standard definition but quality improved when HD alternatives such as the Hauppauge HD PVR and Blackmagic Intensity capture cards came on the market.
A major turning point in the YouTube gaming ‘scene’ was the release of Halo 3 and, more significantly, Call of Duty 4 in late 2007. This is when multiplayer gaming truly kicked off on the next generation. Unlike single player games, which are likely to be very similar experiences for different people playing them, multiplayer games offered infinite possibilities to show off to the world. People began to record their gameplay to show off their highlights from games or even their best games in full. Montages appeared putting many of these highlights together in one video, normally with a musical background.
These videos gained traction on YouTube, but what made this niche one of the most popular on YouTube was the introduction of commentary. Several Youtubers, notably Blame Truth, Hutch, Xcalizorz and Zzirgrizz, began to commentate their gameplay giving tips, news and other information to their audience. This humanized YouTube gaming to many. And this approach meant an explosion of gaming videos on YouTube.
These channels would get several thousand views on their videos, which they typically released several times a week. For home-made content, this was astronomical success at that point in time. Generally, these Youtubers would have ‘real-world’ jobs and would put in their own spare time and effort in capturing (good) gameplay and then editing it, commentating over it and then uploading it. It was a labour of love to those that enjoyed doing it.
Those people that pioneered gameplay commentary built names and reputations for themselves within their own corner of the internet. They were regarded for both their playing ability, as only those who had genuine skill made the investment into making videos at the time, and their personalities. Viewers were attracted to channels by people who were interesting and charismatic to listen to, as well as skilled at the game. These people became celebrities in their own right. Viewers got to know the person behind the microphone and controller, with many Youtubers finding their channels as a good outlet to talk about their personal lives and discuss issues surrounding their work, relationships etc.
A second wave of expansion in both channels and viewers came when Call of Duty 4’s true sequel, Modern Warfare 2, was released in 2009. I’ve already talked about how this game was both a blessing and a curse for the Call of Duty series, and so it was for YouTube gaming. People saw this new game as a jumping in point as far as YouTube was concerned. Thousands, even millions, of new users turned to YouTube to find out about the game – from tips and class combinations to game highlights (such as using the new killstreak rewards). Generally people came to YouTube to see something specific and then ended up returning to see the next videos from the channels that they liked.