PewDiePie Is the Most Popular YouTube Star in the World. Why?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist

I’m watching a video of a twentysomething man with tousled blond hair, holding a game controller up to his crotch. He is playing a “peeing simulator” game, and we can also see the screen he’s looking at: virtual urine, guided by his vaguely obscene hand movements, splashing around a digital rendition of a filthy toilet.

He curses, squeals, yells, and then curses some more.

Welcome to the world of PewDiePie (say it like “cutie pie,” or “truly, why?”), the most popular YouTuber on planet Earth. His channel has 30 million subscribers and recently dethroned Rihanna’s YouTube channel to become the most-viewed of all time. According to The Wall Street Journal, this enterprise generates profits of around $4 million a year.

Recently, Amazon’s $1 billion purchase of Twitch — a service that livestreams game competitions with play-by-play-style commentary — has brought the concept of people watching other people play games (and virtually urinate) to mainstream attention. Much head-scratching has ensued — what’s entertaining about watching others entertain themselves?

Given Twitch’s emphasis on competitive gaming, I actually don’t find it that mysterious: Why shouldn’t games be a spectator sport? Surely it’s as engaging to gaming fans as watching cars drive in a circle is to countless NASCAR enthusiasts.

The insane popularity of PewDiePie, in particular, strikes me as considerably more curious — I mean, you know who Rihanna is, but would you recognize this kid if he were standing in line behind you at the bank?

Clearly many would, but until recently, I wouldn’t have. I think this is the sort of thing that can be understood only by immersion. Yet I had several false starts in my attempts to binge-watch PewDiePie’s videos, which can seem as obnoxious and immature as, you know, genuine youth culture tends to be.

But I finally steeled myself to just get to the end of, say, the peeing-simulator video. Then I watched dozens more — the videos vary in length but my viewing time added up to many hours, spread over several days. I eventually (kind of) got it.

PewDiePie isn’t a moron — even if he frequently plays one on YouTube. There’s even a certain charm to his demeanor and approach. I am definitely not in the target demo, but even I can almost grasp the appeal of watching PewDiePie virtually relieve himself on YouTube.

Well. Almost.

Roger Ebert + Daniel Tosh
The story goes that Felix Kjellberg dropped out of college in Sweden because he preferred to spend time playing games, making videos of himself doing so while offering running commentary on his experience, and uploading those clips to YouTube.

And like most pop phenomena that seem to have come out of nowhere overnight, Kjellberg’s PewDiePie channel built up steam over a period of years. PewDiePie has an easy mastery of the qualities that have turned YouTube into an unexpected star-making platform: While he can be raucous and crude, it always comes across as genuine.

He constantly addresses his audience as a bunch of peer-like friends, as opposed to distant, genuflecting fans. He’s certainly more than willing to make fun of himself in the process.

He’s also at least quasi-personal, making occasional references to his real life, including his girlfriend — who is also a YouTuber and shows up in some of his clips:

Moreover, he pretty clearly knows what he’s talking about. In addition to goofy experiments with things like the peeing simulator or a Barbie-branded digital makeup game — which come across as skit-like stunts — he posts lengthy videos of himself playing through ambitious games such as Walking Dead and Infamous Second Son.

What we see is mostly the game screen, with PewDiePie (always with colorful headphones and mic) relegated to a small inset box.

My gaming days ended in the era of Intellivision and Tempest, but I can see that to a more contemporary gamer part of what PewDiePie does is like a cross between Roger Ebert and Daniel Tosh.

He’s obviously engaged in the gaming experience and critiquing all it can offer — from plot to graphics. But his chosen mode of sharing his critique happens to be ribald entertainment, an unmediated stream of blurted jokes, startled yelps, goofy voices, politically incorrect comments, and pretty much nonstop profanity.

Frequently I found this tedious, but even for a non-gamer there was something striking about the way he applied his approach to, for instance, an Oculus Rift horror-game test. It’s one thing for a reviewer to say “That was scary,” and something else to see this guy yelling, “No! No! No!,” in his native tongue.

But for me, some of the most surprising PewDiePie clips are the ones where he’s so absorbed that he seems to forget to keep jabbering: He’s completely silent for long stretches of this examination of alternate endings to The Walking Dead, and more than once seems to be getting rather emotional.

And the most surprising video I watched didn’t really involve gaming at all. In this clip (below), PewDiePie simply addresses his audience directly, and among other things gives a thoughtful critique of the so-called “ice bucket challenge” and why he has chosen to donate money rather than succumbing to the bucket-dump — even though I’m sure a video of that would have been a traffic bonanza.

People like to watch
When I was a kid, in an earlier media era, my friends and I would regularly pass the time by adding our own running commentary to whatever was on TV — mocking Ward Cleaver’s unlikely habit of sitting around reading the newspaper in a suit and tie, or critiquing the plausibility of Star Trek actors simulating the effect of a jolt to the bridge of the Enterprise. This was part of the fun of watching reruns.

Later came Mystery Science Theater 3000: Here the smart-aleck commentary was part of the show, as its characters talked over absurd old movies. Personally, I never understood the appeal. I’d rather make my own snarky remarks. But MST3K became a hit.

And immersing in PewDiePie made me realize that it was an early example of what has become a counterintuitive phenomenon: We now live in the interactive-entertainment future, and one of its most popular features turns out to be watching someone else interact with techno-entertainment. In addition to the sports-like fandoms spawned by Twitch, there are a number of other popular “watch me play games” channels on YouTube. The genre even has a name: Let’s Play videos.

“It’s almost like hanging around and watching your pal play games,” PewDiePie has said. To me, that sounds ridiculous: What’s great about gaming as entertainment is that it’s participatory, so the idea of watching someone else participate seems farcical.

But the numbers suggest that “digital natives” have a different point of view.

Predictably, this has led to some backlash. Variety assessed PewDiePie and declared that we’re all doomed. I understand this reaction. It seems that many of the channel’s fans are kids, presumably attracted to the star’s vaguely naughty worldview, easy charisma, and accessibly good looks.

Profanity aside, it’s a bummer that his persona includes constant references to his viewers as “bros,” and that he’s loose with words like “bitch” when his gaming adventures lead him into contact with female villain characters.

Given how smart this guy clearly is when he speaks directly, I suspect he could modify his demeanor in a way that remained engaging to a young fan base but somehow contributed to improving gamer-land’s sometimes disturbingly bro-centric attitude.

What are these kids talking about?
But I realize that Kjellberg did not sign on to be a force for social good. This is entertainment, and his (massive) audience has spoken.

Moreover, I’m not part of his intended audience, and generational shifts in attitudes about what “culture” consists of are inevitably settled by the young. I seem to remember my parents expressing skepticism that whatever The Clash was doing, it wasn’t music. Later, South Park became a hit in part by trading in a discourse that willfully alienated older viewers, to the delight of a generation that “got it.” Earlier, Dean Martin once supposedly introduced the Rolling Stones with the caveat, “I don’t know what these kids are talking about.”

Personally, I won’t be subscribing to PewDiePie’s channel, and if you’re much beyond voting age I wouldn’t suggest you do so either. But I’m glad I took the time to delve into what he’s actually doing. The guy is smart. And being in his mid-20s, he may be just at the beginning of his career. If he doesn’t simply flame out, who knows what he could do?

Perhaps I don’t know what this kid is talking about. But sometimes it’s worth trying to figure it out. It’s deceptively easy to dismiss the youth culture of the moment as an irritating racket. If you care about where pop culture is headed next, sometimes you have to lean into that racket, and try to listen.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.