Meet the angry gaming YouTubers who turn outrage into views
The video game world is no stranger to controversy, but a new class of YouTube commentators is turning anger into influence.
Ian SherrFormer Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Starting last year, a new cadre of negative YouTube
commentators came to prominence. Almost in unison, they each enjoyed spikes in audience and view counts, attracting hundreds of thousands of subscribers. That translated into millions of views a week as they dissected the video game industry's missteps, misadventures and controversies. The views get rewarded by YouTube in ad dollars.
Their negativity comes in many forms. Some YouTubers produce a stream of videos criticizing every imaginable fault a game could have. Visual bugs. Awkward controls. Stupid storylines. Others obsess over game developers' attempts to fix glitches. There are commentators who rail against efforts to upsell players, who typically shell out $60 for a game. These microtransactions, as they're known, can include different character designs, new looks for weapons and additional stories, and are a source of constant irritation for vocal commentators, who see them as a rip-off. Others veer into criticism of outspoken game company executives. Some attacks get personal, criticizing members of the gaming community for their looks or perceived political beliefs.
There's no single formula, and the YouTubers have taken different tacks, such as high-production videos with formal scripts or off-the-cuff rambling. But all rely on the same strategy: getting the audience angry.
Some, including Tyler Denny, who runs the CleanPrinceGaming channel, which has more than 631,000 subscribers, create slickly edited video essays dissecting news reports and rumors of corporate screw-ups that lead to a game's disappointing release. Some of his most popular videos are a series titled, "[Game Name] Didn't Just Die, It was Murdered."
Blizzard didn't respond to a request for comment.
declined to comment for this story.
It's hard to pinpoint why this torrent of negativity has become so popular. But analysts, researchers and some of the YouTubers themselves told me the video-streaming service's recommendation programs may share some of the blame.
It's YouTube that picks the top results when you search. And it's YouTube that recommends the next video to watch. That automated software "is responsible for more than 70 percent of overall time spent on YouTube," The New York Times reported, noting it's "drawn accusations of leading users down rabbit holes filled with extreme and divisive content, in an attempt to keep them watching and drive up the site's use numbers."
As a result,
, YouTube's parent company, rewards this negativity by sending millions of viewers to these channels.
"We have strict policies that govern what kinds of videos we show ads on, and videos with hateful content violate those policies," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. "If we find videos that are showing ads and shouldn't be, we remove ads immediately."
On Wednesday, YouTube said it would take a tougher stand against the more toxic elements on all parts of the service. "Everyone on YouTube will be subject to the new hate speech policies, whether it be in videos they post or in other actions like comments or stories," a YouTube spokesperson added.
Over the past six months, I've watched hundreds of these videos, seeing ads from car makers like Volvo and
, consumer brands such as Pringles chips, wireless providers
and its subsidiary Boost Mobile, fast food chain Taco Bell and broadcaster CBS, which owns CNET. They came to my screen via YouTube's software, in this case its automated advertising system that pairs ads with videos, something that has already raised concerns among some advertisers, who have pulled spending on the site. Those ad dollars help drive a cycle that creates, shares, spreads and funds videos further.
"People love negativity," said Steven Williams, a longtime YouTuber whose channel, Boogie2988, counts more than 4.5 million subscribers.
Williams has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to his videos, including skits in which he plays Francis, an angry, overweight gamer with a lisp yelling into the camera about the industry's outrage of the day. "Francis is in fact a parody of the angriest gamers," Williams told me. "The ones who take it all too seriously."
Other YouTubers, like The Angry Joe Show and Jim Sterling, have found similar success by mixing in overly dramatic tongue-in-cheek jokes, skits and the occasional positive video. (Neither Angry Joe or Sterling responded to requests for comment.)
But some people took the angry part too seriously, and now they're trying to become the next big gaming commentators, Williams told me. "We have a whole generation of young kids who were raised on negativity," he said.
Mass marketing anger is nothing new. And it's certainly not unique to YouTube. Even President Donald Trump reportedly learned that his most effective tweets are his most unhinged, Watergate scribe Bob Woodward wrote in his book Fear last year.
Now the gaming community is manufacturing outrage videos.
If you're trawling for game news on YouTube, anger is becoming the only emotion you'll experience in your recommended feed.
Making an angry YouTuber
Chris Zakrzewski said he fell into the game criticism world by accident. Originally, he conceived his company, Upper Echelon, as a "multifaceted gaming organization" when he founded it in 2016.
"It felt like there had been a lot of hype in a bad way," Zakrzewski told me. And he felt that not enough YouTubers at the time were talking about how predatory Red Dead's in-game purchases seemed to him. "I decided to lean into that."
His channel took off. In September 2018, just before
Red Dead Redemption 2
came out, he rarely broke 1 million monthly views. By November, he was averaging 4 million, according to statistics from SocialBlade. He began adding tens of thousands of new subscribers each month.
Zakrzewski, 25, aims to talk in his videos with the same passion he would while playing a game with a friend in front of a TV. "I've always viewed the glass as half-empty," he said. "I've always been able to articulate in a negative way."
That includes when he posted a video criticizing "social justice warriors" (SJWs), a common internet slur for people who advocate for diversity. In a February 2018 video, he discussed how "keyboard warriors" and "political correctness" were threatening to wreck games. "It's one of the most important concepts I have covered on the channel," he said at the time. The video, titled SJW Culture is RUINING GAMING, has nearly 1 million views.
YouTube is his full-time job and he says he pulled in about $35,000 last year through advertisers, recently including Sprint, Honda and Mattress Firm. He has an investment portfolio and other ways he makes up shortfalls when money from ads shown on his videos, of which YouTube reportedly takes a 45% cut, is lower than he needs.
Zakrzewski didn't have to look far for inspiration as he ramped up his videos.
Another YouTuber at the channel Downward Thrust, who publishes under the nickname Tone Loke, was one of the early pioneers of scripted gaming commentary videos. He posted his first video for the channel in 2016 before leaving his career in health care administration the following year to focus on YouTube full-time.
Then, in February 2017, a video called Is For Honor A "For Goner?" took off. His essay, discussing problems with the just-released Ubisoft battle game, attracted hundreds of thousands of views. To promote it, he created a promotional thumbnail with a crashing bar chart and the simple words "Did It Fail?"
"That video had a complete influence on my channel," Loke told me. "What I tried to do with that video was remove all the excess words from the thumbnail and I caught onto a good strategy."
From then on, nearly all the thumbnails for his videos took on that simple dramatic look, though Loke projects a calm and professorial demeanor in his videos. Over time, he said, he felt pressure to be more negative, in part because other YouTubers were amping up the drama to stand out. "When everyone's doing the same thing, you have to be provocative," he said.
Riling up the crowd
Sometimes YouTube videos push past the bounds of aggressive game commentary and into personal attack. This is what happened in 2012, when gamers ganged up on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, for announcing a series of videos about women's representation in games.
About a month ago, Jeremy Hambly showed himself on video sitting in front of his computer, surrounded by boxes of popular video
. Before long, he was attacking a critic of Sony's Days Gone, accusing her of using a review she'd written to push liberal
The video, posted to TheQuartering, his channel, points Hambly's more than 530,000 subscribers to an online review of the survival-horror game that he says was influenced by the author's views about diversity. He said she had given the game an unfairly low score and criticized a tweet in which she noted that all of the game's zombies were white.
"Keep your politics out of our video games," he says at the end of the video. A thumbnail image shows a woman with "BUSTED" rubber-stamped across her face.
Hambly's target was Kallie Plagge, a reviews editor at GameSpot, a video game site. (GameSpot is a sister publication to CNET.)
Plagge says she's used to getting attacked, often with comments by others about her looks rather than the content of her stories. After Hambly's video was published, her social media accounts overflowed with insults from other users. Some people pored over her Instagram account looking for photos that highlighted Plagge's perceived physical flaws. It was exhausting, she says.
"Multiple people read the review before it goes live, and you do all that work, and then to have people criticize you not even based on that work, but based on who they think you are, is really disheartening," Plagge said.
He posted an additional three videos, each about the attacks. In one, Hambly claimed Plagge was making up stories about being harassed. Another bashed a fellow YouTuber for defending Plagge, a practice often called "white knighting." And he created a video about a blogger who had commented on Hambly's attacks of Plagge.
On June 3, I asked Hambly for an interview to talk about the world of video game commentary. "You had better be very careful what you write about me," he wrote in response, "I will pursue legal action should you make any attempt to damage my reputation."
About nine hours after I received that email, Hambly told his audience in a new video that CNET was planning a "hit piece" on YouTube commentators.
Hambly funds his videos in part through paid comments, known as super chats in livestreams, selling merchandise with his likeness, and offering a $4.99 per month "membership" facilitated by YouTube. He also receives payments for ads that YouTube serves in his videos.
GameFly, a video game rental service, said it wasn't aware its ad had appeared in one of Hambly's Plagge videos until CNET asked for comment. The company has since decided not to run ads on TheQuartering for an unspecified amount of time. Honda said in an emailed statement that ads run on Hambly's videos went against its "strict" guidelines on advertising placement.
DeVry University, which also said it will no longer run ads on TheQuartering, says it relies on Google and YouTube to help ensure its ads appear in vetted "safe environments."
Some gaming companies are working to make the culture more positive. EA and
are building networks of "ambassadors" among YouTube's popular gamers. They aren't meant to be cheerleaders. Instead, they're fans who encourage less divisive conversations.
"I'm not sure we put as much effort into that in the past as we should have," said Dave McCarthy, who helps run Microsoft's gaming community. "We have a responsibility to go make some innovation happen in this space."
Roblox, whose namesake world-building game is popular among children, wants to influence its younger generation of players to avoid the more toxic parts of gaming culture by communicating more with their friends and family.
"A lot of our work is around parents," said Laura Higgins, the company's director of community safety and digital civility. Part of it is teaching parents how to help foster better online experiences, she said, even if their kid is the one causing trouble. "If we're reaching the youngest kids," she said, "we need the parents on board."
But that may not be enough.
Watch enough YouTubers, and you'll eventually hear them talk about the increased negativity. The website's algorithmic programming and search results encourage it, they say.
Williams, aka Boogie2988, told me his audience complained to him earlier this year because they'd noticed his news segments were becoming increasingly negative about the games and the companies that make them. So he decided to go a week posting only positive videos about games he liked and what he was playing. The number of views his videos attracted tanked.
"It was one of the worst weeks of views in my life," he said.
Zakrzewski, of Upper Echelon Gamers, said that as his channel grows, he feels a responsibility to keep making videos with a similar tone to the ones that attracted people in the first place.
"They identify with content that is like them, and it's unfiltered and very genuine, so I'm never going to entertain the idea of losing that," Zakrzewski said. "I've thought about taking that edge off or thought about reducing the amount of flammable rhetoric or incendiary things that I say, but I don't see myself ever doing it."
For other YouTubers, the answer has been to post on other "channels" they operate on the site. Denny, of CleanPrinceGaming, announced a new channel on May 20 called What's So Great, as a place to discuss stuff he likes about a game.
"I'm known as the negative guy -- so many gaming YouTubers are known as the negative guy, and 'every gaming YouTuber hates everything,'" he said while introducing the channel. "I myself have not done a great job of perpetuating positivity."
"It's an attention economy where you're rewarded for engagement," said Nicolas Suzor, a law professor at Queensland University of Technology who studies internet communities. "And the stuff that stokes up the fear and anger gets more engagement."
The heart of what's driving the YouTube gaming community's shift toward negativity isn't just YouTube's search and recommendation engine, the YouTubers themselves or the advertisers that claim to unknowingly fund them. Researchers say human behavior plays a role too.
"It can be cathartic and therapeutic," said Kishonna Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and lifelong gamer who wrote the book Race, Gender and Deviance in Xbox Live. What worries her, though, is that Google and YouTube curate these videos into an easily digestible playlist of angry video after angry video without moderation.
Loke, of Downward Thrust, decided he's going to stop feeding into the community's negativity.
He spent months experimenting with ideas like straightforward videos about whether to buy a game, or attempting to follow the newsy outrage of the day against Bethesda's post-apocalyptic exploration game Fallout 76 and EA's fantasy action game Anthem. But in May he said he would no longer be making YouTube videos full-time.
"I want to be passionate about it and have fun and share my feelings," Loke said. And he's looking to return to making more thoughtfully crafted videos, rather than chasing views to put food on his table. "I want a life outside this platform."
First published June 6 at 1:28 p.m. PT. Update, 3:13 p.m. PT: Adds YouTube comment.; Update, 4:26 p.m. PT: Adds additional YouTube comment.