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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.

angry-gamers-black-and-white
Yuri Nunes, EyeEm/Composite by CNET

How to make a successful video on one of the internet's most popular sites:  

Step 1: Find something to be angry about. Go to online forums, track what's hot on Twitter and figure out the outrage of the day.

Step 2: Rant into a camera for 10 minutes.

Step 3: Profit.

Welcome to 2019, where some influential gamers on YouTube have learned what many others, including the president of the United States, have figured out: Anger sells. It sells big.

Starting last year, a new cadre of negative YouTube gaming 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.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, will likely prompt all of the above when it kicks off in Los Angeles next week.

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."

LegacyKillaHD, who lists his name as Michael on Twitter and, like Denny, didn't comment for this story, posts videos to his more than 510,000 subscribers that include thumbnails written in all-caps: "GAMERS ARE ANGRY," "DAMAGE CONTROL!," "THE HUGE PROBLEMS!" and "HUGE LIES DETECTED!"

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EA's Anthem was received with mixed reviews. 

Bioware / Electronic Arts

Click on those videos, and YouTube recommends more like them bearing titles such as The Year Activision Blizzard Got $#&! On By The Gaming Industry and Activision Blizzard Is Disgusting, EA is the WORST Company Ever... Here's Why and The Rise and Fall of EA.

Activision Blizzard didn't respond to a request for comment. EA 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, Google, 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 Honda, consumer brands such as Pringles chips, wireless providers Sprint 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.

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When Bethesda's post-apocalyptic game Fallout 76 was announced, gamers were excited. It released to mixed reviews and inspired waves of critical YouTube videos.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

His YouTube channel, Upper Echelon Gamers, started with tips and guides on how to play Ubisoft's then-new post-apocalyptic paramilitary game Tom Clancy's The Division.

Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 cowboy game was met with near universal acclaim when it released last year. But some YouTubers didn't like its online features.

Rockstar Games

But last year, when Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 cowboy game was released to near universal acclaim, Zakrzewski said he felt a need to shift. The game's online component that lets you play with friends, then in beta-testing, was criticized for not having enough interesting activities. Players also complained that the company aggressively pushed them to spend real money to quickly acquire new guns, horses or other items needed to play. (Rockstar has since changed the way the game works.)

"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.

Loke's original plan was to create video "essays" examining what made games good and bad. He'd already created carefully edited videos dissecting different types of game difficulty, for example, while also giving reviews for games he loved, like the critically acclaimed 2005 Sony fantasy adventure game Shadow of the Colossus. He also tried his hand at applying his business background in a video about why games cost $60.

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 game consoles. Before long, he was attacking a critic of Sony's Days Gone, accusing her of using a review she'd written to push liberal politics.

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Days Gone, a game about living in a post-apocalyptic world filled zombies, received mixed reviews from some critics. 

Sony

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.

Hambly told his audience not to "interact with" Plagge. He also said "I disavow" the online attacks. Both actions insulated him from a YouTube policy against inciting harassment.  

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.

Hambly has in the past gone after people he disagrees with, particularly outspoken members of the gaming community and journalists, which he often calls "urinal-ists." In one case, his attacks against a community member of the card game Magic: The Gathering reportedly contributed to Hambly being permanently banned starting in 2017 from participating in official tournaments. (Wizards of the Coast, which makes Magic, didn't respond to requests for comment.)

Over the past six months, Hambly has also used his channel to call #MeToo "a farce" and to criticize companies for their diversity efforts. He used a vulgar slur when referring to Brie Larson, the star of Disney's Captain Marvel movie, calling her "a cunt" during a now-deleted May livestream on his YouTube channel.

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."

What now?

Some gaming companies are working to make the culture more positive. EA and Microsoft 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."

Microsoft has also posted its community standards, and committed to more moderation tools to help people avoid toxic players.

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."

Roblox, an online world-building game, is popular among young children.

Roblox

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."

Eight days later, Denny pulled down What's So Great's first video and rebranded the channel to Games vs Food, in which he reviews a game and a food in parallel to see which is better. His inaugural video, Anthem vs $3 Grocery Store Sushi, had 7,216 views a little more than a week after publishing. So far, the channel counts over 17,000 subscribers.

Hambly, of TheQuartering, also runs separate channels, including MidWestly, where he discusses non-gaming issues like CNN's ratings, the first Muslim to wear a hijab and burkini in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition, and the "identity politics" of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

"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."

YouTube Billboard Advertisement

YouTube is one of the internet's most popular sites.

Getty Images

It's us

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.

We're hard-wired to be attracted to drama, and for millions of people that means watching gaming commentators online.

"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.