“Any time KSI walks past an eleven to 21 year-old boy, they will know who he is” – Callux
We meet three of YouTube’s best-known game players in the basement of Google’s London HQ. They’ve each been asked to attempt three World Records, and the event is being livestreamed as part of YouTube’s recent Geek Week promotion. The assembled cameramen, producers, directors and PRs seem anxious as the stream goes live; not so KSI, Ali-A and Callux. They spend the next hour causing mischief, chatting amongst themselves and checking their phones. They’re not taking it seriously at all. Why should they?
They’re YouTube celebrities in their own right, with more subscribers between them than this livestream will ever attract. Over the course of the next mildly chaotic hour and in conversation afterwards, we get a sense of why they’ve risen above the many thousands of others trying to earn a living from games videos on YouTube.
With over three million subscribers to his channel, perhaps it’s no surprise to find that KSI is the group’s biggest personality. Hyped up on energy drinks, he’s a whirlwind of a man, interrupting the presenter, gurning at the camera and making suggestive remarks to the female judges. He might not be to everyone’s taste, but he absolutely steals the show. Afterwards, speaking as JJ rather than his on-screen persona KSI, he’s a calmer, more thoughtful soul. He doesn’t seem to know how he’s built up such a colossal following in the two and half years he’s been posting videos on YouTube – he gives the air of having stumbled into it all, and later on, says he might yet stumble back out again. He’s made a lot of money from his YouTube channel, starting first with FIFA gameplay videos before moving in front of the camera, to become a celebrity in his own right.
Ali-A and Callux are the calmer characters; they seem to have a slightly more calculated approach to building a career on YouTube. Ali-A describes himself as a news guy, delivering commentary over gameplay footage of the latest Call Of Duty DLC and multiplayer modes. In the last few months, he has been flown out to the COD multiplayer reveal event in LA and to Cologne’s Gamescom at Activision’s expense so that he can report back to his 2.4 million subscribers.
Callux has a not-inconsiderable 200,000 subscribers, but his following is dwarfed by the other two. He started out by uploading videos to show his friends how good he was at Call Of Duty, but like KSI and Ali-A, has since become well known enough to carry a channel by himself; his schtick today isn’t really games at all – he specialises in prank videos, and wants to move into ‘proper’ presenting one day. You get the sense he probably will.
It’s tempting to believe that YouTube success can come overnight, but that’s not true of any of these three. KSI doesn’t appear to have been keeping track at all until suddenly, his channel was massive. Ali-A and Callux had to work a little harder at it. “I think it took me a year to get hundred subscribers, and another year to get a thousand subs,” says Ali-A. Callux had been running his hub-style channel for fun and weird Call Of Duty videos for some time, earning a little extra money from it, before he was approached by agency Base79. “I’d never really thought of my channel realistically as a job,” he says. “It was a hobby, I was doing it from six until eight every night, and then [Base79] brought me in and said they liked me. They offered me a job the next time I came in. So then I was like – okay, shall I quit University and do this?”
It’s not much of a dilemma. Do you get paid a good wage for doing something you love, or study for three years in relative poverty? Ali-A was faced with the same no-brainer decision. “I was doing videos once or twice a week maximum, not very regularly,” he says. “I was at school at the time, then my channel got partnered and just after that I got my first viral video which got, like, a quarter of a million views in a few days. Once I got that viral, I started to get repeat viral videos and the views started to become more consistent, to the point where the base I’d built up and the money I was earning was, like, good enough. I didn’t want to put it on hold – with University you can wait however long, but with YouTube, if you’re not on it as soon as you’re big, you’re suddenly nobody.”
The chance to go full time with the backing of a partner has been the biggest catalyst for KSI, ALi-A and Callux, and they’re each earning much more that most men in their late teens and early twenties. Agencies like Machinima and Base79 offer YouTubers a revenue share deal in order to assume control of the ads on their channel. Revenue shares are different depending on the deal you strike – some partnered YouTubers will get one dollar per thousand views, but bigger names can get three dollar offers and above. Add in sponsorship and, yes, official merchandise, and you have the stuff of adolescent dreams; where once working on a magazine or website was the aspiration, YouTube represents a barrier-free entry into potential videogame fame and fortune.
Which is prescisely why YouTube is so flooded with people doing the same thing. KSI says his distinctive humour helped get his FIFA videos get noticed. “Everyone else was kind of doing the same thing, just posting goals,” he says. “I started to complain about the game a bit and then people just kind of thought I was really funny. The big video was the one I did about [former England striker Emile] Heskey. I pretty much just slagged him off, like, I’d say he was the best player but show him doing the worst things. People just found it hilarious.”
Though there was plenty of opposition from his parents, KSI also quit school to become a fulltime YouTuber. “I was having more fun with YouTube than A Levels,” he says. “One of the big guys back then, Zerkaa, was making money from it and I saw that and I was just like: ‘you can actually make a living playing games?!’
“My parents always told me that could never happen. This was what everyone said, so I wanted to prove everyone wrong. My parents were freaking out because they’re, like, traditional African parents – [adopts accent] ‘ah ah, I want you to become a doctor or lawyer’ – so for them, to see me go for this route, they were just flipping.”
KSI, Ali-A and Callux are big names because they’ve built an audience over years, and on alot of ways were fortunate to start making videos when they did. They’re riding a first wave of YouTube stardom whose rewards will only make following that early success more difficult, such is the competition today. “If you don’t have a good idea about how to break into the community, don’t start,” says Callux. “If you’re starting now, if you don’t have a niche in the market or you aren’t entertaining…it’s a dog-eat-dog world and there’s hundreds of thousands of channels out there.”
Luck plays its part, of course, as does who you know; Callux says appearing in KSIs videos has really helped his own channel, and in turn KSI is looking into “breaking America” by appearing in videos made by big US YouTubers.
Two and a half years into his YouTube adventure, KSI doesn’t envy those starting out, either. “I don’t want to sugar coat it and be like ‘oh everyone’s got a chance’ because not everyone can do it,” he says. “Well… everyone can do it, but not everyone will hit it big. You got to be likeable and unique, those are the two main things.”
Ali-A worked hard at his channel, and he urges aspiring YouTubers to do the same and hope to get lucky. “I think people sometimes look at big channels and see them growing really, really quickly, so they start a YouTube channel themselves that doesn’t grow that quickly and think something’s wrong,” he says. “But in fact it’s a very, very gradual process – if you’re doing something unique and you really enjoy it, then that’s all you can really do.”
Call Of Duty, Minecraft and FIFA videos have been done to death; their popularity is actually falling and we’ve reached a saturation point, says Callux. He believes that future YouTube stars will be born from the back of big new games. “We kind of need something else, and I don’t know what that is,” he says. “Something will come along. When a new game comes out and someone finds a niche and persists at it, they’ll grow exponentially off the back of it.”
Like that first flush of success, YouTube stardom might not last – “I’m not going to be doing this when I’m 50” says KSI – but Ali-A, Callux and KSI aren’t thinking too far ahead anyway. There’s plenty to enjoy right now.
“People like KSI will walk down the street and they’ll get stopped every five minutes, literally,” adds Callux. “Send an A-list celebrity down the same road and they won’t get stopped as much.”