The Rise of the Let’s Play
As YouTube algorithms shifted more towards favoring long-form content and minutes viewed rather than specific clicks, LPers found themselves in a perfect storm of media distribution. Most LP sessions can span multiple episodes ranging in length from anywhere between ten minutes to two or three hours. The format was designed to encourage lengthy launch sessions, with daily installments driving users to come back and watch the continuation of the game from start to finish. This fit perfectly with YouTube’s alteration of their recommendation algorithms in 2008 and again in 2012, which quickly lead to LP channels rising in subscribers and watchers at exponential levels.
These videos required minimal effort to create (even when compared to Vlogs of the previous era) and could be of greater length as they were focused around playing a video game (and on average, most games run between 5-10 hours). Around this time, the game Minecraft also rose in popularity among pre-teens to new adults (mid-twenties), who are the primary consumers of regular YouTube media. Minecraft, a game where you harvest blocks that you can then use to construct buildings or other creations, quickly became the most uploaded content on the system, and the “Games” subcategory continues to have the most content uploaded to it every day (Plunkett, 2011).
Games-as-background for content was hardly a new phenomenon. JamesNintendoNerd and other sketch comedians such as JonTron3 and ScrewAttack4 had been creating scripted video content of this kind for years. However, with the algorithms no longer in their favor, the top spots in YouTube were soon dethroned by LPers, such as PewDiePie5, CaptainSparklez6, Markiplier7, NorthernLion8, and others (Croshaw). YouTube creators were aware of the switch, and many who had been popular before adapted. Smosh, no longer number one, started a “Smosh Games” channel9 where the personalities played games in a LP style. The channel has over 6 million subscribers. Animator Arin Hansen (Egoraptor) and Jon Jafari (JonTron) combined efforts into a channel Game Grumps10, with over two million subscribers. Creators often did their LP channels on the side, still putting up their “usual” content on their main channels. This also marked the shift of LPs from game-focused content to instead being commentator and creator focused. The most popular YouTube LPers are viewed as online celebrities, often attending conventions and travelling the world to visit with fans. Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie), is the most subscribed channel on YouTube as of 2015, with over 35 million subscribers and videos generally gaining 1-2 million views within the first 24 hours (VidStatsX, 2015). Felix, as well as other YouTube LP celebrities, branches out into other forms of video production such as Vlogs, live action skits, and more. In their videos, cuts are not made to coincide with highlights in the game, but rather comedic highlights presented by the player.
The focus of LP has shifted from being informative to being comedic, and centered primarily on the LPer rather than the game itself. In Another popular LP channel, “Game Grumps,” the LPers tell amusing anecdotes or jokes that have no connection with the game they are playing. In these cases, the game has become a backdrop to a two-man comedy duo, which is also evidenced by both these creators having a history in improvisational comedy. The popularity of the LP form has influenced the design of some games. Video games are now being developed to particularly cater to LPers, as the biggest LPers can generate millions of viewers’ exposure essentially for free (Hale; Smith, Obrist, Wright). For example, the game Five Nights at Freddy’s, a horror game designed to make a player uneasy and then provide and abrupt scare, generated over 15 million views across multiple LP channels within the first 24 hours of its release. This led to Five Nights at Freddy’s becoming the top selling PC Game on Steam (a PC Game delivery platform) for two consecutive weeks (Hernandez, 2015). In a similar vein, games that allow users to share their creative side are also popular amongst LPers. Minecraft, with its incredible freedom of creation, is exceptionally popular amongst LPers. With these videos, creativity and comedy is valued in equal measure, with LPers such as The Achievement Hunters and CaptainSparklez generating millions of views per video.