Feature

An Interview With YouTube Sensation Vikkstar123

by Andrew Reiner on Apr 30, 2015 at 11:59 AM

From Grand Theft Auto V to Minecraft, Vikkstar123's videos generate millions of views each day on YouTube. His channels, Vikkstar123 and Vikkstar123HD, have over three million subscribers and feature a wide variety of content from Let's Play tutorial videos to real-life challenges.

I talked to Vikkstar about the early days of his YouTube channel, the sudden rise to fame, and what advice he would give aspiring Let's Players who are trying to break onto the scene.

Take me back to the beginning to the days when you were first getting your videos off of the ground. What were those days like?
Vikkstar: For me, it was a little bit different. It was with my friends from high school – this is going back six or seven years ago – they watched a lot of video game YouTube videos. We always used to play video games together, too. They started recording themselves playing. They were making little videos mainly for each other. I got involved thinking I might be able to do a little bit better than they were doing, and get involved and have some fun with it. I started recording myself playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I started making tutorial videos that people could watch – some of them were for knives and how you could throw them across the map. I made videos showing places where you could throw a knife or tomahawk and get a kill. I thought it would be cool to show off these ridiculous kills.

People on YouTube started stumbling across these videos, and they started getting 10,000 to 20,000 views. I thought, "Hold on a second. The people watching these videos aren't my friends and I don't know them. Why don't I try to improve these videos?" And that's when I started recording full matches and other content that gave advice and tips. I also started doing edited videos of montages and stuff like that.

You just did Call of Duty videos?
For the first three or four years of my YouTube channel, I focused mainly on Call of Duty. It was the biggest game on YouTube at the time. I really grew my audience – which I thought were crazy numbers back then – through focusing just on [Call of Duty].

What were those early subscriber and viewer numbers like?
It was like 5, 10, and 15 thousand. Getting to 100,000 subscribers was just mind-blowing. It was a huge deal at the time. The Call of Duty community started to lose interest in the game – it was the same thing reskinned each time.  So we felt like we were doing the same thing over and over again. That's when I started dipping into other games.

I started a Let's Play channel where I would play through games like Far Cry, Sim City, and I got very little viewership on that channel. I was trying to figure things out. I then did a few Minecraft videos on the channel and they picked up a bigger response in terms of viewership. I thought it was really cool, and I got involved with some people doing things with that game. They were making cool content for it. Minecraft was quite huge at the time, and I guess I joined onto the bandwagon quite late. I had tried to start the game a few years [before this] on my Call of Duty channel and make videos there, but I said to my community 'If you don't want to see these videos here, hit the dislike button.' It got 8,900 dislikes, so I said 'I can't risk losing 8,900 subscribers. That's going backwards.' So, I held off on doing Minecraft again on that channel and carried on, and decided to make a new channel to experiment with Minecraft. I built that up over the years to the point where that channel has just under 1.5 million subscribers.

How different was it making video content for Minecraft opposed to Call of Duty?
One thing I noticed very quickly is with Call of Duty, the developers at the game studios create content for us to record. You get the main game, and maybe four DLCs a year. Beyond that, there wasn't much we could do. You can be flexible with how you play the game, but the game itself will never change.

With something open source like Minecraft, anyone can create anything they can think of and put it into the game. If you have one million people that are passionate about creating content for it, you're going to end up with a lot more content and more interesting video opportunities.

But you didn't just hang your hat on Minecraft. You kept experimenting with new channels, correct?
Around the same time, I started recording Grand Theft Auto V with other people in the UK that I've known for a couple of years from events and that sort of thing. We just started messing around with Free Roam, recording fun, little races, and that started picking up momentum – people were extremely interested in it, because it was something different.

I was switching out my Call of Duty content with Grand Theft Auto content. People were slow to adapt to it at the start. They were like 'Where's the Call of Duty stuff?' I had to stick with it because I was having more fun with Grand Theft Auto. It built up over time, and people wanted to watch us record content together, and mess around with it with things like Garry's Mod and stuff like that. Even random games like Monopoly. I brought Call of Duty back with those guys.

When I did Call of Duty by myself, it was kinda serious for the hardcore Call of Duty audience who wanted to see top-quality gameplay. When I started making Call of Duty videos with my friends, we focused it to trying to create funny situations and edited down to these funny, funny moments. That was a huge thing for us. It made more people interested in us opposed to the game we were playing. That was a huge step forward in building our audience.

Did you have to coordinate times to record videos?
The four of us decided to move into a house together near London. That allowed us to collaborate on more stuff like life videos, challenges, and stuff like that.

Are YouTube videos the main job for you and the people in the house?
Yup. There's a group of seven of us called the Sidemen. We have a clothing line that our group created. All seven of us run YouTube channels full time. Four of us live together; the others live in the area. Our job is to create content. I have [Sidemen] on one side, and I also have an official group of six Minecraft guys called The Pack. We post content together, go on trips together. We went away together last New Year's Eve, went to California together last month, and both groups went to Boston for PAX East, and the Minecraft guys went to Dublin for Saint Patrick's Day. It's just collaboration and making fun content. Hopefully the fun shows through; it takes some of the pressure off of us.

Are you traveling around for work or fun? Many Let's Players these days work with publishers for video opportunities.
Over the last three years we've built up relationships with game publishers and developers. They understand the value of working with us. Our audience is interested in what we are doing, and you know for sure that they are interested in gaming. They wouldn't watch a gaming video if they weren't interested. We get direct reports of where our audience is from, what age they are, and things like that that they can't really get from other advertising sources. At the same time, some of them do see it as a risk, but a risk with real value in working with us to create content.

Publishers we've worked with before are Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Activision. I've also worked with Microsoft in the past, and more recently beyond the game scene we've worked with Comedy Central for an online TV show in the U.K., and last week I was out with a huge record company on YouTube with 10 million subscribers. They invited me and a friend out to Miami to go to one of their music events, and all they wanted us to do was create a video sharing our experience of their music.

So, once the audience is built up, over time more and more companies realize the value of that and want to get involved. One thing that has to be maintained is that sometimes companies throw out all sorts of crazy offers, but we have to make sure the product makes sense. Our audience will see straight through when something is not genuine. They watch us every single day. If we go off of script to say something we normally wouldn't say, our audience will pick up on it. We have to be truthful.

Sometimes companies will come forward with all sorts of requests like 'We want you to go on and say this, this, and this, and we want you to mention this, and it's for this,' and sometimes we just have to say 'Hey, this isn't what we usually do, so we're not going to do it.'

How much content do you produce in a day for the Sidemen and The Pack?
It varies between all of us. We'll have our plans and scheduled content. Myself and the Minecraft guys tend to do two to three videos every single day. With Minecraft it's usually a younger audience, and they tend to see stuff less edited, allowing them to get more of a feel of it. They sit down for a while and get into it like a TV show. So, two to three videos may sound like a lot, but there isn't a huge amount of editing in them. Usually it's just planning out what we are going to do, and the recording time is the video time.

With Sidemen, half of us do regular game content, and individually we do one to two videos a day. The other guys do a lot of real life videos. Whether that's a video of us going somewhere or a challenge video like a helium challenge where we inhale it and try to make each other laugh, fun stuff like that.

In total I try to do four, five, or six videos a day, which is a lot of content.

How many hours are you putting in on average each day?
On a day where I have nothing else that needs to be done, I probably put in 16 to 18 hours a day recording, editing, and discussing content ideas.

Let's go back to the beginning for a second. You come out of high school and you're doing this full time now. What was your plan for life before video recording took hold?
I started all of this when I was 14 or 15. The first three to four years I was doing this while I was in school. I was studying for my exams at the same time for English, math, chemistry, biology, and physics, and at quite a high level. But all I wanted to do was my YouTube, if I had my way. At the time, though, YouTube wasn't the big thing it is now. It was just a hobby that I was getting paid for doing. I finished my exams, and I got an offer to study natural sciences at the University College London. Leading up to that, I was going to go to the university, study sciences, and do some sort of job based on that, although I have no idea what that would have been.

It got to a point where I can go to my parents and say 'Hey, I'm earning a substantial amount doing YouTube, and I'm going to take a gap here and try this out for one year because I really enjoy doing it, and I would love to give more time to it.'

Five months into that year and my friends and I moved into this house. Over the course of that year, my viewership increased about 15 times from about four million monthly views up to around 60 million monthly views. It got to a point where the opportunities and revenue and the fact that I'm living in a house with friends, that I couldn't say no. I declined my university offer, but there really is no long-term aim.

You guys hit when there was this explosion of YouTube Let's Players gaining fame. What advice do you have for people trying to break in now?
The first thing I say to anyone trying to get into YouTube at this point is it's a very saturated market right now. I don't know the exact statistics, but there are a few hundred game channels made every single day. It's not always a game of creating the best content. It takes some sticking to. With myself and the majority of guys I started this with, we started it as a hobby with no intention of making it our jobs. There's no guarantee you're ever going to pick up any traction.

Make sure you are enjoying what you're doing, otherwise you're probably going to burn out before you get to a point where you have a big audience. There are rare cases here and there of someone starting something and it explodes massively, but for the most part, you have to enjoy making the content, make sure that comes through, and you have to be very genuine to your viewers. You have to give people incentive. And once you establish that, there's still no guarantee that people will discover it. There's no formula or recipe to have an audience. Everyone does it in their own and unique ways.

You told your parents you were going to try it for a year. What do they think of what you've accomplished?
They definitely respect it more now. They can see physically that it's quite big. Deep down they still want me to get the education and all of that sort of stuff, which one day I may go back and do on my own terms. It's nice not to be forced into that option; I have other options I can weigh. They are really supportive of it now that it's gotten to this point. They always were supportive, but now they can see what it's become.