Felix Kjellberg, better known to his 27 million(!) subscribers on YouTube as PewDiePie, reportedly netted $4.25 million(!) in pure profit last year. All this for a guy who – essentially – yells funny things while playing video games.

I don’t mean to belittle PewDiePie’s work or impact. By all accounts he’s a dedicated content producer who does his best to give his viewers what they want. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve read of him he seems like a modest chap and a decent guy. But, as entertaining as his videos are, it’s hard to deny the actual content of his videos is… complex.

And that’s okay. Not every bit of gaming news or analysis has to be complex, or intricate, or academic, or deep. Sometimes it’s nice to see people enjoying games and engaging with those people on an emotional level. There is market diversity, as well as content creators making things for different purposes.

With the undeniable, unprecedented reach and influence of people who make Lets Plays on YouTube, there must be some kind of impact on the “traditional” games press, right?

Mike Rose wrote about this very issue on Gamasutra, covering it in, well, intimidatingly comprehensive detail. I thoroughly recommend reading his entire article – frankly it’s better than anything I could write on the issue in this format. So go on, read it – it’s a little long, but well worth it.

While there is a place in “the industry” as many are wont to call it for both YouTubers doing Lets Plays and other entertainment-oriented content as well as “traditional” written news and reviews websites (and magazines), there is an issue of money.

Namely, where does all this money come from?

I’ll use OnlySP as an example, since it’s, well, the one you’re reading right now.

We make money from a third party company that buys (or rents, I suppose) advertising space on our site. You can see them at the top and side – those are our ads. We don’t really have a say on who does or doesn’t advertise their product on our site, since it’s all handled by the company who pays us for advertising space. At the moment even I don’t know the specifics – our owner Nick Calandra doesn’t trouble me with the details, and I don’t bother asking. I don’t need to know who’s going to advertise on OnlySP, since, frankly, I don’t care. Who is advertising above or beside an article has zero bearing on what we write about, or how. Besides, we compose articles in the website’s backend anyway, which has no ads, so we, as writers (and editors, and Editor in Chief) at OnlySP rarely see the ads anyway.

But we get a flat amount of money (not very much – enough to cover hosting and other miscellaneous costs we might run across) from the advertising, and occasionally a bonus if we’re getting a lot of hits in a specific month (so click us often, ‘kay?). This is referred to CPM – cost per mille, or how much per thousand unique hits.

A similar system is in place through YouTube, which has its own CPM schemes, meaning those who monetise their videos on YouTube get money based on how many views they get.

Where it gets interesting is when channels and sponsors get involved.

I’m no expert on this, because again, I don’t care about money – I’m a content curator first and foremost, whose job it is to make sure we get the most interesting and relevant information and articles to our readers regardless of dollar figures.

But there are channels and partners that sign YouTubers up and pay them either a stipend or additional CPM dollars, depending on their structures or contracts.

On top of this, there are people who receive direct incentives to create content for a specific company – essentially, partnered advertising.

Where this gets interesting is when the two sides – independent content creators and paid advertisers – overlap.

I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating – YouTube content is a bit like the wild west when it comes to advertising products. There are loopholes and a clear lack of regulation on whether a popular YouTuber is accepting incentives from a company to produce positive content regarding a product. It is, essentially, undeclared advertisement sometimes masquerading as impartial commentary.

And that’s ethically and legally very sketchy.

I’m not going to pretend “traditional” games media is squeaky clean. It’s not. There have been instances in the past where sites have altered content at an advertiser’s request – some quite famous. But, I’d have to say, there is probably more regulation in the traditional website format than on YouTube right now.

Mainly because traditional media has been around longer. It’s reached a sort of homeostasis that allows for some form of quality control. There are rules, and publishers stick to them (mostly). Traditional media is difficult to break into as well – us game critics are a nepotistic bunch. If there’s a bad egg, it generally gets removed quietly as their reputation gets around and sites stop publishing their work. It’s self-regulating, for the most part. Again, it’s not a perfect system, and there are exceptions, but I can honestly say I’ve never personally seen corruption occurring.

YouTubers lack this structure right now. There are people and organisations that push the boundaries of what is legally allowed. There is a lack of clear disclosure methodology to clearly demarcate paid-for advertising content. And there is the psychological impact of having a face to engage with that makes YouTubers seem more trustworthy, especially in reaction to a perceived dishonest established media. But, perhaps most of all, there is a lack of senior figures able to teach new creators.

YouTube criticism is a young medium. PewDiePie has been at it for five years. That’s actually not very long. Couple the youth of the medium with the expectation of individualism – the idea that anyone can make a YouTube video by themselves and be a hit – and there’s a lack of advice for new content creators.

Throw in the massive financial incentive and it becomes even murkier. One person made four million dollars in a year. The largest traditional sites wouldn’t make anywhere near that amount. OnlySP wouldn’t make that in, well, an awful lot of years. Whenever you have a large amount of money riding on something – I’m talking about advertisers here – there is a natural human inclination to make the most of it. PewDiePie’s 27 million subscribers is a massive audience for advertisers to harness. While there’s no indication that PewDiePie has ever done anything like accept undeclared payments from people, I can’t guarantee that other content creators are as upstanding as Kjellberg. There is a massive amount of money floating around the YouTube realm, and when it’s as poorly regulated as it currently is, there’s sure to be breaches.

I don’t want to imply that you can’t trust YouTubers. There are some great content creators out there that do fantastic work that deserves views. As always, it’s up to you as an audience to find someone you engage with.

And hey, it’s perfectly okay to like “advertising” content too. Watching a video of a game being played by someone being paid by that company to play it can be just as fun sometimes. People need entertainment after all.

As long as it’s clearly identified as advertised or promoted content.

Just be aware that there is the potential that not everything you see on YouTube is impartial or honest, and that until the medium matures and becomes slightly better regulated, you may not know you’re being advertised to – especially when large amounts of money is at stake.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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