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From Issue #39 March 27, 2014

Attention Mining

Minecraft videos build an enormous audience.

By John Moltz Twitter icon 

Daniel Middleton (a.k.a. Diamond Minecart) showcases the Flappy Bird mod for Minecraft.

When friends and family ask what my son is into these days, I usually tell them Minecraft. It’s not surprising that a 10-year-old would like to play video games, and people have usually heard of Minecraft, so there’s usually some nodding of recognition.

What I don’t tell them is that while he does certainly play Minecraft, he’s also really into watching people play Minecraft on YouTube. You tell people without a 10-year-old that and you’ll find there’s less recognition and more concerned stares.

Watching people play a video game? What kind of crappy parenting led your child to this, the laziest of the voyeurisms?

Well, Mike and/or Carol Brady, it might surprise you to know that Minecraft is a game that fosters not only creativity but also computer skills. And YouTube Minecraft videos are a way for kids to learn not only how to play the game but also how to modify it in almost endless combinations. It also brings them into a community of Minecraft players and turns something that can be an individual activity into something social.

So now who’s the lousy parent?

Oh, it’s still me? Well, you’re probably not wrong.

Suitable viewing for miners

Regardless of your feelings about these videos, there’s no denying their success. If you’ve been living in a cave for the last four years…then you probably already know about Minecraft, the game that’s first-person shooter meets Lego. Because there are a lot of caves in the game.

Like the game itself, Minecraft YouTube videos are fantastically popular, and a core group of producers of these videos have enjoyed a wild ride up the virtual charts. Type “diamond” into the YouTube search field and the first hit that comes up is “Diamonds Rihanna,” which I guess is a song by the popular recording artist, uh, Lady Gaga? I have no idea. I’ve never looked at it because here at my house we always go to the second result: “Diamond Minecart.”

What the heck is a Diamond Minecart? It’s the YouTube channel of 22-year-old Daniel Middleton of Northamptonshire, England. Middleton’s channel has almost 1.9 million subscribers, and people have watched his videos over 400 million times. Which sounds low because I think my son has watched his videos a million times himself.

Middleton got into Minecraft two years ago and started his channel after running a Pokémon-focused channel for three years. That channel amassed what might normally be considered a respectable 10,000 followers, but in the world of Minecraft YouTubers, it’s a drop in the wooden chest where you keep all your stuff.

Middleton’s channel focuses on showcasing Minecraft modifications (mods), which are game patches that members of the Minecraft community develop and distribute for free. Mods can change the look and feel of the game but mostly provide enhanced features. A Lord of the Rings mod, for example, adds elven forests, dwarvish mines, hobbits, orcs, trolls, mithril weapons — everything short of Orlando Bloom’s dreamy stare. At any given time there are dozens if not hundreds of these mods being actively developed, giving Middleton a decent place to start when looking for material.

That said, it’s not a simple thing to put together a video every day. Middleton says the process can take anywhere from four to eight hours, and he frequently uploads as many as 10 videos a week. And then there’s opening all the fan mail.

Maybe that’s why Minecraft YouTubing is decidedly a game for the young. Charlie Lobsenz of Maryland, proprietor of ChazOffTopic, another mod showcase channel, has a more modest 140,000 subscribers and 20 million views, but at 17 years old, he’s got time to grow the business. That’s assuming he even wants to.

“Putting money, views, networks, business, and analytics aside, this is all just about having fun and making people laugh and entertained. Money is nice and all but if I am not having fun doing it then I will probably consider stopping.” Lobsenz is going to college in the fall to major in business.

Stampy and iBallisticSquid investigate a world with a Star Wars AT-AT.

King of the mountain

The king of the Minecraft-focused YouTubers is arguably 23-year-old Joseph Garrett of Portsmouth, England, a former bartender with an infectious laugh who operates under the name Stampy with an avatar of a cat. Garrett’s Minecraft channel focuses on “let’s play” Minecraft videos that feature him and some friends playing the game on various servers, custom maps, or adventure maps.

It’s not as simple as hopping into a game, recording your video, and then dumping it onto the Internet, though. Garrett has a degree in television and video production and a fairly polished presence. You’ll rarely hear an “ummm” out of him, even when he’s being interviewed on BBC television.

He also has a definitive style. It’s a style that may annoy some parents, but it’s one that matches the lighthearted manner of children’s programming. His Facebook page regularly features pictures from children who’ve made homages to his Minecraft character out of crayon, clay, cardboard, face paint, and even pancakes. A plumber who came to his parent’s house (where he still lives pending a search for a house/recording studio to share with a fellow Minecraft YouTuber, iBallisticSquid) asked for an autograph for his son.

Stampy is the favorite host of 7-year-old Alice Cyr of San Mateo, California. “He’s not boring, and he’s cheerful,” Alice said. “He made a time machine but it didn’t work. I like to watch him because he doesn’t just build and do adventures, and he doesn’t just stay at home. He plays.”

Despite his popularity with children, Garrett says he didn’t plan it that way. “All of the kids stuff was accidental. I never set out to make videos for children. I just made videos for the fun of making videos. As soon as I noticed that children were watching I cut out all swearing…not to market toward kids, hoping that kids would watch — I just realized kids were watching and I didn’t want to get told off by parents.”

While the tone is that of a kid’s show, it’s not infantile. I had long overheard my son watching Stampy’s videos, but it wasn’t until I sat down and watched one by myself that I realized there’s just something compelling about watching other people have fun.

As Garrett says, “It’s me on like a really good day, when I’ve woken up in the morning and I’m full of energy and the world is good. Nothing’s ever bad.” But it’s still all him. “You can’t be putting on a character like that. It would drive you crazy.”

Revenue data mining

It’s easy to see why he’s happy. When I first interviewed Garrett in February he had 1.5 million subscribers. Since then he’s passed 2 million, as well as crossed 708 million views. With those kinds of numbers, the game is afoot to figure out how much money these video producers make off of this.

Garrett obviously won’t give details other than to note that an average CPM (cost per thousand views) would be $7. The Daily Mail estimates that his channel currently grosses anywhere from $88,000 to $880,000 a month. Yes, you read that right.

Google takes 45 percent of that, and Garrett’s network partner, Polaris — which does Web site creation, merchandising, promotion, and requisitioning — takes another cut. But, yes, those at the top of the game do quite nicely, thank you very much.

Farther down the scale, Lobsenz said he often grosses anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month, which is a lot of gas money for a high school student. Middleton wouldn’t say how much he makes, but like Garrett he runs his channel full-time, something he was able to start doing just five months ago.

“At the start of 2013 I had 1,600 subscribers, and the channel was only a month or so old at the time,” Middleton says. He notes that his channel really took off over the summer, when kids had more free time.

Garrett experienced a similar hockey stick. He notes, “On my older channel it took me about three years to get 1,000 subscribers, and then within the last year I went from 1,000 to a million and a half. So it was lots of getting a subscriber a day, to the point now where I’m getting anything up to 25,000 subscribers a day.”

Middleton showcases a mod in Dr. Trayaurus’s Testing Chamber.

It’s not literally overnight fame, but it’s close enough that it’s still hard for him to process. “At this point last year I was just quitting my job at a pub, minimum wage, and then now to be here where there’s this many people watching you every day and you can earn a living doing what you love doing…and nothing prepares you for it.”

So, huge surprise, I know, but it turns out playing a video game for profit and notoriety is not bad work if you can get it. Our parents lied to us. The trick, of course, is getting the work. Garrett and Lobsenz think the market for Minecraft YouTube videos is fairly saturated right now.

“I think there’s a lot of people that blew up very quickly and are struggling to get the views they used to,” Garrett says. Lobsenz thinks the only way to get big now “would be to have a friend with a big channel to help you get on your feet. Without that, it will be difficult.”

Middleton, however, thinks there could still be room for the right voice. “Behind each channel is a uniquely creative person who commentates, edits, and creates artworks in completely different ways, which is the great thing about YouTube as a media outlet.”

Indeed, the most popular Minecraft YouTube hosts have a distinct personality or hook. Middleton has his virtual sidekicks — a faithful dog named Grim and a villager named Dr. Trayaurus, both of whom sometimes end up on the short end of a mod’s feature, particularly if it’s explosive. Lobsenz works with a video production company to make Minecraft-themed music video parodies, and Garrett has a “Love Garden” to which he adds a lucky viewer’s name from time to time, as well as a core group of regulars that he does his “let’s play” videos with.

Despite the number of people trying to make it and the money at stake, neither Garrett, Middleton, nor Lobsenz consider it cutthroat. According to Lobsenz, “We’re all friends. It’s not competitive at all. Cross promotion is a big thing on YouTube, and every once in a while I will collaborate with some friends and the idea is just to help promote each other. All just about having fun.”

That may seem like a practiced line, but it seems to hold up in reality. In a recent tweet, SkyDoesMinecraft, another highly successful Minecraft YouTuber and the favorite of Alice Cyr’s sister, 11-year-old Maddy, said:

Big thumbs ups to @stampylongnose and @DiamondMinecart for all the success they had this year, and being a positive role in the community!

I ran that through Google’s sarcasm detector and it came up negative.

YouTubers like Garrett, Middleton, and Lobsenz may be inspiring a new generation. Thirteen-year-old Jack Barnes of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says he doesn’t watch Minecraft videos anymore, but during his heyday a couple of years ago “It was probably five or six a day. Let’s just go with a lot.” If his parents were annoyed by it, he says, “I would make a pillow fort and wait it out.” Now he’s more interested in making and uploading his own videos.

While Lobsenz isn’t committed to YouTube video production as a career, Garrett and Middleton are hedging their Minecraft bets. Garrett produces videos in which he plays other games, and Middleton supplements his content with a series of video logs that feature things like his new dog and him putting together unusual Japanese food kits.

Garrett says he doesn’t really know how long this ride will last, but he’s going to find out. “If I can just carry on so I’m doing something similar or the same as to what I’m doing now in the long term, then that’s all I want to do. I just want to carry on doing what I’m doing, and I want it to stay fun.”

And it’s nice that it also pays incredibly well.

John Moltz recently gave up the glamour of working in corporate IT to write online at his Very Nice Web Site. He does not respond to questions about whether he used to write what amounts to Apple fan fiction.

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