This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 22 eSports Issue. Subscribe today!
FOR TWO DAYS, I have crisscrossed Brighton, England, a beachfront town two hours south of London, in search of the King of YouTube.
His name is Felix Kjellberg, but he's best known by his channel name, PewDiePie, a persona the 25-year-old Swede created five years ago, before dropping out of college to upload videos of himself playing games full time. His clips are brash, crude and expletive-laced. Depending on your age, open-mindedness and overall level of maturity, they fall somewhere between sidesplitting comedy and crass frat boy humor. (If you laugh upon hearing a man yell "Ughh, right in the baby maker" while a virtual skateboarder lands crotch-first on a railing, then PewDiePie is your man.)
But whether they're laughing or cringing, people are watching -- 37,161,479 people, to be exact. At least, that's where the count stood on his exponentially growing legion of YouTube subscribers as of 10 a.m. ET on June 11, easily the most in the site's history and more than pop stars Taylor Swift, One Direction and Sam Smith combined. His videos have nearly 9 billion starts, enough for every human on the planet to watch once, with almost 2 billion views left over. And after dubbing PewDiePie a "gibberish-spouting clown" in 2013, Variety reported last summer that he had a higher Q Score among 13- to 17-year-olds than any actor or actress in Hollywood. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that PewDiePie pockets $4 million annually thanks to his share of the revenue generated from the ads that precede his videos.
"The guy is amazing," says Karen North, director of USC's master's program in digital social media. "Here's this guy with a webcam, and he's more successful than carefully managed movie stars and singers. There's just something about him that can't be explained."
Of course, to folks of a certain age, the only thing more inexplicable than PewDiePie is the very genre he inhabits -- a form of entertainment in which watching someone play a video game is considered more entertaining than playing the game itself. The phenomenon, dubbed "Let's Play," consists of gamers uploading or live-streaming practice sessions while providing entertaining and usually profane commentary -- and to say it's become big business is a gross understatement. Last August Forbes reported that Amazon had plunked down $970 million for Twitch, a site that streams live Let's Plays and has become the fourth-most-visited site during peak hours in the U.S. That megadeal came just after the Walt Disney Company (owner of ESPN) paid more than $500 million for Maker Studios, the Hollywood media company that works with PewDiePie and more than 55,000 other online content creators.
The battle for tween and teen eyeballs is no longer being waged primarily among the major TV networks but rather among Amazon (Twitch), Google (YouTube) and every media conglomerate wanting a piece of the gaming pie. And at the center of it all is unassuming, blue-eyed Kjellberg. All of which has brought me to Brighton, the place he has called home since 2013, to track down the reclusive man. As I climb the concrete steps and approach what I've been told is his front door, I pray only that he doesn't call the police. He has granted few interviews and told The Daily Mail in January that he was finished with the media. In April, his publicist declined my request, saying he was "unavailable." So too was his Italian girlfriend, 22-year-old Marzia Bisognin, a fellow YouTube star whom he met online and now lives with on this quiet street, not too far from the English Channel.
"Hello," says a man, when I press the silver intercom button. I've watched enough PewDiePie videos to recognize his voice. "Is Felix there?" I ask. "Yes," he replies, buzzing me in with nary a word. Inside the building, peeking around an apartment door is Kjellberg, in black-rimmed glasses, khakis and a blue button-down with an "F" embroidered on the chest. He looks curious and concerned. When I explain why I'm here, he seems caught off guard, a bit rattled. But he doesn't scream or tell me he's going to kick me in the baby maker. He pauses. He nods. Then he asks whether we can chat while he walks his pug, Edgar.
It takes only a few blocks in the company of Felix Kjellberg to sense that he and PewDiePie are nothing alike. Felix doesn't curse at a car that almost hits us or at a woman who cuts us off on the sidewalk. He apologizes every time we bump into each other and every time Edgar's leash crosses my path. Still, when I suggest that he is not the overcaffeinated computer character but rather a shy, preppy intellectual, he seems taken aback. "You can't be crazy all the time," he says. "That's why my videos are all, like, five minutes -- nobody can handle me for longer than that s---." He pauses. We keep walking. "I don't know. It's funny how you say that. I feel like I'm exactly how I am in my videos."
ON OCT. 24, 1989, Johanna and Ulf Kjellberg named their first son Felix, Latin for "the lucky one." Successful corporate executives -- Johanna was once named Sweden's CIO of the year -- the Kjellbergs groomed Felix to follow suit, but their son's passion was video games. He always wanted to play more; they always wanted him to play less. Despite his preoccupation, Felix made straight A's and got into the industrial engineering master's program at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the same college his mother attended.
"I was bored," he says. "It was not what I wanted to do with my life."
But unlike most video-game-obsessed 20-year-olds, Felix had a plan. Five years earlier, in 2005, it is widely believed that the first iteration of Let's Play was conceived on a forum for the comedy website Something Awful. Built around the classic computer game the Oregon Trail, the forum was nothing more than posts and screen grabs, but diehards began flooding the site with play-by-plays of themselves navigating their favorite games. Aided by the ubiquity of digital video technology, Let's Play took off, and Felix was eager to join the movement, launching his PewDiePie YouTube account on April 29, 2010.
The inspiration for his handle was the noise a laser makes when it shoots (pew) and the act of dying (die), and he added pie after a forgotten password because ... well, everyone likes pie. A signature style soon emerged: All videos open with a screech ("MY NAME IS PEWWWDIEPIE!") and end with a bro fist and a directive to "STAY AWESOME!"
He took to it all with a convert's zeal, selling his own artwork to pay for production equipment. "I remember getting one subscriber was so exciting," he says. Felix stuck mostly to horror titles at first, and he found that the more he overdramatized his reactions when a ghost or goblin jumped out, the more his subscriber base grew. When he dropped out of Chalmers, his parents refused to support him, so he worked at a hot dog stand to feed his obsession. By December 2011, his following had reached 60,000, and he had quit the hot dog stand. In December 2012, he signed with Maker, and he eclipsed 5 million subscribers on Feb. 18, 2013. Every time Maker's executive VP of talent, Amy Finnerty, tried to plan a celebration, PewDiePie would surpass a new milestone. "It got to the point where it was 'stop putting numbers on the invitations and just throw the darn party,' " she says.
As his followers diversified, so did his catalog. Rather than strictly horror, PewDiePie began gravitating toward obscure games created by independent developers, games that tend to exist on the fringes of acceptable content and allow him to push the envelope with his sketch comedy -- a girl picking a pair of underwear before she heads to school and stabs her classmates, hoping the boy she loves will notice; a mosquito sucking blood from a topless chiseled man cranking reps on a bench press; a father maniacally pedaling his bicycle through an obstacle course, decapitating himself and his son in the process.
"The humor, I just don't understand it," his mom told a Swedish TV station in 2012. "I'll see in the comments, 'Check out 4:26. I've never laughed so hard in my life.' I'll go there and don't find anything that resembles a joke."
And therein lies the enigma of PewDiePie -- revered by millions, misunderstood by his own mom. So what's the appeal? Some suggest it's rooted in his internationalism; he is attractive, was born in Sweden, lived for a time in Italy and resides in England. Others chalk it all up to his upload schedule; new videos appear almost daily, and in this viral age, once someone creates a buzz, no one, especially teenagers, wants to be left out. So it was that around 7:30 p.m. ET on Aug. 15, 2013, PewDiePie overtook comedy duo Smosh as the most-subscribed-to channel in YouTube history. (Smosh held the title for 216 days.) He has more than tripled his subscriber base in the two years since, and the industry has exploded around him.
In April, YouTube had 100 gaming-themed channels from 22 countries with more than 23.5 million views each, and Twitch was averaging more than 100 million viewers a month by the end of 2014. Yet for many non-millennials, the allure remains a mystery. Even South Park joined the fray -- Kyle ranting in an episode last year after his younger brother chose to watch PewDiePie play Call of Duty rather than play it himself. "Video games are supposed to be played in a living room. Not something to watch people comment on," Kyle complained. "OK, Grandpa," his brother's friend shot back.
"Part of this [success] is digital entertainment replacing preprogrammed entertainment," says longtime game developer John Romero. "And part of it is the rise of reality TV. With Let's Play, anybody can be a reality entertainment star."
Today, PewDiePie hosts a weekly segment dedicated to testing off-the-wall products like bacon toothpaste and bacon soda. He plays Cards Against Humanity with Bisognin. They whack each other with oversized inflatable penises. His "Fridays With PewDiePie" are like ADD fireside chats. In one video, "Things I Wish I Knew," he waxes poetic: "I didn't always like myself," PewDiePie says into the camera, "but now I love myself. Accept yourself for who you are. Being different is not a bad thing. It's a great thing." For a fan base made up largely of teens, the message hits home.
"His is a phenomenal lesson in inclusiveness and how to engage people," says North, the USC professor. Indeed, Kjellberg and his followers have raised more than $1 million for various charities. "It's not 'watch me play.' It's 'we're the Bro Army.' He's cheering for them as they're cheering for him."
Of course, for every member of the Bro Army, there's a hard-core gamer who can't stand the obnoxious Swede, who isn't particularly skilled at gaming (and doesn't pretend to be) and doesn't dabble in competitive eSports tournament games such as World of Warcraft. PewDiePie even set the industry abuzz last September when he turned off his YouTube comments to block out the trolls -- the equivalent of LeBron James refusing to tweet. Brendan Sinclair, a senior editor for GamesIndustry.biz, compares PewDiePie's mass appeal to Titanic, the 1998 Best Picture winner and one of the highest-grossing films of all time. "When Titanic came out, I saw it and thought it was competent but contrived," he says. "It drove me up the wall that [everyone] couldn't see its many glaring flaws. By the time the Oscars rolled around, the mere mention of the movie would set me off on a tirade. My sense is the gamers who don't appreciate PewDiePie are going through the same thing."
ON THE STREETS of Brighton, most everyone looks the same -- young, energetic, eager to succeed. In February, The Sunday Times declared this strip of nearly 300,000 people, which includes neighboring Hove, "Silicon Beach," where tech comes to chill.
As Edgar tugs on the leash, sniffing everything in sight, Kjellberg and I walk a path that borders the English Channel. It's late afternoon, the sun is shining. The winds off the water are beginning to calm. "You got a good day here," he says. "It's usually horrible British weather."
When I take the moment to tell him I was moved by "Things I Wish I Knew" -- which I genuinely was -- he seems shocked. "Really?" he asks. "You liked it? I feel like my videos are so stupid. But I don't know ... I mean ... I know what it was like to be a teenager, and if for some reason I can be there for someone who is younger going through a rough time, that's cool. I'm glad I can help."
He admits that luck was on his side, that if someone else had been the breakout Let's Player, "I'd probably be dying of jealousy and hate that person." But he's adamant that this -- 37 million subscribers -- was no accident. There are sleepless nights, 12-hour days. Even when he's not being PewDiePie, his mind is racing with ideas: "It's the hardest job I will ever have. I struggle to shut it off."
Aware that he's far outlived the shelf life of a YouTube star, he does everything he can to stave off the inevitable. He thought his run was over when he reached 10 million subscribers in July 2013 and became the No. 1 YouTube channel the next month. He told Finnerty his subscriptions would plateau. But this April his page generated nearly 352 million views, a 19 percent increase over March.
"I've always kept the approach that next month might not work out," he says. "That's the healthy way to be."
As we turn back toward his apartment, I'm struck by a notion: No one has stopped Kjellberg for an autograph, for a selfie or just to say hello. For half an hour, the teenage world's most popular man has strolled the streets in anonymity. "It's nice here," he says. He tells me he and Bisognin have made friends but are cautious of those who are only after their celebrity. It's one of the reasons they've decided not to live in LA. "Anytime I'm there, people are constantly patting you on the back, telling you how great you are. It f---s with your brain. I started YouTube because I was bored, not to become famous."
But what if he woke up tomorrow and the money, the fame and the adoration were gone? What if he woke up a former YouTube star?
He reins in Edgar. "I don't know," he says. "I feel like I've gotten more out of YouTube than I ever wanted or expected. I'd probably feel a little bit lonely, but in the end I'd be OK. It's not that important. I'm not curing cancer. It's not that special to upload videos on the Internet."
As I extend my hand and thank him for his time, I feel bizarrely obligated to ask for a selfie -- something I've never done, much less ask for an autograph, in 15 years as a sports writer. But this time, with this subject, it feels different. I downplay the request, insisting that it's not as if I'm a huge fan or anything. Kjellberg agrees. Then he chuckles.
"You're a fan," he says. "You can admit it. It's OK. You love my videos."