Matthew “MatPat” Patrick was on YouTube for two years before he hit publish on the first entry in the series that changed his life — and YouTube culture as a whole.
“Game Theory,” a series that examines the ins and outs of popular video game franchises like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Minecraft, premiered on April 18th, 2011. The channel quickly found an audience of gaming enthusiasts and industry developers who wanted to learn the secrets behind why certain games became such a hit. YouTubers also looked to him as a model, as Patrick successfully helped to pilot an entire genre of videos, using tricks he had learned while working behind the scenes at a multichannel network (an older YouTube model that has slowly faded away).
Throughout the years, MatPat’s channel became a go-to open secret for new YouTube creators and game developers. He was one of the first creators to explain why Minecraft was so successful on YouTube, for example. By 2017, he became a leading figure within the community, fighting on behalf of YouTubers during the “adpocalypse.” He even went on to host an interview session with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki about creator issues.
In 2014, Patrick expanded “Game Theory” into a franchise with “Film Theory,” and “Food Theory” followed just last year. His videos routinely pick up millions of views, and he employs a full team to help with editing and creating new episodes. Alongside his wife and channel partner Stephanie, the two are also exploring more charity live streams for causes close to their hearts. In December 2020, one of their charity streams raised more than $3 million for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
With the 10th anniversary of Game Theory approaching, Patrick sat down with The Verge for an interview about what’s changed on YouTube over the last decade and what’s next.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The first question, which is maybe a big one, but in these last 10 years, what’s the biggest thing that has changed?
Oh, well! [Laughs] It’s pretty massive.
I think the biggest stuff is the idea of being a YouTuber, and being a creator, has fundamentally shaped so much of entertainment, of being a storyteller — of the world ecosystem, in a lot of cases. The idea that anyone with a phone in their hand can not just create something but find an audience somewhere in the millions or tens of millions, and ultimately build a business off of it.
That democratization of entertainment is huge because now you’re giving voice to people who never would have had a platform. You’re giving rise to stories like the Dream SMP, which no television producer in their right mind would ever think to greenlight or understand why it could be so popular — and yet, it’s the biggest thing happening on YouTube right now. That sort of fostering of creativity, that explosion of being able to tell your own story is really exciting.
You see those ripple effects happening, too. In the way that the lead shows, especially during COVID, had to film at home and become vloggers in their own right. Gaming has permeated the sports world in a way that 10 years ago would have never existed. Even the evolution of live content, as celebrities kind of tried to try to find their own audiences outside of their individual projects... they’re following the models that YouTubers and digital creators have been pioneering over the last decade.
You inspired a lot of people to kind of figure out a way to do those types of videos [theories and in-depth explainers] that are really influential and informative. When did you start noticing, like, “Ah, this thing I created is taking off to the point that people want to replicate it?” Imitation is the biggest form of flattery.
We were one of the early video essay formats. From the YouTube creator standpoint, I think it was probably about three years into us doing the show that I first started to really take note that other people were attempting the format. I think it was VSauce3, the pop culture science channel, which was massive at the time. I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s my format. And they’re doing it.”
That was also the first time that I got really scared. We were still in relatively early days, still finding our audience, and here’s this massive channel that is doing roughly the thing that we’ve been doing for the past three years — hopefully they don’t run us out or whatever. But what we came to learn very quickly was there’s an audience that is big enough for everyone, and everyone kind of tackles that theorizing format in their own unique voice, which is really exciting. You now have a community of theorists all applying their logic in different ways and can create complimentary content, as opposed to content that cannibalizes each other.
In a different version of 2021, if Game Theory didn’t exist, if someone were to come to you and say, “I have this idea for this channel I want to do,” would that be able to find an audience today? Is there room for Game Theory today or is that something that had to happen at the moment it did?
It sounds a little bit defeatist, but I think it had to kind of happen when it did.
The nature of theorizing does not work well with the modern ecosystem of digital video. Having thoughtful analytical pieces that take a week to put together like our videos doesn’t run with the speed that the internet runs with at this point. Doing this sort of research piece, it’s just hard to do. And you see that too even with educational channels in the space, right? The channels that have been able to survive in 2020 / 2021 are the established ones: the VSauces of the world, the Physics Girls of the world. These channels that can afford to have a little bit of a delay between their uploads because their audience is already there. That affords them the time to do the research, to do the scripting, to make sure that their facts are correct.
If you’re looking to kind of get some sort of accelerated growth on the platform, that requires a faster cadence of uploads or being able to more closely ride trends. A single creator, doing all the steps on their own, would really struggle to do all of it in the time it takes to be competitive in that landscape.
What’s the future of gaming videos? Is it more Dream SMP stuff? Or is there a place where people can still do let’s plays and all that with games when YouTube is trying to figure out how to keep advertising going and keep the children’s privacy law COPPA in mind?
Gaming is stronger than it’s ever been. In 2020, gaming was one of the few fields that didn’t just sustain itself but thrived as more people found gaming to fill in the gaps that the disappearance of reality kind of left in its wake. A lot of people had these gaps in their schedules, gaps in social calendars, and gaming was able to kind of fill those holes. People were having graduations in Minecraft, people were going to the museum in Animal Crossing. Gaming kind of exploded in the last year.
I think Dream SMP is definitely one route. It’s not just gaming, it’s narrative storytelling through the lens of gaming. You’re starting to see more people kind of adopt that Machinima idea of, “Hey, here’s a world in which I can treat this not as a game, but as a platform.” Fortnite is doing it a lot of ways to where they have the creative block where you can create whatever you want. That’s really cool. Game developers are recognizing that the game doesn’t end when a player beats it or when the match ends, but it can become an ecosystem, a platform of its own to foster the creativity of its players.
Minecraft has always had that. That’s one of the reasons why Minecraft has had such staying power. You’re seeing other gaming companies recognizing this and trying to build in that direction. I can see that being the direction of where gaming content moves from here. It’s less about sitting down on the couch and playing through this narrative story time together, and more sitting down on the couch and creating a world together using the tools of Fortnite or Minecraft.
Do you feel like the term “YouTuber” now comes with more authority and more respect than it did in 2011? From your perspective, as someone who is an entrepreneur as well as a creator, how have those conversations changed with industry people that you meet when you say, “I’m on YouTube, I’m a YouTuber?”
I think, for a long time, there was this kind of an attempt to educate traditional media about that exact issue. That being a YouTuber wasn’t a dirty word, right? There is a specific connotation attached to that, like a certain tier of creator — an upper tier of creator who is delivering this interesting content. But I think a lot of times, myself included, we got frustrated that a lot of times those conversations tended to fall on deaf ears. The learning process was slower than we hoped.
Nowadays, in 2021, it’s one of those things where there’s a division of people who get it and people who don’t. Rather than trying to prove credibility to the people who don’t, the industry is just moving forward. You either get it or you don’t. This is where there is still a division in the ecosystem, people who still don’t respect it or who still kind of look down on the title of YouTuber. But the need to kind of prove that legitimacy has kind of faded away. There’s enough critical movement in the ecosystem, in the traditional space, in the brand space, that it’s like I will find the people who understand me and respect me and move forward with them. If you don’t hop on the train, well, you’re just gonna get left behind.
I often think about not just how much has changed since 2011, but things that I miss from that era. There was a moment of true experimentation for an online video platform. I miss that. There are other things that I don’t miss. It was chaotic, and not always in a good way. Is there anything that you miss about that specific era? And is there anything from that specific era of YouTube that has kind of gone away that you’re happy about?
In the early days of digital video, and in the early days of Game Theory, it was the Wild West. You were able to kind of produce videos on any game, any topic, and there wasn’t a pressure for that upload to perform or there wasn’t an expectation of earning money off of it. You did get a lot of really interesting, really off-the-wall experimental videos that were true expressions of a person’s creativity and you saw stuff unlike anything you would see elsewhere online.
The window of what is acceptable to put on YouTube has really narrowed. You have regulations on one side dictating what isn’t kids’ content, you have rampant demonetization dictating what can or can’t be said or shown in a particular video. There is a certain level of polish that modern YouTube kind of expects of videos for them to kind of get a decent amount of traction on the platform. You lose a lot of the rawness — the bad cameras, the wonky editing, the YouTube slideshows of yesteryear — because the platform does have a standard of quality now that it’s looking to show to audiences around the world. And I understand why.
But something does get lost for small creators who are still using this as a platform to kind of find their voice, find their audience. I definitely miss that. I miss that idea of community, that idea of anything goes, that idea of chaos. It’s a double-edged sword. As we talked about before, what it means to be a YouTuber is less stigmatized, there is a group of people who understand it. So the ability to build a business on YouTube on one hand is kind of a bummer because it’s no longer one person in the Wild West.
Now at the very least, I have stability. We’re going on 10 years, and I think for the first five of them, we operated under the motto that this bubble could burst at that moment. The algorithm could shift, advertisers could leave, YouTube could get shut down. Now, YouTube, the ecosystem, how it’s perceived in the world has evolved in such a way that this is a more stable place to build a business. Advertisers come and go, and you will have your occasional adpocalypse, but the system has matured in such a way that paranoia of always having to look over your shoulder has started to ebb away a little bit, and you’re able to focus on running your own race and making the stuff that you are able to produce as best as possible.
What is something that you’ve seen go around, assumptions that people make, that people actually get wrong?
There’s a stigma that comes with anyone who’s kind of built out their team and has been public about it. The idea of, “Oh, this isn’t your channel anymore because you have an editor and a researcher, or you have someone who helps you upload the videos.”
What’s exciting to me is that it allows us to do what we love to do at a larger scale and actually stay relevant in 2021 with the kind of faster pace that YouTube expects at this point. Not only that, but also employ like-minded individuals who also are creative and have something that they want to say, or who are theorists like me, who have their own properties that they want to talk about. What a lot of people see is, “Oh, you became corporate” or we became a business. Yeah, we became a business, but that doesn’t lose the core of the creativity that brought us here in the first place. In fact, it’s enabled us to empower other creatives like ourselves to find employment doing the stuff that they love.
Finally, last question, and it might be a little tougher. What’s next for you? Is there a future beyond YouTube?
We just launched Food Theory, and that’s been a lot of fun. That’s been really creatively refreshing for us. You can theorize about things that don’t just exist in the pop culture lexicon, you can theorize about anything in your day-to-day life. We have some thoughts as to what else you can theorize about, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that one fill in at some point.
Our main focus now is doing exactly what we talked about: being an influencer of influencers where we are trying to advocate to YouTube on behalf of creators’ rights and needs. We’re trying to find solutions for channels that are having trouble with monetization, having trouble with COPPA or things like that to try and help them be able to find the stability that we’ve been able to find. Finding business solutions and creator solutions that work for this kind of next generation of creators. We’ve been really working behind the scenes to make those tools available to creators so that way they can grow their own businesses faster and not have to make mistakes that we made along the way.
The last thing is our charitable work. At the end of last year, we had the amazing ability to raise $3 million for St. Jude along with the help of 50 of our favorite creators across various platforms. We see the importance of using the platform that we’ve been given, that we’re lucky enough to have built over the years, for good. If we can kind of pay it forward and pass along that goodwill and serve as an ambassador for worthwhile causes in order to inspire the next generation of creators to make good use of the fortunate position they’ve been given, that’s great as well.