More people watch YouTube videos about Minecraft than any other game. Much more. And rather than YouTube views leveling off for the 5-year old game, they're growing rapidly.
No, we're not talking about the "official" videos on the YouTube channel of parent company Mojang. Sure, they have a respectable amount of traffic there. But for Minecraft, which was recently purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion, the vast majority of its YouTube views come from videos created not by the company, but from its YouTube fans. This is known in marketing as "earned media", because it's essentially free to the brand.
Minecraft on YouTube: Fan Created Videos Account for 31B Views
There are many kinds of videos in the YouTube Minecraft ecosystem, but most are straightforward "walk-throughs" and "let's plays,". To get a sampling of what you might see on these channels, here's one of this week's videos from SkyDoesMinecraft, the top Minecraft YouTuber with 10.6 million subscribers. This video has 380,000 views, which is about average for the channel:
Here's a recent video from "YOGSCAST Lewis & Simon," the second most popular Minecraft channel:
In the Octoly "YouTube and Video Games Study" we released in June, we found that Minecraft's YouTube channel had 183 million total views (its "owned media"). For most channels, this would be considered a brilliant success. Views from Minecraft's fan channels, however, totaled 31 BILLION views. That means that of total views of videos about Minecraft on YouTube, 99.4% of them were of fan videos.
On average, the top 50 games on YouTube (in terms of views) had 96% of views come from fan videos. But Minecraft was off the chart. Furthermore, Minecraft's 31 billion views of fan videos was almost 3x that of the second- and third-place games, Grand Theft Auto (11.8 billion views of fan videos) and Call of Duty (9.7 billion).
Minecraft's Video Marketing Budget? Reports Say Close to $0
Minecraft probably spent tens of millions of dollars for this publicity, just like the other major games, right? Actually, no. Their marketing budget is reported to be closer to absolute zero. What's more, the parent company, indie-developer Mojang, based in Sweden, has only about 40 employees.
To be sure, Minecraft is unique. The "open world" game is one without any rules or instructions where players can create whatever they want. From the start, the game's culture encouraged players to share, collaborate, communicate, and even offer the developers ideas on how the game should evolve. They did this through forums and other platforms, but since sharing is so visual, YouTube became a primary platform for sharing and community-building outside of the game itself. This was happening on Twitch and elsewhere as well, but because of the ability of fans to make money via YouTube advertising on their channels, and the stronger engagement tools on YouTube, it became the largest streaming video platform for the game.
Here's another very popular type of Minecraft video, which you might call "the music video parody" genre. It's called "Hunger Games Song - A Minecraft Parody of Decisions by Borgore (Music Video)" by the No. 6 Minecraft YouTuber, TheBajanCanadian, who has 4.2 million subscribers. This video has been viewed 40 million times:
Minecraft Fanbase Continues to Skyrocket on YouTube
Minecraft fandom on YouTube really knows no bounds. Here's our latest leaderboard chart of the top 10 Minecraft creator/influencers on YouTube:
Some game publishers - like Nintendo, makers of Super Mario - have a much heavier hand in deciding what creators should be allowed to do with the game on YouTube. Mojang, however, empowers YouTube creators to do whatever they want with the characters and environments, without threat of takedown notices, YouTube strikes, or rights management issues that can take AdSense advertising dollars away from their fans.
Instead, at the game's Minecon fan conference a year ago, many sessions were about YouTube (and Twitch, too). According to Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute, the sessions had names like "Building Your YouTube Channel," "Video Making 101," "How to Win with YouTube," "Crafting Stories for Videos," "Growing Your Community," and "How to Develop a Musical Parody in Minecraft."
Carl Manneh, the pre-acquisition-CEO of Mojang, confirmed that:
We've been very liberal with what we allow people to do with our brand and our IP from the start, and that has created a fantastic community of players doing numerous things around the game. There's this huge ecosystem where people are charging for server space to play Minecraft with their friends, monetizing their YouTube videos and developing and selling mods.
YouTube Community is Key to Minecraft's Success
In other words, the company Minecraft understands that the community really does have the keys to the kingdom. The fans have a huge stake in the game, and instead of trying to control their customers, the company rejoices in their influence. Of course there's no telling what will change now that Microsoft is the owner, but they would be well to understand the community, and particularly the YouTube community, that helped build the game in the first place.
After all, as you can see in this chart, among the top 50 games across all of YouTube, it's the fans that have put Minecraft far out in front.
YouTube Essential for Minecraft's 'Global Phenomenon'
YouTube was essential to the Minecraft success from the beginning. Alex Leavitt, a Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School of Communication, did an extensive study on Minecraft in 2011, right around the time Mojang released its first full version (they had released an alpha version of the game in 2009). Leavitt found that YouTube helped make Minecraft "a global phenomenon."
"With the help of YouTube," Leavitt said, "Minecraft went viral, and the popularity shot up quickly within just a few months. The visibility of the game increased due to this network that was connected on YouTube. The video sharing site was a commentary center and helped popularize the game by allowing players to share solutions, walkthroughs, and house tours."
And the rate of Minecraft viewing on YouTube not slowing down, it's speeding up. Now, five months after our video games report during E3, all-time views of Minecraft fan videos has leapt from 31 billion to 47 billion. That's 16 billion views in just five months. Meanwhile the TeamMojang YouTube channel has only received 45 million new views - which would be considered a huge success for any brand. But it's nowhere near 16 billion.
In June, our Octoly360 system found 81,000 separate YouTube creators talking about Minecraft. Today there are 147,000 creator channels with Minecraft videos, almost double. The rate of increase is truly notable.
Minecraft: A True 'Love Brand'
Minecraft is an example of what is becoming known in marketing circles as a "love brand." Much like NYX and Sigma in the beauty vertical, fans love these products so much that they become evangelists and create videos about them. Certainly creators love making money from their videos (and who doesn't want to make money doing something they love?). But, at the core, creators do it because they love it.
However, while creators make their videos because they're passionate about the products, they make the videos better when they're rewarded with money, because they can spend more time and effort on them. As with any performance art, sport, or creative endeavor that people would love to get paid to do - like play basketball, act, or be a musician - they will always do it because they love it. But they can spend more time doing it better if there's a little money involved.
In this case, because of the advertising dollars creators are making from YouTube, Minecraft has been able to help build an army of promotional experts about their game. And instead of Minecraft/Mojang paying the fans to make these videos, YouTube and Google AdWords are picking up the tab. In the process, Minecraft has become one of the best-selling video games of all time.
According to Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute, "Every Minecraft user who posts on YouTube or works to develop an online community with their friends is building an audience (just like media companies do). For Mojang (makers of Minecraft), this is all free marketing."
It's a brilliant strategy.