The Cult of PewDiePie: How a Swedish Gamer Became YouTube's Biggest Star

Felix Kjellberg quit his job at a hot dog stand to play video games for a living — and gained 40 million screaming fans along the way

Credit: Illustration by Brittany Falussy

On a recent Thursday afternoon, fifteen hundred teenagers gather outside a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to get a glimpse of Felix Kjellberg, the 26-year-old YouTube sensation better known as PewDiePie. A 21-year-old girl with bleached blonde hair tells me she arrived in New York at 4 a.m., after driving 33 hours from Texas. That's nothing, an elderly woman next to her says; she and her niece flew in from Peru. The first person in line, a 16-year-old named Shane Flanagan, took the bus from New Jersey the previous night and camped outside under a patio umbrella. "I knew this was the only meet-up he was doing on the East Coast," Shane says. "I had no idea how many people were going to come."

The occasion is the release of Kjellberg's new book, This Book Loves You, a collection of illustrated parodies of inspirational quotes — "Don't be yourself. Be a pizza. Everyone loves pizza" — that debuted at number one on the New York Times Young Adult paperback bestseller list. But the frenzy isn't over quirky self-help wisdom. Kjellberg plays video games for a living. His YouTube channel's 40 million subscribers — slightly larger than the population of Canada — assemble to watch his over-the-top reactions to onscreen characters pummeling zombies, botching surgeries, ensnaring dinosaurs or just running around distant worlds in search of a booty to smack. In September, his channel became the first ever to surpass 10 billion views. According to Forbes, he made $12 million this year. By most accounts, he is the biggest star on the Internet.

Inside, chants of "PewDiePie! PewDiePie!" occasionally drown out the shushing of a frantic Barnes & Noble employee. Gifts for Kjellberg — mostly candy, some drawings and the occasional stuffed animal — are deposited into large cardboard boxes along the stage; a one-photo-per-person rule has been enforced — and no selfies. Even so, someone estimates it will take more than four hours to get through the line. An employee says the only time she saw this many people in the store was at an Al Gore event in 2002.

All of which suggests there's more to Kjellberg's appeal than gaming skills. He scripts, produces and stars in all of his own content. He reads and responds to comments and tweets, and uses an online chat program called Omegle to talk to fans one-on-one. In his "Fridays with PewDiePie" videos, he does whatever fans ask him to do, which is mostly play games they suggest. He is unabashedly goofy onscreen— and often funny — but in a way that seems personal rather than performative. He calls his army of fans his "Bros;" their official sign is the "Brofist;" and, if the event at Barnes & Noble is any indication, both genders are equally represented within its ranks.

Watching a PewDiePie video is a little like sitting through a primal screaming therapy ­session. Kjellberg unleashes a torrent of high-pitched epithets and denunciations, celebrates with a "Pewds hard techno rage" and delivers absurd eulogies to downed opponents. His repertoire has also grown to include both live-action and animated comedy shorts. In his own version of the Harlem Shake, three PewDiePies dance on screen, one of them in pink women's underwear; in another video, PewDiePie dons a virtual reality headset and stands in an attic cursing at the walls. "I don't want to be squish, please, please, I'll do anything," he squeals. "I'll lick your bal…no I won't, that's gay."

Inside the small green room at the back of Barnes & Noble, Kjellberg, dressed in jeans and a red plaid shirt, is filming a small cake that his publisher, Penguin, specially ordered from a Brooklyn bake shop. With a flop of blonde hair, angled features and well-kept scruff, he closely resembles Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride. A handful of minders ­— talent managers and Penguin representatives — stand around, fussing over his schedule. Outside, the crowd is getting impatient. There's only enough time for a brief hello before someone suggests Kjellberg should use the restroom. He doesn't argue.

When he emerges on stage fifteen minutes later, he's greeted by shouts of "I love you!" "Ok, I totally get that," he says, smiling down at the crowd. "I love you guys too! I feel like I'm running for president." Then, in his trademark South Park-inflection, he shouts, "The Bros are going to take over the world!"

There are screams, hugs and innumerable Brofists. Two 13-year-old girls wearing identical PewDiePie T-shirts stumble offstage and fall to the floor, openly sobbing in front of the biography section. A six-year-old boy with a Brofist symbol razored into his tiny head is helped offstage by his mother. One father, who's been waiting with his daughter and her friends since 5 a.m., tells me the only thing he's seen rival the hysteria is old footage of The Beatles. "And you know what?" he says. "I told my daughter that earlier and she just looked at me said, 'Who's that?'"

Speaking to me after the show, Kjellberg admits that his stardom can be difficult to fathom. "It seems silly," he tells me. "Your job is to play games? You make money from that? It's ridiculous. But the more you know about it, and the more you get to know me, the more you understand that it's actually a hard thing to do, and not a lot of people would be able to do it."

Kjellberg grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden. His mother, an IT executive at an accounting firm, let him play Super Nintendo whenever he stayed home sick from school. As a result, he says, he was sick a lot. He describes himself as a happy, silly kid, who once turned up to kindergarten in a skirt. He drew video game characters like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and teachers encouraged his art. But "once the pubes hit," Kjellberg retreated to his bedroom, spending most of his time playing video games. In high school, he often cut class to hang out in Internet cafes with friends, playing massively popular multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. "Sweden has a great culture around gaming," he says. "We're really nerdy people." His on-screen name, PewDiePie, is what he'd shout when he did something funny or mastered a difficult maneuver.

While never an exceptional student, in his last year of high school, Kjellberg earned a top score on a physics test, beating 200 other students, and was accepted into his first-choice university. He began drawing again, and used the prize money from a local art competition to buy a computer. He learned video editing by watching an online tutorial. His first performance was a play-through of the popular open-world game Minecraft (created by another Swede, Markus Persson). "I was so shy back then," Kjellberg recalls. "It was so weird to me, sitting alone in a room talking into a microphone. That was unheard of back at the time. No one really did it." At one point, Kjellberg tried to subscribe to his own channel "so it would be less pathetic," but YouTube prohibited it. 

The followers came slowly, and some of the earliest ones began posting comments about each day's video. "It almost felt like a family," Kjellberg says. One day, in a video of him playing Amnesia, a first-person survival horror game, Kjellberg revealed his now-legendary cowardice in scary games: screaming, running and cursing at the first sign of danger. Commenters immediately asked for more. "At that point I realized, 'Okay, I've got something here.'"

In 2011, Kjellberg dropped out of college and took a job at a hot dog kiosk. At first, his parents questioned his new career path. "'What is this?'" Kjellberg recalls them saying. "'You're playing games online? I don't get it.'" It was only when Kjellberg showed them his video responses to 30,000 subscribers that they finally relented. A friend put Kjellberg in touch with a video game network on YouTube. "To have that sudden realization that I could quit my job and just pursue YouTube," he says, "that was one of the greatest moments of my life."

Every day, at 9 a.m., he leaves the apartment in Brighton, England, that he shares with his girlfriend Marzia Bisognin — herself a YouTube celebrity — and their two pugs, to record, edit and upload videos at a nearby flat (he had to find another site after an upstairs neighbor complained about the noise). Most PewDiePie videos have the same intro — "How's it going Bros, my name is PewDiePie!"— and fade out on a Brofist. In between, he plays a constantly updated list of games. "I try to pick games that aren't widely discussed," he says, "and sometimes notoriously bad games." The whole point is to capture his true reactions, so he simply sets the camera rolling and presses start.

The phenomenon of watching other people play video games is as old as the penny arcade, but streaming has ushered in a golden age of gaming as spectator sport. Over 30% of Internet users in the US watch other Internet users play video games online. Twitch, a video game streaming platform acquired by Amazon for $970 million last August, is referred to as the "gamer's ESPN," but it draws a much larger audience than the sports network. With 100 million unique viewers per month, watching on average over an hour and a half of gameplay per day, it frequently ranks as the fourth highest trafficked site in the U.S, behind Netflix, Google and Apple.

"This culture would have been a big deal in the 70s or 80s or 90s too, it's just that it only got easy to capture game footage a couple of years ago," says Bennett Foddy, the former Cut Copy bassist who developed the flash game, QWOP and now teaches game design at NYU. "For an emerging generation, this actually is their version of Sunday afternoon football."

The rise of Twitch has coincided with a growing interest in competitive gaming, or e-sports, which like traditional sports, now has its own well-branded teams, leagues, championships and celebrities. Big-name sponsors like Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Intel back events with prize money worth millions. But casual gaming channels like PewDiePie's remain a much bigger industry than e-sports — those who play for fun usually want to watch someone who is doing the same. "The most popular streamers make their fans feel like they're a part of the process," says Mike Fatum, a 31-year-old gamer from San Francisco who hosts the Ace of Geeks podcast. "Nobody watches streams where the guy just sits there quietly and twiddles his thumbs."

Last August, Variety published the results of a survey that found YouTube stars were more popular among young people aged 13 to 18 than 'traditional' celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Seth Rogen. According to Jamie Byrne, YouTube's director of content commercialization, that's because YouTubers like Kjellberg are a new breed of talk show host: charismatic, unscripted and connected to their audience. "These guys aren't acting out something that someone else has written," Byrne says. ""The authenticity is real."

Mainstream television is taking note. During a recent appearance on The Late Show, Stephen Colbert treated Kjellberg with the kind of admiration usually reserved for Hollywood stars. "I want to thank the Internet for allowing their emperor to be here for the evening," Colbert crowed. Kjellberg, whose YouTube channel draws ten times as many viewers as The Late Show's, says it was the first time he felt YouTube as a medium was acknowledged with respect in traditional media. "Media has been trying to shrug off YouTube," he says. "It's like it's scared of it because it's a new thing. That's been the general approach so far. But [what happened on Colbert] is the right attitude. You can't just keep fighting it."

In 2012, Kjellberg signed a contract with Maker Studios, a digital media company that represents talent across YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Vine. (The deal that got Kjellberg out of the hot dog stand ended due to a "lack of communication"). His channel quickly grew from 100 million views per month to over 200 million, according to Maker's former CEO Danny Zappin, who brought Kjellberg aboard. Maker set up an official PewDiePie website, app and online store to sell Bro Army merchandise. In return, Kjellberg helps promote Maker's dedicated video gaming channel, Polaris, along with some of its other media interests, and gives the company a cut of his YouTube ad revenue.

Though Kjellberg now makes more money than most Fortune 500 CEOs, he insists his day-to-day life hasn't changed. "The only difference is that I get recognized when I leave the house." He only realized the extent of his fame four years ago, he says, at a gaming event close to his hometown in Sweden. "I was not ready for it," he recalls. "I remember there were five security guards yelling at a crowd to back up — it was out of control. It was shocking to find myself in that situation, where I was that celebrity person." At an event in Singapore in 2013, Kjellberg tweeted a photo of himself in the hotel pool. Later, he went down to the lobby, only to be swarmed by hundreds of fans. "I didn't even understand they were screaming for me at first," he said. "Now, I would say there are too many people watching almost. I remember I used to be able to control it; but it's too much for one person to handle."

Kjellberg's critics — and there are many — seem to despise him with equal intensity. Multiple threads on Reddit are devoted to PewDiePie takedowns. "He rarely (if ever) offers insight, wit, or any level of humor above the standard scatological routine," says one commenter. And another: "Personally? His voice gives me an aneurysm." And then this: "PewDiePie is the YouTube gaming equivalent of pro wrestling's John Cena. They both are loved by children and hated by adults."

Alex Sol Watts, a 25-year-old gamer from Sydney, Australia who watches e-sports streams on Twitch, tells me, "I worry he's an indicator of a dark side of gaming. That the most successful streamer is a loud, shouty guy doesn't help sophisticate the culture, or even make it more palatable. I worry about what the next wave of gamers will be like in a few years if PewDiePie is their idol."

And then there's the money. "A lot of people think it's unfair," Kjellberg says. "They think I just sit on my ass all day and yell at the screen over here. Which is true! But there's so much more to it than that. What people don't think about is that I have [ten] billion views and that translates to something."

In typical PewDiePie fashion, Kjellberg often shares his favorite derogatory comments with his audience. Many of them target his wealth: "If only I could get paid that much for being a complete retard in front of a webcam"; "I find it funny how someone who yells and plays video games makes this much money when there are people out there who risk their lives fighting for this country and get paid hardly anything"; "Hey everyone, I scream at nothing, make lame sex jokes, and dress up in female underwear and do the Harlem Shake, so give me millions of dollars." To that last comment, Kjellberg responded: "If you looked as good as I do in a bikini then you could probably pull it off too."

Though he delights in poking fun at the "haters," he often ends his responses by urging fans not to engage with negative posts: "Please know that I don't care, and neither should you." The money, he says, has not changed much about his daily experience. He hasn't forgotten the hot dog stand or his desperate scramble to make rent each month when he was starting out, but, he says, "I would be doing this even if I wasn't as big as I am."

Kjellberg's unprecedented success on YouTube makes it difficult to predict what comes next. In an interview with a Swedish magazine in late 2014, he was asked whether he would consider starting his own network with other influential YouTubers. "I'm in touch with a couple of people who I think would be so right for this," he said. "The networks have been managed in such an incredibly poor way, it's embarrassing really. I'd like to help other YouTubers." (He later posted on Twitter that he was happy with Maker.)

Kjellberg has also recently been making trips to Los Angeles to shoot an original series for YouTube Red, the platform's paid monthly subscription service that launched in October. The videos, which will appear sometime next year, are called Scare PewDiePie, and involves Kjellberg making his way through suspenseful, real-life situations like the first-person character in a video game. Think of it as a reality television show set in a haunted house, only with more swearing. Kjellberg denies rumors that he's poised to move into more traditional entertainment, but he does acknowledge there may be a time when he'll need to think about his options. "I don't know if anyone could do this forever," he says. "I've been sitting where I am right now in this room for the longest time just making video after video."

He pauses for a moment to scan his work station. Even with the book signings, the media appearances and the television show, Kjellberg rarely feels like a celebrity to be worshipped from afar — and he's quick to correct any suggestion that he's weary of fame. "I have the greatest job in the world,” he says. "If I was in a different route in my life, like if I was still in college, for example and I saw someone else just playing games for a living, I'd probably feel like, 'What the hell?'"