A Day in the Life of Meathead, the Face of 'World of Tanks'

A Day in the Life of Meathead, the Face of 'World of Tanks'

Jakubson is accompanied on air by a muppet in his likeness Wargaming.net

Community manager Brian Jakubson's unvarnished videos have made him the unofficial mascot of a gaming megabrand

Community manager Brian Jakubson's unvarnished videos have made him the unofficial mascot of a gaming megabrand

Meathead Militia stands on the sound stage with his arms extended while a video producer runs a lint roller over his clothing. He glances at the script in his outstretched hand and runs lines under his breath while the producer gives a quick once-over with the lint roller to the other star of the shoot – a small felt puppet that's a doppelganger of Meathead. It has the exact same beard, eyeglasses and close-cropped hair. "It looks just like me, except I think they exaggerated the size of my bald spot," says Meathead.

Meathead, aka Brian Jakubson, is the 32-year-old community manager for the American branch of the hugely popular free-to-play game World of Tanks, which has accrued more than 140 million registered players since its launch in 2010. "I was the social media manager for a couple of years before they pushed me in front of the camera," Jakubson says. "At first, I had a deer-in-the-headlights look, and I was sweating profusely." But he turned out to be a natural, with an affable self-deprecating persona that the community immediately responded to. He now records several videos a week aimed at the half million subscribers to the game's YouTube channel, and spends many more hours each week facing off against hardcore fans of the game – dubbed "tankers" – in livestreamed multiplayer matches on Facebook and Twitch.

"The puppet is wearing a different colored T-shirt than Meathead," says video producer Michael Lovan. "Do we care?" He and video editor Amy Everson create five or six pieces of video content a week for Wargaming.net, the studio behind World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships. They've also made award-winning indie films and music videos for bands like Modest Mouse. Eventually, they decide that the world will go on despite the wardrobe snafu.

The difference in size between Jakubson and his Muppet knockoff is comical. The flesh-and-blood version of Meathead is 6"4', and a solidly built 240 pounds. The nickname "Meathead Militia" is something he came up with as a young gym rat. He has a sort of uniform that he wears for each shoot, consisting of a World of Tanks hoodie over a World of Tanks T-shirt, New Balance sneakers, and cargo shorts – he never wears long pants if he can help it. ("I tend to run hot," he says.)

Commenters on his videos love his informality. Some even compliment him on his exposed calves. "When I first got to Wargaming.net, there was a mindset that every statement had to be very corporate, everything was supposed to be very safe and regimented," says Jakubson. "But we realized that we're this live 24/7 service, and we need to let folks see that we're all nerds too – we're not mindless drones."

Any community wants to be spoken to in an honest and uncondescending way

A decade ago, the public face of a game company was likely to be a mascot (like Sonic the Hedgehog) or an executive (like Strauss Zelnick the Take Two CEO) or a lead designer (like Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima). Nowadays, as more and more games become always-on services that strive to deepen player engagement (and cash investment), the public face is more likely to be someone like Jakubson, and the form of interaction is more likely to be video.

Wargaming America has 8 to 12 people doing community work on each of its games, but their efforts still have the feel of a scrappy upstart – especially when compared to what freemium juggernaut Riot Games does to reach out to the American League of Legends community. World of Tanks was created in Belarus, and its fan base is still largely centered in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Being a World of Tanks fan in America is sort of like being a soccer fan in America – you know that the game has a much bigger cultural footprint and a much bigger fanbase on the other side of the world, and the marketing machinery around the game's biggest events aren't always aimed at you and people in your region.

"For a while, Wargaming America had a sort of identity crisis," says senior PR manager Alex Brewer. "There was a sense that we were this Belarusian company, which we were, but our American presence demanded that we have an American voice. Any community wants to be spoken to in an honest and uncondescending way. That's why the genuineness of the Meathead persona has been such a success." Wargaming America has built a soundstage in their Emeryville, California office to facilitate the increased demand for video and streaming.

Jakubson and the puppeteer who'll be operating mini-Meathead are finally prepared, and the shoot can begin. It's a promo for the newly redesigned website TankRewards.com, which allows World of Tanks players to earn points in-game to unlock free in-game items: first aid kits, ventilation upgrades, even new tanks. The puppet version of Meathead explains exactly how the rewards site has been improved, getting in a few digs at his human counterpart as he makes the pitch. Jakubson takes it in stride. He's hitting his marks, but the puppet requires several additional takes – it's hard to keep the little felt figure's eyeline level with the camera.

"We initially made the puppet when Meathead was on vacation, and surprised him with a video of it," says Lovan. Now it's become a sort of celebrity among tankers, even drawing crowds at meetups and conventions. The puppet can also be shrewdly deployed to deliver cheesy marketing messages that would sound corporate or inauthentic coming from Jakubson himself.

As they're filming the new clip, another previously shot Meathead video goes live on their Youtube channel. In "World of Tanks Weekly Episode 6," Jakubson gives a rundown of the latest developments in and around the game. Most videos aren't as tightly scripted as the promo with the puppet -- for World of Tanks Weekly, Jakobsun will just assemble a list of points he wants to hit, and speak more casually. In this clip, he touts a series of discounts tied to the sixth anniversary of WoT. (He pronounces it "watt," like the unit of power.) He invites viewers to submit questions that he'll later pose to pro players before the upcoming Wargaming.net League North America finals. He highlights a member of the community who just created a meticulous model of a British Cromwell tank, and shared images of it in the forums. He also takes the community to task for the results of an online poll in which they voted on the next in-game purchase that Meathead should make. They determined that he should snag the German WWII-era Tiger II tank. "Thanks a lot – I'm absolutely crap at that tank," he says ruefully. "I think I have a 20% win-rate with it, just deplorable. You're all a bunch of jerks."

Jakubson is very up front about the fact that he's not the best World of Tanks player around. He strives to represent the average player. "I love being taught by our players," he says. "Some of them have constructed these insanely elaborate technical documents about how the various tanks work. I have absolutely no problem going to the community and saying, 'I am having a tough time with this part of the game, can you help me?'"

Community managers of any freemium game risk alienating their audience if they simply deliver marketing messages. Wargaming.net makes its money from selling virtual tanks and warships and warplanes to players. But Jakubson doesn't see his job as selling that merchandise. "If you have no idea why you would be purchasing tank, my advice would be don't do it."

The purpose of Meathead's video is to make the game feel more welcoming, and make the goal of mastering it seem more rewarding. "Our game has a lot you have to learn," says Jakubson. "There are 400 tanks, each with different weak points and strengths that you have to calculate on the fly over multiple maps. It requires a lot of skill. Folks with 10,000 battles under their belts are still considered new because there's so much to learn."

Jakubson also feels that his role is to speak up for the community within the company. "Folks come to me as a vessel for suggestions, and they tell me about their pain points, some of which I also feel," he says. He researches their complaints about cap limits on how many friends you can have, or maps that they feel are overexposed or abused, and sends the feedback up the chain of command.

After the shoot with the puppet wraps, Jakubson and producer Lovan hole up in a conference room to brainstorm a future video clip that will encourage World of Tanks players to shell out for the American T95 tank. This heavily armored vehicle moved rather slowly, which led the community to dub it the "Doom Turtle" (a recent upgrade to the tank boosted its speed, leading to it being redubbed "The Zoom Turtle").

The craziest thing was when someone recognized me at the grocery store

The video they envision is a turtle and hare scenario, with the Zoom Turtle surprising other tanks by handily beating them in an overland race. In-game footage of various tanks whizzing around a map will be accompanied by voiceover narration performed by Meathead Militia, who will ape the intonations of NASCAR and horserace commentators. Lovan pulls out an audio recorder, and Jakubson free associates some prelim dialogue. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Himmelsdorf 500!" he says in the most stentorian voice he can muster. After 45 minutes, his voice is in shreds, but Lovan has what he needs to create a rough script.

After a brief recovery period, Jakubson returns to his desk and announces online that he'll be playing multiplayer matches with the community. He invites players to seek out his handle MeatheadMilitia, and join him. The stream is viewed by over 14,000 tankers.

Jakobsun is a celebrity within the World of Tanks community, but what surprises him is that people also recognize his handle in Rocket League and Battlefield. "The craziest thing was when someone recognized me at the grocery store," he says. "That's not something I ever imagined would happen. I was looking for eggs, and someone stopped me and asked me if I had any codes for in-game merchandise."

He engages in pitched battles with the community for an hour or so before he has to wind down the livestream for the day. "Alright folks, this is gonna be the last platoon of the – whoops, I'm gassy, hold on," he says as he turns away from his microphone to belch discreetly. "I swear, that's just water doing that to me. Happy Friday everyone! Remember that it's a 5X weekend – you get five times XP through Monday! Thanks again for tuning in. You could be doing anything else in the world, but you have chosen to watch a bad tanker play World of Tanks!"