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.