What happens when you gather a bunch of nerdy voice actors and one badass Dungeon Master, then have them all roll a natural 20 in showmanship? You get Critical Role, the show that has made over $9 million dollars playing Dungeons & Dragons on Twitch alone. (A shocking statistic, since Twitch is not even their primary platform!)
Seven years ago, this merry band of men and women casually agreed to start playing D&D live on the internet. Little did they know that their Super High-Intensity Team (The S.H.I.T’s, for short) would turn into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with widespread name recognition within the multibillion-dollar world of tabletop games.
In the process, Critical Role has turned the game from something nerdy and lame to something awesome and beloved within the span of a few years. Their skill as storytellers, their slick production values, and their charismatic actors have helped cast off the old Dungeons & Dragons stigma. In doing so, they have not only created a profitable business, but they have rehabilitated the Dungeons & Dragons brand. In this article, I demonstrate how.
What exactly is Critical Role?
Critical Role is a weekly live streamed show on Twitch and YouTube. In each episode, eight incredibly talented voice actors adventure in the lands of Exandria. The cast includes Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, and the unbelievably charismatic dungeon master, Matt Mercer.
By now, the world of Exandria is such a richly crafted on that you would need an explainer video to get caught up on it. That’s how long Critical Role has been running.
In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, Dungeon Master Matt Mercer weaves intricate narratives with the voice actors, each of whom are playing their own characters. If you recognize the voice actors’ names, that’s no accident. They’ve been in big TV shows and games such as Attack on Titan, Overwatch, Ace Attorney, and The Last of Us 2. Put simply, Critical Role contains a powerhouse of talent.
The show spans three campaigns in total, including Vox Machina, The Mighty Nein, and Bells Hells (which is currently in progress). You can watch all their episodes online for free on YouTube, all neatly arranged in playlists for your convenience.
Each episode is 3 hours long. Most episodes, individually, have racked up tens of millions of watch hours. Each season has over 100 episodes, so if you total up all the watch hours on all the episodes, you could be looking at hundreds of millions of watch hours. Maybe even billions. It’s nearly impossible to fathom.
So in summary: Critical Role brings a lot of talent to the table and has racked up an unfathomable amount of watch hours. It’s no wonder, then, that the show has built up a massive online community of “Critters” who watch the new episodes every Thursday night.
Critical Role has slick production values
What do all great actors need? A job.
Well, that and a stage for performance. Critical Role has nailed set design from the get-go, even in their early days in a Geek & Sundry back-office. They transformed that small room into a serviceable dungeon master’s lair, and then they continued to amp up the style as money came in.
Observe how quickly changes to set design are made in campaign 1 in episode 16 to episode 20 and then in episode 37. Not shown in the images below, the cast have their own unique background too.
Now obviously, if Critical Role didn’t have great actors or a good story, production quality wouldn’t be a fix-all. But given that they got the basics so right, every additional dollar spent on production design is worth it.
Just check out this video below. The actors geek out over just how cool the new lighting effects are.
And let’s not forget that every show needs a banger of an intro. Critical Role needs that special something to get you ready for a fun Thursday night. Their intros rival anything you’d see on cable TV.
If you cherry-pick episodes from the last several years, you will eventually notice that Critical Role really stepped up their game in 2018. This is when they split off from Geek & Sundry and created their own YouTube channel and a new studio to boot. The reason for this split was to “more fully take the reins of its creative direction. The show has been completed owned by its creators from the beginning, making this split more of a production-related decision.”
It’s possible that their rapid improvement to production values was caused by a fear that they couldn’t make it without Geek & Sundry’s backing. But regardless of what the motivation was, it’s undeniable that the production design works here.
Critical Role has a strong monetization model, which helps them pay the talent and keep production quality high
To make Dungeons & Dragons cool, Critical Role has to have talent and good set design. But all that’s expensive, so one of their key success factors had to be monetizing the channel to fund their ambitions.
Critical Role know their target audience really well, and they have no trouble getting people on their merch store. As of 2022, their website sees well over 400,000 viewers per month, and seems to be growing even more from there. There are no online RPG shows whose merchandise stores see anywhere close to this level of traffic. This community is dedicated.
Speaking of community, Critical Role’s YouTube channel has over 1.7 million subscribers and is gaining another 4,000 per week. For comparison, their old parent company, Geek & Sundry, is gaining subscribers at a rate of just 2,000 per week, and they may eventually overtake them.
At that level of viewership, Critical Role is able to not just monetize through merchandise but also advertising revenue as well. Ad revenue is seldom the most profitable way for content creators to make money on YouTube, but it’s a solid supplement to the sale of physical merchandise, especially at the million-plus subscriber level.
And as if all that were not enough, Critical Role also works with Funko, McFarlane Toys, and Penguin Random House. In other words, both their words and their merch are being made for widespread retail distribution.
Even their product sponsorships at hilariously well done. Just check out this video of sponsorships read by Sam Riegel – it’s like a crash course on how to read ads well.
Critical Role caught the attention of mainstream media and grew even bigger from there
Of course, talented actors, pretty sets, and the ability to sell merch to nerds alone won’t make Dungeons & Dragons cool, although each of those is an important factor. Nope – you’ve got to get the normies on board. Enter mainstream media.
Turns out Stephen Colbert, the political comedian turned late night show host, is a massive nerd. He’s been playing tabletop roleplaying games since Metamorphasis Alpha, which predates Dungeons & Dragons. So you can imagine that he would have some common ground with Matt Mercer. (Just look at the screengrab below – Matt Mercer is hanging on Stephen Colbert’s every word).
Late night TV still has huge influence. Colbert’s show was among the most watched TV in 2020-2021 and that was its fifth consecutive year at the top. But Critical Role didn’t just win Colbert’s attention for a short period of time. He was a guest on their show for a charity event in 2022.
In addition to benefiting from Stephen Colbert’s star power, Critical Role has been working with a tiny little startup called Amazon as well. With their help, they have been able to create The Legend of Vox Machina, a gloriously animated and critically adored animated adaptation of Critical Role. This is not dissimilar to Arcane, the TV show that has seen tremendous success after being adapted from League of Legends. (Though it should be noted that Vox Machina has a lot more swearing and gore!)
Between getting celebrity attention and working with one of the largest companies in existence on an animated show, Critical Role has truly broken into the mainstream, taking Dungeons & Dragons with it.
Matt Mercer rolled a 20 in charisma and has created a cult of personality
Production values and good actors can’t make a good show alone. You need storytelling too, or else that merch won’t move, celebrities won’t care, and business partners will look elsewhere for opportunity.
Some people think Critical Role is scripted, or partially scripted, instead of improv. It sounds plausible enough, since the show has existed for seven years and has a pretty well-organized narrative. This is thanks to Matt Mercer, the dungeon master extraordinaire who is adept at both planning ahead before the sessions start and improvising when the players derail him.
(It should be noted that the players are very invested in the game, and are capable of derailing Matt’s plans, so the game truly is improvised. It’s just very cleverly improvised.)
Matt Mercer is a household name among Dungeons & Dragons players at this point. So much so that the Mercer Effect is used to describe a phenomenon in which “players expect their dungeon masters to be super energetic and fully descriptive and fully immersed in the world they are creating, and maybe even do fun voices for each NPC.”
To further prove this point, if you go to YouTube, search for “Dungeons & Dragons”, and filter by views, Critical Role episode one is the most viewed videos (next to JoCat’s playlist which is a must-watch as he’s phenomenally funny).
In other words, Matt Mercer is the face of Dungeons & Dragons right now. Not just Critical Role. He’s the face of an entire game that was published all the way back in 1974. He’s like Bruce Lee is to martial arts movies. Practically synonymous.
Not unlike martial arts movie fans, people who have gotten into D&D from Critical Role often find themselves disillusioned when their dungeon masters aren’t as good as Matt Mercer. But that’s a sort of naivete that you can compare to thinking you can kick ass after watching a kung fu movie. Obviously, not everyone can be Mercer and that’s what both the players and dungeon master need to realize when getting into roleplaying.
Now does this reflect badly on Matt Mercer at all? No! In fact, it’s just a sign of both his personal success and the success of Critical Role.
Critical Role was an excellently made show for an underserved audience
By now, you can see why Critical Role was destined for success. But it’s important to discuss another force multiplier that propelled Critical Role into the mainstream. And it’s so simple – there was a clear target audience who always wanted something like this to exist, and Critical Role was the first one to make it happen in a big way. In other words, it’s perfect product-market fit.
Back in 2015, there were only two places to play Dungeons & Dragons online. One was Roll20 and the other was Tabletop Simulator. They both aimed to create a place to play games online, with Roll 20 geared more towards tabletop roleplaying games specifically, whereas Tabletop Simulator was a sandbox for tabletop games of all kinds.
Critical Role started in June 2015, three years after Roll 20 came out. Roll 20 was starting to really pick up steam, which shows that people wanted to get into Dungeons & Dragons, but just couldn’t find an in-person gaming group. Today, Roll 20 has over 8 million users.
Thus a virtuous cycle began. Critical Role got people into Dungeons & Dragons. Roll 20 gave those new players a place to play. People who found Roll 20 but never played with an in-person group needed to see how to play the game, so they often wound up watching Critical Role. The businesses complemented each other perfectly.
If it weren’t going to be Critical Role, it was going to be someone else. It was just a matter of time. Lucky for us, Critical Role is about the best imaginable show that could have met this latent demand.
Critical Role helps people get into Dungeons & Dragons with D&D Beyond
Critical Role not only helps people get into Dungeons & Dragons, but it helps them play it, too. One of their sponsors is D&D Beyond, an official digital toolset and game companion for Dungeons & Dragons 5E. It makes the business of running a Dungeons & Dragons game less intimidating and also plays well with Roll 20, too.
D&D Beyond is an inexpensive subscription service, with both $2.99 and $5.99 per month plans. It’s just all-around easy to get into. Subscribers also receive benefits like books, bundles, and digital dice, which gamers perceive as being a very good value.
Of course, Roll 20 and D&D Beyond were already doing well up until 2020. Then COVID-19 struck and both companies wound up doing really well during the pandemic, seeing record sales while everyone was stuck at home. In fact, D&D Beyond is so valuable that it caught the attention of Hasbro, which acquired it for $146.3 million dollars.
So basically, not only did Critical Role make Dungeons & Dragons look cool in the mainstream media, but it also is actively helping other companies to remove the one last obstacle that keeps would-be players on the sidelines: the complexity of learning the game.
Critical Role is a critical success in every way shape and form, and for good reasons. It is an exciting and engaging show with a stellar cast, bringing Dungeons & Dragons to the mainstream like Marvel did with the Avengers.
Their acting, storytelling, and production design make the show high-quality and eternally fresh. Their monetization model is smart, which helps them stay in business and make improvements. These improvements have, in turn, helped them court mainstream media attention.
In doing this, Critical Role has gone beyond simply cashing in on a niche. They have made an old game with a nerdy stigma feel cool again with their well-made show, unabashed enthusiasm, and commitment to making Dungeons & Dragons accessible to as many people as possible.
If you’re running a business of your own, study Critical Role’s methods. Think about how you can create a great product for an underserved audience. Then imagine how you can make your whole industry look brighter as a result of your actions. You’d be surprised how much power you have to make to do that.