“But hey, that’s just a theory, a game theory!”
If you were on YouTube 10 years ago, or if you’re a part of the gaming community on YouTube now, you know this phrase. It’s the really widely recognized catchphrase coined by famous YouTuber, MatPat, who said it with gusto at the end of all his videos on The Game Theorists channel.
Students of MatPat also know that this OG YouTuber didn’t just meticulously study video game lore, but also YouTube marketing strategies. This propelled him to co-found and become the CEO Theorist Media, where he eventually expanded beyond Game Theory and into other YouTube channels including Film Theory and Food Theory.
He knows his business model. He knows how to come up with theories, get seen by the masses, and build a content-creation empire.
But MatPat’s strengths as a marketer have also contributed to his channel’s decline in the eyes of fans. Sometime around 2015, Game Theory was at the height of its popularity. Now the brand seems diluted and fans have been put off. He’s still doing OK, but the channel is nowhere near its prime.
In this article, I tell a cautionary tale about brand dilution.
How Game Theory began – the original spark
YouTube personality, Matthew Patrick – known better as MatPat – didn’t start using YouTube to publish the speculative video game theories that he’s known for these days. He started using the platform as MatthewPatrick13 and he used his channel to simply upload his stage auditions and stage performances to find success in acting.
However, Matt realized that even with modest success, things weren’t working out financially. So he quit acting to pursue a different career. All this is interesting because it shows his love of staging big productions and his flair for the dramatic, both of which made him really talented as a YouTuber later on.
Other than being a passionate actor he was also very deeply interested in video games. While he was out of a job for two years and looking for a different career during the heady days of the Great Recession, he stumbled upon the Extra Credits YouTube channel. More specifically, he stumbled across the tangential learning video which is about learning through gaming.
MatPat later said that when he saw the video, he thought, “why didn’t someone do a show that fused education and games, that used game discussion as a means to teach?”
This led him down a rabbit hole of studying other popular gaming shows to see what made them work. In this process, he also scoped out his own project. In 2011, he launched his promo video originally named “Game Theory.”
Game Theory has since eclipsed Extra Credits in size and influence, having a whopping 16 million subscribers and over 3 billion views. He’s uploaded 673 videos, so his average video is seeing somewhere around 4 million views. SocialBlade estimates that his channel is generating $810,000 per year. Considering that he has staff, this is a believable estimate.
MatPat is smart and he worked hard, going from starving theater kid to full-blown YouTube personality – back when that was still a pretty uncommon lifestyle. His intelligence and creativity made Game Theory what it was. Word of mouth on channels such as Pat the NES Punk, Reviewtopia, Screwattack, and Game Trailers helped boost the channel’s growth.
In other words, people had an appetite for hearing intricate theories about video game lore and trivia, meaning he found the all-important-in-business product-market fit. But he was also really good at playing the algorithm, and that’s no theory.
The relentlessly optimized genius of Game Theory
When MatPat started studying all these popular gaming channels, he specifically paid attention their logos, color scheme, pacing, and editing style. In other words, he observed what others were doing and developed brand guidelines to help him make his channel enjoyable, but also distinct from the others.
But at the time, MatPat didn’t have any fancy software, so he manipulated images in a very lo-fi way, purposefully making his videos look like they were made in Windows Movie Maker or something similar. But this didn’t hurt – it was actually a stylistic quirk that helped him start developing his brand and increasing his subscriber count.
From the start, the channel has been family-friendly since it’s partly educational and partly gaming. He invokes, purposefully, the energy you’d see on a children’s show. He’s very energetic and serves every video with two scoops of comedy. The color scheme is bright, and he invokes the “achievement unlocked” logo that connects so strongly with video games.
But you can most easily see his marketing genius in the thumbnails. He was relatively early to perfect YouTube clickbait. He knew getting views would require making thumbnails that grip the eyes like that scene in A Clockwork Orange. Notice how the thumbnail below has Luigi making a ridiculous face while posing an absurd question in block capitals. How can you not click it?
Optimization doesn’t stop at thumbnails – the videos matter too
Another example of Matt knowing the algorithm is his pacing. All his videos are around the 15-minute mark which YouTube likes because it gives them the chance to add two commercials to each video. His videos never feel rushed, as he keeps a steady voice throughout. But they never drag either. He makes each theory exactly as long as it needs to be, which also just so happens to be the perfect length for YouTube.
As time went on, his editing style improved. He went from manipulating essentially PowerPoint presentations to heavily edited videos that bombard viewers with visuals and pop-outs while keeping the iconic MatPat “PNGTuber” avatar that he’s used from the start (for brand continuity).
Being a PNGTuber is old school these days, with many people opting to present themselves as 3-D avatars with realistic facial expressions. YouTubers these days are sophisticated, using motion capture even when they’re not on camera. Just look into Vtubers and Hololive if you don’t believe me.
Finally, we have to thank SpellingPhailer who spawned the stellar intro music that burned itself into every viewer’s brain along with an animated intro that is fondly remembered by all the OG watchers. Five years in, the intro and music received a rock upgrade which really elevated the channel. These days, though, the show simply cold opens.
Take all of MatPat’s marketing intuition and combine it with some good theories and high-energy presentation, and it’s not surprising to see that the subscribers rolled in. He had a subscriber count in the millions while that was still relatively rare. He influenced countless video gaming channels. MatPat even visited the Pope at one point and gave him a copy of Undertale.
He created a well-oiled machine and he knew the YouTube algorithm back and forth. MatPat was a legend when it came to getting clicks and watch time while churning out an enormous amount of content.
But again, these very same strengths have also led to the slow-motion decline of Game Theory for the last several years.
The expansion and eventual dilution of the Game Theory empire
The empire that MatPat created over the last eleven years can teach us a lot about content creation and playing with algorithms. But, unfortunately, it can also teach us a lot about brand dilution. That is, after all, how the channel has lost its luster an alienated many of its fans.
Game Theory networked to expand its empire
At the start of his channel back in April 2011, he had 1200 subscribers. In the first year, he doubled his subscriber count, which is decent progress. But it was in his fourth year that his ascendancy rapidly accelerated, as he reached 10 million subscribers. It is a fine feat for any business to get that amount of traction in its first 5 years.
A lot of the channel’s growth can be attributed to MatPat’s masterful knowledge of the algorithm and the quality of the videos he was making at the time. But much of his success came from doing crossover episodes.
On his third episode, he took interest in the podcaster, Ronnie Edwards, and he offered to promote his content on The Game Theorist Channel. This led to a show from Ronnie called Digressing and Sidequesting which lasted for 4 years from 2012 to 2016, but it was discontinued due to its relatively low view count and only ran for 14 episodes.
Another show also ran alongside it called Game Exchange from Gaijin Goombah which lasted from 2012-2014. It lasted 28 episodes, which was a bit longer than Digressing & Sidequesting.
All of these crossovers helped The Game Theorists in the early days, but it’s clear these crossovers weren’t as appealing as the main content and thus were short-lived. Their biggest impact was getting MatPat’s audience to the critical mass needed for The Game Theorist channel to truly go viral.
This is just scratching the surface too. MatPat has been on a lot of channels – many of which are now discontinued or defunct.
MatPat latched onto Five Nights At Freddy’s, which propelled Game Theory to a massive audience
Remember Five Nights At Freddy’s? Also known as FNAF, the video game created by ScottGames and Steel Wool Studios set the internet ablaze. It was absurdly popular, and wound up becoming a series later on. (Short explanation: you’re a night guard at a haunted Chuck E. Cheese. Don’t get eaten by animatronics.)
The FNAF game series took YouTube by storm in 2014 as it had deep lore, mysteries, and brilliant characters which resulted in a ton of speculation on the story from the community. And who better to cover this than The Game Theorist who, at the time, had over 2 million subscribers?
The first video MatPat created wasn’t even a theory on the game, it was a playthrough. This ended up getting 30 million views, and you can imagine getting that many views, you would find a way to milk this cow for every cent of ad money you can muster.
As a result, he started cranking out content for this series as it was doing wonders for his channel. He wound up making over 35 episodes on FNAF, making it – by far – the biggest series of videos he’d ever done. He became known as the “FNAF theory” guy. His theories were getting 20, 25, 30 million views each.
The only video of his that beats the FNAF theories in view count is “HardCore Parkour” – a one-off original made for his ill-fated Game Lab series.
Five Nights at Freddy’s gave Game Theory a very unique opportunity, which was used over and over and over again
Matt knew this was a special series. A couple of episodes in, he had a unique intro and music score which was FNAF-themed. His newfound audience found him through FNAF, so he gave them as much FNAF as possible, even tweaking his otherwise unchanging title sequence.
When MatPat covered the FNAF series for the first few times, it was among his very best work. It’s no accident that his most popular video in the series got 31 million views (and counting). It was his best work product to date.
A long time ago, there were fans who would watch everything MatPat made. But the truth is, if you’re not a Five Nights at Freddy’s diehard, you have no reason to sit through 10 videos on FNAF, let alone 43. But he kept making them, and spending an enormous amount of time on them. And that’s when the brand dilution started.
Trying to keep up with the algorithm, Game Theory prioritized watch time over viewer satisfaction
The algorithm wants you to be happy. But measuring happiness is hard, so it measures watch time as a proxy for viewer satisfaction again. Think about that for a second – we’ll come back to it.
In eleven years, a business can change a lot. The industry you’re in can change too, and being able to adapt to these changes will allow you to maintain a good degree of relevance if you’re smart about it.
Like Gordon Ramsey tells people in his incredible new series, Kitchen Nightmares, if you don’t change, you’re in trouble. That’s what appears to have happened to MatPat’s empire with his post-FNAF content.
MatPat’s been on YouTube for a while. He has been playing the algorithm for over a decade. In the mid-2010s, it was common to have thumbnails that were a little misleading, if not outright false. These days, you get dinged pretty hard for doing that. But Game Theory is still making outright clickbait thumbnails, complete with false claims.
You can see this in one of his recent videos on his secondary channel, Film Theory, in the video The Mario Movie will be a MUSICAL?! The entire video doesn’t even address the subject in the thumbnail and title until the final two minutes.
In short, you have a channel failing to change with the times, using out-of-date tricks to prioritize watch time at the expense of viewer satisfaction.
Trying to keep up with the algorithm, Game Theory will create content that doesn’t interest its original audience
In another video of Game Theory, he talks about whether or not a speedruner faked his speedrun instead of game lore. This is dipping more into YouTuber drama than video games. But this is just one such example. There are other examples of this problem on his YouTube channel where you see tangents on the state of Twitch, whether Disney will acquire Nintendo, and Markiplier name-drops.
It’s a tough position to be in. Channels have to change with the time, but in a way that won’t alienate the original audience. Scrolling through Game Theory’s videos now makes one wonder “who is this for exactly?” And I don’t know the answer anymore, even though I know someone’s watching.
The FNAF moment has come and gone. His latest video only saw 5 million views compared to the 30+ million he was seeing last decade. His loyal fanbase from the original has been burned out on the FNAF videos and other recent videos that don’t really fit in with the channel’s basic pitch.
Ultimately, the original mission statement that MatPat stated 11 years ago does not align with the content that he’s making today. Where does this lead in the long run? I’m not sure, but I do know that the influential people in the video game YouTube world just don’t talk about his videos like they did in 2015.
Though Game Theory is no longer in its prime, MatPat is still an incredible content creator and marketing strategist. He’s built a stable company based on talking about games, film, and food. He’s not in any danger of starving or suffering, and I’m really glad about that because he’s given us so much to like.
But it’s clear that the original spark that made Game Theory so magical and engaging is gone. Where there used to be rough edges with charm, there’s now a media company that churns out so-so videos.
So where does this lead? Does Game Theory become a Buzzfeed-style content mill? Something that’s not great but not bad, floating on the quality of its production and the speed of its creation?
I don’t know. But I hope the empire doesn’t crumble.