Making nuanced, insightful videos on YouTube is already hard enough. What happens when the game you love starts to die?
When the game your YouTube career is built on starts to die
Jonke is so rooted in Destiny that anything else he tries to move into will involve a long climb
Conventional wisdom has it that, if you want to stand out in a crowded field, you need to specialise. That’s certainly proven true in the Wild Wests of YouTube and Twitch, where passionate players of games can turn their skills into a career. Yet with both platforms still in their relative infancy, any consensus on how to find success on them runs the risk of being proven wrong. What if, for instance, the game on which you’ve built a business and a living goes horribly awry?
That’s a problem that Stefan ‘Datto’ Jonke is currently coming to terms with. Across YouTube and Twitch, Jonke spent the first three years of Destiny’s life establishing himself as one of the game’s deepest community thinkers. While others cut flashy thumb skill montages or rounded up the latest news, Jonke’s USP was the way he broke the game down, identifying, analysing and explaining how Bungie’s often inscrutable game really worked. If you wanted to optimise your team’s DPS for a raid boss, to know which load outs were most effective for a given week’s Nightfall strike, or to find out if the exotic chest piece that just dropped for you was any good, Datto’s channel was your first port of call.
Destiny 2, however, is a much simpler game. It is also, after a string of headline controversies, orders of magnitude less popular. Indeed, it is widely hated – and that, naturally, has impacted Jonke’s living. “I was very unprepared for how Destiny 2 turned out,” he tells us. So were many others. Where the first game’s subclass menu led to hundreds of possible builds, Destiny 2 offers just two. Where the original’s loot came with randomised perks, Destiny 2’ s are fixed. Suddenly, Jonke found, there wasn’t much need for him. “Everything is so homogenised, so pushed towards the middle, that everything’s good to a degree. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing, but it’s also not great for YouTube. It kinda feels like they took anything that I could have made into a YouTube video and, basically, just removed it from the game. Which I understand; you don’t want people to have to go to the Internet to learn how to play their character. It’s noble, but it kinda puts me out of a job [laughs].”
Jonke’s position is, if not perilous, then certainly precarious; he’s so rooted in Destiny that anything else he tries to move into will involve a long climb. When we speak, he’s just come off a heavy weekend of Monster Hunter: World. It’s a game which would seem to suit his mathematical approach, but which already has an established YouTube community. Other potential avenues – Warframe, perhaps, or Ubisoft’s much-improved The Division – are closed off for similar reasons. “I’d love to talk about Monster Hunter, but I’ve played 25 hours of that game and I still feel like I know absolutely nothing about it. Becoming an expert takes hundreds, if not thousands, of hours, and during that time I can’t really make any videos because people expect a certain level of play from me. If I’m not providing that – or if I get something wrong – that’s not going to look good.”
Yet this is not just a story of Destiny 2, and what happens when a game changes. It’s what happens to that game’s community, and the tone of conversation, and how video producers and streamers can find themselves caught in the middle between a development studio and an angry community. Destiny 2 has slumped on Twitch, and while much of that is due to the game being a markedly less engaging spectator sport, it’s also because the streamers themselves are fed up with the flood of viewer negativity. “Everyone’s sick of their chats just being a huge bummer,” Jonke says. “We can only listen to it so many times: ‘Datto, please talk about how much Destiny 2 sucks. Here’s some money’.”
So, where now?
Jonke has earned a comfortable enough living – and lived a boring enough life, chained as he is to his editing suite – to survive a fallow period, and has been through this before to an extent, with interest in Destiny naturally tailing off in the droughts between expansion releases. He points to the Call Of Duty YouTuber Drift0r, who abandoned the series for a year because of his distaste for 2016’s Infinite Warfare, and today has 1.3 million subscribers.
Yet Jonke is also having to reevaluate, on the fly, what he thought was going to be, at least by YouTube standards, a long career. And for the rest of us, it poses a troubling question. What happens to YouTube when the sort of deep, insightful, narrowly focused work in which Jonke specialises no longer looks like a valid career option? Jonke, to his credit, intends to keep plugging away. “I don’t have a post-YouTube plan right now, because I didn’t think I was going to need one so early. That’s on me – it’s not Bungie’s job to make sure I have a job. But I don’t feel like I’m ready to go yet. I want to go out on my own terms. If I can hang on a little bit longer – if I have to burn through some savings to get through the hard part – I’ll do it. I don’t want to be done just yet.”
Stefan ‘Datto’ Jonke, pictured at last year’s Destiny2 reveal event