It’s not like Minecraft ever really went anywhere. But it definitely spent the past handful of years less firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist than in the first half of the decade. Not so in 2019. The blocky game about digging holes and punching the ever-loving shit out of trees is back on top of YouTube, leaving even Fortnite in its dust.
As part of its annual Rewind feature, YouTube put out a list of this year’s five most popular video games on the platform. Minecraft took first place, with 100.2 billion views as of October. Behind it was Fortnite with 60.9 billion, Grand Theft Auto with 36.9 billion, Garena Free Fire (a mobile battle royale game that’s popular in Southeast Asia, India and Latin America) with 29.9 billion, and Roblox with 29.6 billion.
Earlier this year, Minecraft surged on platforms like YouTube and Twitch, while Fortnite waned due to burnout and unpopular new features like mechs. Minecraft made particular sense to play on YouTube because its lack of overt violence made it advertiser-friendly and therefore unlikely to get zapped by YouTube’s ad removal systems. Given that the game is now closing in on a decade of existence, nostalgia was a factor, too; the core audience of many popular gaming YouTubers are people who grew up on Minecraft. YouTube pointed out that the surge was caused in part by a single YouTuber who was controversially omitted from 2018’s Rewind feature, likely because he didn’t fit YouTube’s squeaky clean, advertiser-friendly image of itself: Felix 'PewDiePie' Kjellberg.
“Its resurgence paralleled the decision by YouTube’s most subscribed creator, PewDiePie, to re-engage with the game in late June,” the company wrote on its 2019 Rewind page. “The month after PewDiePie posted ‘Minecraft Part 1’ – his first Minecraft video in years – uploads of videos related to the game reached an all-time high. And Minecraft, once again, returned to its place atop the most-viewed games of the year list.”
PewDiePie has a history with Minecraft – or, more accurately, a history without it. For years, he’s joked about refusing to play it because, back in the day, he didn’t want to be like other YouTubers who latched onto the game despite not finding it fun. In 2019, though, he finally bit the bullet because he’s got more subscribers than God and is in no danger of being leashed to any particular game by the demands of his audience.
YouTube is a complex ecosystem, and PewDiePie was far from the sole person responsible for Minecraft’s comeback. Still, it’s worth considering the broader context of this moment. PewDiePie helped propel the game back to the top of Mt. Video Games during the same year that the Christchurch shooter quoted the “subscribe to PewDiePie” meme, and PewDiePie publicly grappled with the real-world consequences of his edgy, sometimes racist humour. Minecraft, meanwhile, was initially developed by Markus 'Notch' Persson, whose missives to his Twitter audience of nearly four million people have included rants against feminism and trans people, as well as an endorsement of the infamous QAnon conspiracy factory. Earlier this year, the current, Microsoft-owned Minecraft team removed mentions of him from the game, though it did not explain why.
Minecraft, as a cultural phenomenon, is much bigger than these individuals – and, especially in the latter case, often far removed from them. But it’s still indebted to them and inextricably tied to the online culture that they inform and that, in turn, informs them. In 2019, a massively popular game about digging holes and punching the ever-loving shit out of trees cannot just be that. It is also an extension of the people who benefit from it, for better or, frequently, worse.
Featured image: PewDiePie