It'd be easy to think that getting a PS4 four days before most of the world was the coolest thing to happen to the man who plays combustible video game nerd Francis on YouTube. Or maybe it was having Xbox exec Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb fly down to his house for a trash-talking lightsaber battle that ended with Francis getting handed an Xbox One. But, no, the best thing to happen to Steven Williams in 2013 was losing 60 pounds. It's an achievement that's part of a bigger plan to have him live a healthier — and longer — life.
You've seen the big guy on YouTube, yelling and smashing things whenever meaningful shifts in PC or console gaming happen. But the man who plays the internet's most explosive video game nerd is nothing like his popular character Francis. Steven Williams, better known as Boogie2988 on YouTube, doesn't get raging mad at every little thing that life throws his way. Which is good, because he's been through a lot more than anyone knows.
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for the 39-year-old Williams, who got to have some small but exciting parts in the launches of both the PS4 and Xbox One. First, as 'Francis', he got to open up and mess around with Sony's newest console before it even went on sale. Then, he got to see the PS4's splashy launch event up close and personal in New York City. That's a big deal because health problems make it so that Williams doesn't fly much at all. "I have lymphedema in my legs," Williams told me during a phone conversation last week. "And my doctor always reminds me that every time I get on a plane, I'm running the risk of those legs literally splitting open and bleeding out. Then, once I get on the ground, I can't do all that walking."
"But, Sony basically said we'll do whatever it takes. A car waiting for you at every airport, never having to leave the hotel, renting a Hoveround if it will help you get around. I'm like, 'Shit, they're not going to take no for an answer.'" By pure coincidence, Williams got a phone call from a Microsoft rep on the same day that he talked to Sony.
Williams: "When I was very, very young and going into my early 20s, I didn't give a shit. I didn't care how fat I got. I didn't care if I lived or died. I just did not care. I was miserable... "
"This isn't about you giving us any free press, they said," Williams recounted. "You don't have to make a video for us. You don't have to do crap. We just want you to have the Xbox One experience in your home because we feel we can change your mind once you've played it." (The Francis videos made after the Xbox One reveal are very harsh on Microsoft's since-then-reversed policies.)
Watch the Francis videos that Williams made from the Sony PS4 launch and his clash with Hryb and it's obvious that the events of the last few weeks have made him pretty giddy. But most viewers used to seeing him play Francis show up for the rage. The breathless, scarlet-cheeked, arm-waving and plastics-smashing rage. While Francis is an act, it's one rooted in a former reality.
"I grew up very, very angry," Williams confessed. "Francis is very close to the person that I was for the first 20 years of my life. Even today, a large portion of who I am is very, very angry. Being able to vent that anger and vent that frustration and have a character that does that is lifesaving for me." Williams' anger comes, in part, from a childhood where he suffered physical and emotional abuse from his mother on a daily basis.
"The way I grew up a lot of people knew about what was going on in our home. A lot of people didn't want to believe it. A lot of people stayed in denial. It's a small, coal-mining town — St Paul, Virginia — so when you show up to school with claw marks on your face, it's pretty fucking obvious what's going on, and they ignored it."
And, yes, Williams says that Francis is a caricature, one with an agenda. "One of the goals that I had when I started this is I wanted to bring people in with Francis by being a shitty, detestable, laughable, fat stereotype of a nerd neckbeard," he revealed. "I wanted people to just fucking hate him. I wanted people to click the next video and hate him again. Click on the next video and hate him again. Then click the next video and see the real me, and just maybe we can change perception a little bit."
"Maybe, just maybe, we can get that 14-year-old kid who picks on the fat kid, who picks on the gay kid, who picks on the weirdo in his class every fucking day, to stop and think. 'Wow, if Francis isn't really Francis, maybe my perception of that kid that I'm beating up and being shitty to every day is wrong too.'"
"Here's a story not a lot of people know: I bought that whiteboard to do a Francis Draw My Life and the goal was to make fun of the concept. I got that home that night, and I set it up, and I'm starting to draw, and I'm like, 'I've got a real story to tell. I really should just put that down on paper.' I'm not satisfied with the finished product. But certainly the testament is how it's effective in that we've managed to do what I always wanted to do: Create an emotional bond with the viewer. That's not something a lot of YouTubers try to do."
With more than a million subscribers right now, Williams' plans seem to be working. Without divulging numbers, Williams said that the ad revenue from his YouTube videos keeps him very comfortable. Still, it's impossible to watch a Francis video and not worry that he might just keel over while ranting about microtransactions. Success is great but the thing he needs to do most is lose weight. "My heaviest weight ever in my life was 587 pounds (267kg). I stood on the scale just yesterday and I weighed 527 (239kg)," he told me. "We have a plan and that plan is very simple: I have to get down to 450 pounds (204kg) before my weight loss surgeon will be allowed to touch me. That's another 77 pounds (35kg) of weight loss."
Williams: "Maybe, just maybe we can get the 14-year-old kid who picks on the fat kid, on the gay kid, on the weirdo in his class every fucking day, to stop and think. 'Wow, if Francis isn't really Francis, maybe my perception of that kid I'm beating up and being shitty to every day is wrong too.'"
The unasked question on everyone's mind is 'well, how does a person get so obese?' "When I was very, very young and going into my early 20s, I didn't give a shit," Williams confessed. "I didn't care how fat I got. I didn't care if I lived or died. I was miserable and I didn't care what happened. Around the age of 30, I started having some real health issues. Sleep apnea. Lymphedema. Hypertension. I started to lose my mobility."
"It finally started to occur to me that this was no longer an issue of quantity of life, It was quality of life. That's when I finally figured out that I was not going to get the death wish I had. That I was going to have to live considerably longer than I had anticipated. I was going to have to start working on the quality of my life. I went into therapy soon after that and started working with my doctors."
Williams credits his wife Desiree with providing much of the inspiration for wanting to turn his life around. "The day I knew I was going to marry her, I knew that I had to get my arse in gear," he said. "If you look at June of 2010, that's when I kicked it up a notch. I poured my blood, sweat and tears into this channel starting on that day — the day she got back on the plane to go back to Michigan. Because I needed to have the security. I needed to have the career. I needed to have the wealth. I needed to make sure that if I was going to have this woman in my life, her life was going to be exemplary. That she would be rewarded for that decision."
It's going to be tough. There's no question about that. Francis will probably still exist when the PS5 and Xbox Next roll around. And his love-hate dynamic with games and the people who make them will still probably be smouldering with lava-like intensity. But, Steven Williams hopes that he'll be a completely different person by the time that the next step of video games' evolution happens.