The Messy Story Behind YouTubers Taking Money For Game Coverage

The Messy Story Behind YouTubers Taking Money For Game Coverage

Before Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s release, a curious thing happened: critics on YouTube (and some in the traditional press) tried to obtain early PC copies for review, but couldn’t. And yet, YouTube entertainers were able to — if they agreed to terms like, “videos will promote positive sentiment about the game.”

These sort of brand deals, as they’re known, are hardly anything new in the YouTube/Twitch game scene. They’re not always super well-publicised, but they have been happening for years. The gist? Video-makers agree to sets of terms to more or less promote a game, and in exchange they get access to said game and also, crucially, a paycheck that is typically based on views or subscribers.

Brand deals are, however, a difficult subject, as they often require video-makers to sign contracts that bind them into saying positive things about games and acting as promotional voices — not evaluative ones. In places like the US and Britain, it’s legally required that these deals be disclosed, but often that takes the form of a footnote, and many viewers are none the wiser. In other places, no disclosure is required at all. That’s tough, given that YouTubers have become, in many ways, a “voice of the people.” They’re trusted to give honest opinions about stuff, to speak their minds just as you or I would while sitting on the couch gabbing about a new game with a few friends.

Mordor, She Wrote

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s brand deals — there were multiple variants from multiple marketing firms, some less strict than others — however, presented some especially worrisome issues, which critic Jim Sterling broke down in this video.

Here are the most concerning portions of one variation on the contract YouTubers were offered — the one Sterling discusses in his video — which sources offered the deal who chose to remain anonymous have told me is the vanilla version (i.e. pre-negotiations):

Videos will promote positive sentiment about the game. Videos must not show bugs or glitches that may exist.”

“Maximise awareness for the Shadow of Mordor video game during the ‘Week of Vengeance’ through gameplay content, key brand messaging, and information and talent usage on Twitch channels. Persuade viewers to purchase game, catch the attention of casual and core gamers who already know and love Middle-earth.”

“Requirements involve one livestream, one YouTube video, and one Facebook post/tweet in support of the videos. Videos will have a strong verbal call to action, a clickable link in the description box for the viewer to go to the game’s website to learn more about the game [and] to learn how to register and play the game. Twitch stream videos will have five calls to action. Videos will be of sufficient length to feature gameplay and build excitement.”

“Videos must include discussion of the Nemesis System. This really should take up the bulk of the focus, such as how different the orcs are, how vivid their personality and dialogue are, gathering intel and domination abilities, exploiting their strengths and weaknesses. Videos must include discussion of the action and combat that takes place within the game, such as brutal finishers, execution moves, and wraith powers. The company has final approval on the YouTube video… at least 48 hours before any video goes live.”

YouTubers presented with this contract also weren’t allowed to mention The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit in their videos (books or movies), a curious omission that might have had something to do with this effort on WB and developer Monolith’s part to avoid having the game mistaken for another rehash of a story we’ve read or watched a thousand times.

The short version, though, is that those terms are exceedingly restrictive, going so far as to put the kibosh on any negative sentiment and laying out a list of talking points video-makers had to cover at risk of not getting the marketing company’s approval — which they were also required to have in order to run their videos.

It should be noted that most of this was handled by outside marketing firms on the YouTube side, while traditional games press like Kotaku went through Warner Bros. PR. We were offered no such terms and received both console and PC review copies of the game shortly before release. Moreover Kotaku does not accept any sort of deals like this, and our site ads are handled by a sales team that has nothing to do with editorial. In many cases, unfortunately, YouTubers don’t have that privilege, instead being forced to juggle their own white-hot opinions in one hand and oftentimes fragile relationships with game companies in the other — a tenuous balance where dropping the ball on either side could shatter everything. Only the biggest YouTubers/networks tend to have separate teams that handle money stuff.

Troubles For Your Money

YouTubers were divided on the Mordor issue, especially when it became apparent that more critical voices in the community weren’t being offered early PC copies at all. Some, like Sterling and popular PC game critic TotalBiscuit, tackled the issue head-on and decried it as heinously wrong and disingenuous. “The problem is that you can’t review, first impressions, critique or whatever this game on PC prior to launch or even on launch (unless you weaseled your way in as we did) if you don’t take a deal that specifically says ‘you can’t say bad things.’ You don’t see a problem with that? It is the worst case scenario in which a company withholds review copies to maximise potential exposure while keeping critique at bay, it’s about as anti-consumer as it gets,” TotalBiscuit wrote.

Others, however, accepted the terms or negotiated their own. While some opted to only quietly disclose that their content was sponsored, certain YouTubers — like Steven Williams, aka Boogie2988, sometimes known as his character “Francis” — decided to be very upfront about it. On his blog he explained that he doesn’t consider himself a reviewer in the traditional sense, and that so long as he’s transparent about how he views his work and the intentions behind it, he believes this sort of thing is OK.

“For someone like PewDiePie, RoosterTeeth, or even myself this isn’t a terrible thing,” he wrote. “None of these people are going to tell you to ‘buy it now!’ None of these people are going to give it a review score. They’re likely to just play the game, show you the fun parts they experienced, and then tell you to check out the game for yourself.

“For someone who REVIEWS games this is a fucking impossible situation. They are not only giving you a fair and unbiased version of their opinion but it’s the cornerstone of what they do. They are DIRECTLY steering you into one direction or another most of the time.”

Williams explained to me via email that he also vets these deals very closely. In the case of Shadow of Mordor, he got a close look at the game earlier this year and decided he dug its blend of decapitation and confusing feelings for the things he decapitated. Moreover, he made sure that if he decided mid-way through playing the game that its orc-clobbering antics weren’t for him or his audience, he could back out.

“Due to my need to maintain my integrity and because of reasons of my health I make sure every contract I ever sign has a back out clause,” Williams told me. “I can never guarantee delivery on a game I haven’t played yet, and I simply will NOT lie to my audience.”

Another popular YouTuber who accepted the Shadow of Mordor brand sponsorship deal, Ryan “Ohmwrecker,” agreed that these contracts should always be (and usually are) negotiable. “Perhaps there are YouTubers out there that just sign contracts as is, but I’m absolutely not in that pool,” he told me via email. “Even then, nearly all of deals that I have personally heard about and/or seen have avoided putting overbearing conditions over the creator’s heads.”

He noted, however, that in the case of video-makers — whether they consider themselves reviewers, entertainers, or something in between — deals through marketing companies are often the only way to obtain pre-release copies of games. Game companies don’t view them as professional critics, so they rarely get treated that way.

“We find ourselves in a position where we’re approached by marketing departments instead with opportunities relating to early access, much like other influencers in other spaces, like celebrities, musicians, athletes, etc,” Ohmwrecker said. “Given that most entertainment focused YouTubers won’t be granted early access to big releases via PR we’re typically limited to getting early access via the marketing route mentioned. This obviously doesn’t apply to the small number of popular YouTube critics, but for the vast majority of YouTubers that’s the reality.”

Williams (Boogie2988), meanwhile, told me that most marketing contracts along these lines have a backbone with three major vertebrae: 1) The sponsored video or stream requires you to create a positive sentiment about the game, 2) the sponsored video or stream requires you to not show bugs, and 3) the sponsored video must be approved by the company.

The central problem here tends to be that there’s a big grey area between video reviewer and video entertainer, and audiences — at least, at first blush — can’t always tell the difference. Moreover, people on the review side of video-making have been known to do deals as well, and their stances on disclosure have proven inconsistent.

A Tough Call

Williams and Ohmwrecker, however, argue that these deals are also becoming a necessary part of the job due to the increasing difficulty of making money by way of ad revenue or any other means. Even YouTubers who don’t necessarily like it are running low on alternative options — at least, if they want to maintain the amount of money they were making previously.

Williams released a video breaking down the issue point-by-point.

Ohmwrecker concurred, further explaining: “We’ve seen things like our monetized views, [cost per thousand views], etc shrink year after year. More people are watching videos via their mobile, tablets, or even their new consoles. That, or they are running Adblock when they browse YouTube, or are in regions where advertisements aren’t targeted, leading to a situation where we’re lucky if our channel growth offsets the ongoing declines.

“When I first made the jump to YouTube in 2012 I saw a little over half of my views go monetized, whereas today in 2014 it’s around 34%. As you can imagine it is pretty alarming. For some YouTubers, occasional brand deals are just another way to try to offset the situation.”

He added, however, that sponsored deals are still fairly rare outside the largest channels and networks. “Out of my 1,260 videos,” he said, using himself as an example, “only 35 are sponsored, each with disclosure.”

It’s still kind of a mess, though. Right now, standards — both for YouTubers and marketing companies — are inconsistent, which leaves viewers in a confusing spot. Meanwhile, some YouTube networks have taken part in borderline-illegal non-disclosed deals while others (like the exceedingly popular Yogscast) even angle for revenue sharing deals with companies that make the games they cover. And even though many video-makers on both YouTube and Twitch prefer to be called “entertainers” instead of reviewers, they still tend to offer critical impressions of games.

Even TotalBiscuit doesn’t claim to be a reviewer, though he is very adamant about flying the banner of “critic” atop his iconic UK flag. Many people — tremendous numbers of them, going by view counts and subscriber numbers — rely on YouTubers’ opinions to help make their purchasing decisions. The situation is, in other words, murky.

“The trouble here, of course, is that the line between ‘critic’ and ‘entertainer’ is so blurry when it comes to video that even if [one of the marketing firms that handled Shadow of Mordor] Plaid went after the latter [with a sponsorship deal], any number of them could count as the former,” Escapist reviews editor and YouTube critic Jim Sterling said to me via email.

Blurry lines. That’s the big problem here. And as all of us — from journalists and video-makers to gamers who just want to know what’s worth their time and money — try to navigate through the cloudy waters of YouTube ethics and paid coverage, total transparency may be the only way to stay afloat.

In researching this story I reached out to multiple other companies and sources, including both Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor publisher WB and marketing firm Plaid Social Labs. As of writing neither of them had responded to my requests for comment after two days.

To contact the author of this post, write to [email protected] or find him on Twitter @vahn16.


  • To read this and find out CD Projekt Red is just as brutal as any other gaming company in one day is too much… The state of the gaming industry is appalling and honestly I am ashamed. Does anyone care about games anymore and not just the money??? ANYONE????

    • Its a business. I’d be surprisedif they weren’t doing these things.

      From the publishers perspective, it’s just doing their job, which is to drive sales. It’s what they do – not good not bad, it’s a job. It’s only a problem when it’s insidious or dishonest.

      From the video-maker’s pespective, it boild down to what the purpose of their video’s is.

      Monetisation and video games have never really been inseperable. I think what’s more important as consumers and the public in general is that we’re savvy enough to decifer and navigate these issues for ourselves to make smart buying choices.

    • The games industry is a fairly young industry (relatively speaking) and all young industry’s go through phases of bending and abusing the existing legal framework usually because its all just uncharted territory and you can get away with it.

      That said why are people surprised that these things happen? I’m sure the vast majority of large commercial entities in any industry engage in shady actions, at the end of the day the only people that matter in a business are the stock holders. Why would games be any different?

      • pretty sure “cash for comment” is a pretty well established territory when it comes to disclosure of payments.

      • working in film marketing I can say it isn’t that different, except they can’t trade a free screening for as much as a free game.
        The fact you can’t mention the movies when reviewing the game is the same, cos we can’t do the reverse (we couldn’t use the toys in our promotion of the Lego movie, and we had toke sure the hobbit premiere wasn’t too ‘tolkien’)

  • I’ve enjoyed the hell out of Shadow of Mordor. The really disappointing business about this deceptive ‘advertorial’ bullshit is that the game stands on its own. They didn’t need to do that. They could’ve kept their hands clean and still had a success.

    • I haven’t played the game yet, but really looking forward to it. Now I have a bad taste in my mouth and I’m debating whether to pick it up at all.

      I understand that it’s the result of the marketing firm that pushed the deal but, am I supposed to monetarily reward a publisher for making use of them as part of their overall marketing strategy? Do I buy the game to applaud the quality of the game while passively rewarding this behaviour? Or do I avoid buying it to send a message that may just be confused as a dislike of the game?

      I feel I have no option that actually communicates to the publisher that I dislike this marketing tactic but really like the game and hope that they make more like it in the future.

      • There’s plenty of shovelware that engages in this type of activity that you can choose not to buy. Don’t deny yourself a great experience.

        I think it’s perhaps a sales strategy to combat review scores that sit in the Metacritic’s 80’s (where a reader’s flawed perception of an 80 to 89 = Average instead of Excellent with a few flaws) and this means the problem Shadow of Mordor faces is that it’s a good game.

        The publishers were likely afraid that it would have disappointing sales as a result (see Sleeping Dogs or the Tomb Raider reboot for recent examples of good but not great games selling lower than expected numbers) so they’ve engaged in this ethically questionable activity.

        • I remember a time when under 50 meant the game was bad and 80 was damn impressive.

          Now days the scale seems to be 6 to 9.5.

          • And it’s seriously f***ed up if not entirely broken.

            For a system like Metacritic to work it needs a system with rigid rules agreed to by all involved in videogames for the scoring of a game. Feel free to express your opinions of a game if you’re a critic or a consumer or even a creator but if a score must be given to readers or watchers of Youtube reviews then it should follow a set of clear rules that all parties (consumer, critic & creator) agree to.

      • Tough call. I’ve boycotted EA for ages, not giving them a dime… but I’m probably going to cave for Inquisition and Mirror’s Edge 2. So I’d vote for fun.

        You can vote with your wallet, but the problem with voting with your wallet is that there’s no effective feedback. They can just assume it wasn’t popular enough. You could leave a message on the internet, which… hah! You could write a letter saying why you didn’t buy, and that would put you firmly in the category of ‘crazy kooks who still write letters’. You could pirate, which would definitely signal a desire for the game but not willing to pay, but that is always interpreted as, “just cheap, not protesting,” by close-minded fuckwits. There’s no real effective way to vote against, only for.

        I’d vote for fun, because that’ll affect you directly in a positive way. But in saying that, I also use iDevices, which makes me morally compromised, what with my ‘support’ of Apple being possible to extrapolate as indirect support of questionable Chinese labour practices.

        Principles are great, but pragmatism has a place, too. You can deny yourself some great things for the sake of moral satisfaction (don’t ever labour under the delusion that the publisher gives a shit about your moral stand), but if the moral satisfaction doesn’t outweigh the fun, the only difference you’re making is to yourself, in a negative way.

        • I, too, have been boycotting EA (and Ubisoft, to a less zealous extent) games for a few years now. I don’t even see Inquisition swaying me away from that course of action. I am under no illusion that what I do makes a lick of difference to EA or Ubisoft, yet I still struggle with the idea that failure to effectively boycott such a company is tacit support for their business practices. It may well be a very small and useless gesture, but it’s the only one I have.

        • There’s no real effective way to vote against, only for.

          Yes there is, there is only one way.

          Buy the game second hand, take a picture of the game (case, disc, etc) and receipt, then attach the photo to an email.

          In the email state how you feel about the game, what you think about the company’s marketing practices and let them know the reason why you did not buy the game new is because of those practices that you do not want to support, send the email off to them and see if you get a reply.

          This is the only legitimate form of protest that i am aware of, it says your willing to pay for the game (as demonstrated by the second hand copy) but you disagree with there practices, it’s money they have effectively lost and they can see it.

    • This here, it is a good game, people would have said it was a good game regardless of restrictions put in place or not. I have come across a handful of minor minor things such as moving from stand still to run whilst being near some sort of terrain hurdle and an at times dicky camera but other than that, it is like Assassins creed with good climbing, arkham city with orcs and a healthy side of infamous thrown in for a pretty cool and very enjoyable sand-box/open world middle earth game.

  • As has been said in the video above and others the game is really good and didn’t need this at all. It’s hard to understand why they would do this when they have such a great product. Or maybe their evil plan worked and I’ve been tricked….. but i’m having fun anyway.

  • I’ve taken two main things from this:

    1) It’s sad that Warner Bros. (or rather their marketing consultants) felt the need to use such restrictive policies. Like @transientmind said, Shadow of Mordor is more than good enough to not need this kind of stuff. It’s genuinely a very, very good game.

    2) I’m all for more consistent requirements for disclosure in terms of these types of Youtube deals. However, I’d also like to see much, much more transparency in terms of “traditional” games media like IGN, Gamespot, and yes, Kotaku. Gawker’s record isn’t exactly spotless.

    How are the advertisements on these websites settled on? How/do they affect content (e.g. look at the sheer amount of D3: RoS advertisements being run just before it’s release and review)?

    Why do games like Call of Duty get consistently high review scores, yet other games with lesser marketing budgets get openly criticised for yearly releases and lack of evolution?

    Why are gaming “journalists” and publisher PR people so cuddly? How many journalists get free gifts? What goes on behind the scenes of all these lovely launch events with their nice freebie showbags?

    Just look at Doritogate a couple years back. The whole industry needs to be really looked at with a critical eye.

    • Probably best to just assume that everyone everywhere is a motherfucker who lies as easily as breathing… except for that one reviewer who just seems to ‘get’ you and always repeats your own opinions back to you tells it like it is.

    • i really enjoyed how critics raved about fallout3 let all the bugs slide ( same happened with skyrim and oblivion and morowind) but they made sure to pile it on for New Vegas just because it was made by obsidian and not bethesda

  • I’m going to play devil’s advocate here – it is an interesting debate.

    Shouldn’t the publisher/game dev, who is allowing early access copies of the game for marketing purposes be able to dictate the marketing parameters? The fact that gamers/youtube personalities want early copies to make videos (presumably to increase their own subscriber numbers etc) is irrelevant. If they want to review the game, they can do so on it’s release.

    I agree that putting these strict parameters shows an unhealthy lack of confidence in their own game, but isn’t that their prerogative? If they want to release early access for critical review shouldn’t that be their choice, not the expectation? It’s the same with Film and TV media embargoes, they can view early but no public critique until a certain date (often timed for general release).

    There’s got to be a little give and take on both ends. YouTube Gaming personalities can’t expect to be able to feed off all this content forever without the Publishers/Game Dev’s trying to have a say. At the end of the day, it’s their material.

    I think we’re at a bit of a tipping point in terms of online video in respect to gaming where the bigger companies will start trying to force strict parameters on everything from live-streaming to reviews. Expect to see a lot more of this that goes a lot further than it should.

    • YouTube Gaming personalities can’t expect to be able to feed off all this content forever without the Publishers/Game Dev’s trying to have a say. At the end of the day, it’s their material.

      I couldn’t disagree more strongly. A product review should never be allowed to be influenced by the manufacturer. Manufacturers are not ‘owed’ anything by people willing to fund (directly or indirectly) people who review products.
      It is the review which is being paid for by consumers, not the product.

      I’m not surprised by marketing agencies trying to get the best result. The sun rises and sets, fire burns, marketers manipulate. It’s what they do. The deception comes into play at the reviewer’s end. If a youtuber or other portrays themselves as a critic or a reviewer, there is an expectation of impartiality. Otherwise it’s an advertisement. When you differentiate between review versus advert, the impartiality is the determining factor in there actually being a difference.

      When known, reasonable expectations are subverted, that’s dishonesty or deception. Deception and dishonesty are frowned-upon in society and receive criticism and censure, which is as things should be.

      • A product review should never be allowed to be influenced by the manufacturer.

        I probably should clarify, I’m not specifically talking about review’s/criticisms of the material here. I’m talking more about playthroughs / early access looks etc. This is the ‘Marketing’ angle, not the ‘Critique’.

        I agree that reviews should always be absent-creator/influence and went on to say as much, citing the current model used in Film in the preceding paragraph.

  • Good, albeit depressing, article. Keep it up, guys.

    (Also, I enjoyed “Mordor, She Wrote” way too much.)

  • Messy is the word…. From what i understand,
    YouTubers not known for “Reviewing” but rather doing Lets Plays – Get early copies of game. and given incentive to keep it positive. (Paid Marketing)

    YouTubers known for actually giving a critical review of games – Not given early copies.

    If someone offered me money to play video games and upload the entertaining fun bits i would not hesitate to. I guess the issue becomes the power of influence, and that one day we will all by a game that is truly terrible because PewDIePie said its fun and amazeballs?

  • Question: are these actual ‘review’ copies of the game, or are they ‘advance’ copies? This seems an important distinction. If they’re just outsourcing their marketing, then, fine, they should issue a detailed brief to the providers.

    If they’re attempting to influence reviews, though… that’s another thing.

  • I wonder why Nathan Grayson would write an article railing against youtubers who cover games…

  • I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Most stars gotta make money. Basketball players wear the shoes, nascar drivers put on the stickers. People need to eat.

    There are some people that blindly buy products because of the celebrity that endorses it. Hell, I’d buy chinese beef jerky if Jet Li appeared on a ad, kicking ass, taking names, chewing on beef jerky.

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