Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Thomas Edison may have invented the lightbulb (it's up for debate). But who invented the Let's Play video? It might be a guy known online as "slowbeef".
Thirty-six-year-old Michael "slowbeef" Sawyer may be accidentally responsible, nearly a decade ago, for kicking off the popular and profitable Let's Play scene, in which people talk over a game while playing. Let's Plays are big business. People are making thousands of dollars — and sometimes more — playing and talking any game you can think of and posting it all to YouTube.
"I really tried to avoid the subject for a long time," he told me recently. "People kind of said I was the guy who invented it and stuff, which is a really complicated topic, honestly. You're talking about invention. What, exactly, is the invention?"
In early 2013, he wrote a blog post called "Did I Start Let's Play?" that tried to put this to bed.
Sawyer is an unlikely father of Let's Plays. He's not a professional Let's Player, for one thing. He spends his days programming iPhone apps at a comfortable corporate job, while continuing to contribute Let's Play videos through various YouTube accounts — you may have heard of retsupurae. (They're pretty funny.)
Bringing up the story of how he may or may not have invented Let's Plays — and all the Internet baggage that comes with it — makes him cringe. The identity of who did this first is a contested question. Hell, the idea of what qualified as a Let's Play back in the day, is, too. Let's Play didn't start on YouTube. In fact, it didn't even start with videos.
Here's what we know.
We'll need to travel back to 2005. The comedic website Something Awful has been around since 1999, and it's responsible for some of the Internet's most persistent memes. All Your Base Are Belong To Us? That was Something Awful. How is babby formed? Something Awful. Chuck Norris Facts? Something Awful.
Though the site's Internet irreverence hasn't been at the forefront for a while, the Something Awful community remains strong — and you have to pay to join. Something Awful community members call themselves "goons," and make up one of EVE Online's most powerful armies.
Best anyone can tell, the term Let's Play originates from a Something Awful thread about The Oregon Trail. Thing is, no one can find it anymore. It exists only as rumour, speculation, and vague recollections that end in variations of "well, that's how I remember it."
"The story always went with 'Let's Play Oregon Trail' engendering the name," said Sawyer.
I spent hours poking around for this thread on Something Awful, but I couldn't find it.
"It's commonly accepted that the first thread of this type was of Oregon Trail but I don't know if anyone's actually found that thread, or if it even still exists in the forum archives," said Baldur Karlsson, who maintains the Let's Play Archive. "But that's where 'Let us play' as the title comes from. I think it was an extension of other types of threads that were quite common at the time where someone would start a story and draw panels/images, with thread posters dictating where the story went next."
If we assume the myth the Something Awful community tells themselves is true, the term was coined sometime in late 2005, which explains why users like tuckfard would be creating threads called "Let's Play Final Fantasy VI" later that year. (Unless you're a paying member of Something Awful, that link's not gonna work, so don't panic.)
As an exercise, we can use a different Oregon Trail thread from November 24, 2006 called "LET'S PLAY: Oregon Trail" to explain the growing phenomenon. The purpose of this thread was to invite other members of the community to join up with Luigi Thirty's doomed caravan.
There's no video involved, only screen shots. Remember, it's 2006. It's not as simple as clicking "share" on a controller, like it is today. More importantly, no one's thought of it yet.
Luigi Thirty wants to know why they're setting out out west, and needs folks to come along. Unfortunately, the images themselves have been lost to outdated image hosting services, but we know the group of five were bankers, and it was decided that they should leave in March. From there, the thread begins debating what to buy, whether or not to ford the river (they do), and endless laughing when things inevitably go awry and the adventurers start biting the dust.
19 pages later, the thread ended with people offering Oregon Trail strategies, repeating memes, and complaining about other Something Awful members not liking the thread idea.
Even though the term Let's Play has become a way of describing talking over a game, often from start to finish, it began as a way of rallying people to literally play a video game together.
This is where Michael "slowbeef" Sawyer, another Something Awful poster, comes in.
A few years prior to the Oregon Trail thread — August 25, 2004 — Sawyer published a screen shot commentary for Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake on his website. Sawyer swaps between informative and snarky to guide readers through Solid Snake's early sneaking mission.
While the term Let's Play wasn't coined until 2005, its form was seemingly around in 2004.
Eventually, this all started leaving Sawyer's personal site. He found his way to Something Awful thanks to the humorous front page that was so widely shared in the early 2000s, and because the site housed "the only games forum that didn't devolve into the worst thing ever."
He published screenshot Let's Plays of several games, including Snatcher and Darkseed. And though Sawyer was on the ground floor, he credits the Let's Play for the adventure game I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Vlaphor for truly popularising it on Something Awful.
Sawyer needed a new game to play, and decided on the notoriously violent (and difficult) The Immortal for the Genesis. The first post went online on January 4, 2007:
"So, I'm outside at work thinking about my Snatcher thread, and pondering, 'I wonder if there are any other good, relatively obscure games from my youth that might make an interesting LP.' Then it hit me: The Immortal! The Immortal was released for a number of platforms, but it's not very mainstream to my knowledge. That said, it's a tough (but fun) adventure game with over 30 gory ways for your character to die... and kill. (Not to mention one or two very unfair puzzles.)"
The first few posts about The Immortal stayed within the style he'd been playing with, but on the second page, he threw a curveball and introduced video commentary. Here's a clip:
There's no game audio because he hasn't even figured out that part yet.
"I always tried to add some little extra thing to the Let's Plays that I did," he said. "With The Immortal, I said 'well, lemme try a commented video type thing.' I called it Player's Commentary, like a DVD — like a director's commentary type thing."
The response was positive, and it prompted Sawyer to change the direction of the Let's Play.
There was something about a voice that amplified the connection between the commentator and the spectating audience, and Sawyer could see it playing out as the thread progressed.
"I got so many people posting in the thread "going 'Holy shit, I played this as a kid and I could never get past that fucking worm room,'" he said, "[or] 'My dad could never do it, please avenge my dad, that was the time I lost faith in him.'"
Let's Plays exploded in the games section before they were segregated to their own forum.
"One of the game mods hated Let's Play and things like that," said Sawyer.
As YouTube became a viable platform for hosting videos, Let's Plays left Something Awful.
The question, then, is the one proposed at the start: how do you define an inventor?
Skip "World Video Game Champion" Rodgers was talking over video games in 80s VHS tapes to help people get high scores in video games. Do those count as a Let's Play?
GameCenter CX, in which the hilarious Shinya Arino has been exposing himself to brutal games over and over again, has been going since 2003. Do those count as a Let's Play?
Lots of things can exist before they become formalized and understood. Even if you want to dispute whether Sawyer is or isn't responsible for what we now call Let's Plays, it's difficult to argue Something Awful wasn't ground zero for what what's now dominant all over YouTube.
While at PAX East this year, Sawyer bumped into a bunch of YouTube personalities, several of whom have found success through Let's Plays to the tune of millions of subscribers. He was surprised they knew who he was, and he followed them to a community gathering at a bar.
"It was like nerd Hollywood. [...] It was crazy," he said. "It's a very weird thing to have inadvertently engendered in some indirect way, I guess. [...] But they even made a joke about it, too. 'So, we're going to be hearing from your lawyers soon, right?' And I'm like 'Well!' [laughs]"
Sawyer does not own the term Let's Play, at least in this context. No one does. But he was there when it was digitally baptized.
"I really never market myself as the first Let's Player," he said. "I try to be as modest as I can be with trying to tell what I really do think happened."
It's true: Sawyer doesn't advertise his connections to Let's Plays on any of his accounts.
"Saying Slowbeef did the first LP is entirely reasonable," said Karlsson, overseer of the Let's Play Archive. "I'm sure people will still bicker about it, but then that's the internet for you."
"If you're a central figure in it, it's hard to talk about that without sounding really arrogant," he said. "The thing is, I really do, honestly, want to give credit where credit's due to all the people who did it with me, too, on Something Awful. Maxwell Adams of the Freelance Astronauts, Psychedelic Eyeball, and Proton Jon — all them. It would be dick of me to be just like 'yeah, fuck it, somebody else take it, I don't give a shit about this thing.' It sucks because I'm part of it so 'Hey, I'm great, too!' You're kind of stuck."
And that's what we're left with. Is this the truth? Possibly. Maybe. Like most things on the Internet, it's probably somewhere in-between, and we'll just have to keep fighting about it.