Serious criticism and journalism related to video games has existed for almost as long as the games themselves have, but the fields have only received widespread attention and calls for systematic oversight largely within the last decade. But what may be the biggest scandal to hit game criticism in years is grounded not in mainstream journalism but in the world of YouTube, where one of the world’s biggest entertainment companies has been found paying an internet-video superstar for good reviews.
In a blockbuster finding by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Warner Bros. was discovered to have paid popular YouTube “influencers” to give positive reviews of their games, hype specific sales avenues and even provide filmed play-sessions (commonly called “Let’s Plays” in YouTube Gaming parlance) that ignored bugs and minimized flaws or negative criticisms – all without disclosing the consumers that these presentations were paid advertisements in disguise.
Of note, the unfolding scandal included the biggest celebrity in the YouTube culture, Swedish content creator Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg. Known to his millions of fans as “PewDiePie,” Kjellberg has become an international sensation (and YouTube’s most-subscribed user since 2013) largely on the popularity of his Let’s Play videos. According to the FTC press release, at issue was an undisclosed agreement for PewDiePie to provide positive-skewed promotion of the Lord of The Rings spin-off Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor.
During the campaign, Warner Bros… hired online influencers to develop sponsored gameplay videos and post them on YouTube. Warner Bros. also told the influencers to promote the videos on Twitter and Facebook, generating millions of views. PewDiePie’s sponsored video alone was viewed more than 3.7 million times.
Warner Bros. paid each influencer from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, gave them a free advance-release version of the game, and told them how to promote it… The FTC contends that Warner Bros. required the influencers to promote the game in a positive way and not to disclose any bugs or glitches they found.
While Warner Bros. did eventually “advise” the over 40 “influencers” to divulge the promotional nature of their arrangements, it was not required – and only came after the videos had garnered over 5.5 million views (a full 3.7 of which came from PewDiePie alone.) Furthermore, the FTC confirmed that this would not have been enough to get around the laws against such arrangements as the information would not have appeared in all places the videos were available. The Commission ultimately reached a settlement with WB, banning the company from such activities in the future. Said Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jessica Rich:
“Consumers have the right to know if reviewers are providing their own opinions or paid sales pitches. Companies like Warner Brothers need to be straight with consumers in their online ad campaigns.”
The finding is especially scandalous for the the rapidly-growing business of YouTube gaming videos, which have been touted as a more trustworthy alternative to mainstream game journalism, where accusations of bias toward (or against) certain games and game-creators have been long bandied about by some fans. The Warner Bros. settlement, and the involvement of the highly-visible PewDiePie, could potentially prove a serious blow to YouTube Gaming’s reputation – though whether it will make a difference to viewer numbers remains to be seen.