Anatomy of a YouTube gaming channel: How ‘Your Overwatch’ stood out in a crowded space

“Overwatch,” Blizzard Entertainment’s first attempt at a multiplayer first-person shooter, was warmly received by fans and critics alike upon its release in May 2016. As of Jan. 26, the game has over 25 million players, been recommended by CEO of Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk and even resulted in Overwatch-themed pornography — in fact, the game rocketed into PornHub’s 2016 list of most-searched terms.

“Overwatch” sees two teams of six players square off, with each player in control of one of 23 unique heroes. Players compete to capture objectives in a colorful, Pixar-esque universe brimming with personality and full of diverse characters. Replicating the success of Valve Corporation’s promotional videos for “Team Fortress 2” (2007), Blizzard has poured resources into lavish animated shorts and colorful comics to flesh out and showcase the world of “Overwatch.” But for all this universe-building, the core of the game’s critical and commercial success is its gameplay. “Overwatch” is an extremely accomplished first-person shooter with a great deal of mechanical depth and breadth, ensuring that players of all skill levels can derive satisfaction from the game’s core competitive experience.

The game’s mechanical depth means that is it subject to the phenomenon of the metagame. In a nutshell, the metagame is an ever-evolving community conversation about the state of the game and how one can play it most effectively. If you’ve ever ventured onto a video game’s online forum and read threads debating the merits of particular characters and strategies, you have scratched the surface of the meta.

The metagame of “Overwatch” is complex, comprised of many interwoven systems and ideas that must be considered in isolation and in concert if one is to fully understand the game. Each hero has a handful of unique abilities that can be used in combination with other heroes’ abilities for maximum effect, and the prevailing wisdom about who should do what when is always in flux. Blizzard constantly updates the game, adding new maps and heroes that players must learn while also tweaking the finer points of existing heroes and thus shifting conventional wisdom about how a hero is best played. All these changes are made in the name of creating a fairer and more enjoyable experience. Professional players also make an outsized contribution to the meta, as they devise new and unorthodox strategies in tournaments that eventually trickle down into lower levels of play. Developing a working understanding of these constantly-shifting systems and strategies is essential to playing “Overwatch” well, but it is not easy, which makes succeeding at the game a daunting prospect.

A complex metagame is not unique to “Overwatch;” Valve’s “Dota 2” (2013) is known for its sprawling and inscrutable meta. Blizzard’s own digital collectible card game “Hearthstone” (2014) has a controversial meta that has provided fodder for a thousand think pieces. The complexity of such games has spawned a cottage industry of online authority figures — professional players and commentators who create content on YouTube and Twitch that is designed to help aspiring players better understand their chosen game. With the release of a highly-anticipated and highly-complex game like “Overwatch,” there was an opportunity for highly-skilled players to create content designed to help casual players gain an edge. This opportunity was the genesis of the YouTube channel Your Overwatch.

Your Overwatch is a project started by three YouTubers, Eddythechump, Weagal and Freedo, with the goal of “[covering] ‘Overwatch’ from top to bottom.” Since the first video was posted to the channel in May 2016, Your Overwatch has amassed over 300,000 subscribers, and the channel’s most popular videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Gaming is a crowded space on YouTube, so for a channel to amass so large a subscriber base so quickly is no mean feat. In an interview with the Daily, Freedo, who did not wish to use his real name due to fears of online harassment, emphasized that producing high-quality content was the building block of Your Overwatch’s success.

“We don’t settle for second best,” Freedo said. “We want to be the definitive helping tool for people to unlock the game … I am modeling the game in such a way that I am commanding the material, not merely presenting it to you.”

Freedo also noted the importance of not only playing “Overwatch” at a high skill level but of also respecting the viewer’s intelligence by explaining the game’s more arcane aspects rather than glossing over them.

“Our channel, unlike some others, isn’t afraid to explain something complicated and respect the viewer’s intelligence and their ability to comprehend,” Freedo said. “I try to speak to ‘Overwatch’ gamers the way I would want to be spoken to … They know a lot about the game and they’re looking to know more, so if you just tell them what they already know, they’ll easily be bored.”

In addition, Freedo maintains that quality content must be backed by a quality marketing strategy if it is to succeed.

“[Your Overwatch’s marketing strategy is] basic YouTube stuff: good titles, good thumbnails, good gaming the system of YouTube,” Freedo explained. “If you know what YouTube wants you to do for them to recommend your video, you should do that … YouTube is a search engine, and to master that is part of succeeding on YouTube.”

Although primarily a YouTube channel, Your Overwatch also has a presence on the streaming service Twitch and the gamer-centric voice chat app Discord. Freedo views both Twitch and Discord as important parts of Your Overwatch’s success going forward, with Twitch being a long-term investment that will enable the channel’s future success even if “Overwatch” itself declines in popularity.

“At the end of the day, Twitch … is more lucrative than YouTube if you get to a certain point,” Freedo said. “It definitely isn’t for us right now, but it also theoretically can build better long-term success. I would say that we’re hoping that even as ‘Overwatch’ wanes, that the Twitch can still be there for us to entertain fans and somewhat keep this train going.”

Discord, on the other hand, does not generate any money for the channel. Nevertheless, Freedo emphasized that the community of gamers Your Overwatch has created is important in and of itself.

“The Discord server happened basically by accident. Some fans asked us to make one,” he said. “The Discord is incredibly important to me and to us … it helps us talk to our fans directly, and that’s been an eye-opening experience … it’s a village of gamers and all that entails.”

With a rapidly-growing subscriber base on YouTube and a devoted fan base across Twitch and Discord, the immediate future of Your Overwatch looks bright. But the gaming market is fickle and Blizzard has squandered a critically-acclaimed multiplayer game before, evidenced by the decline of “Starcraft 2’s” competitive scene.

Even knowing that the success of Your Overwatch is tied directly to the game’s continued popularity, Freedo said that he and his colleagues have no plans to diversify the channel to other games.

“We may do spinoffs,” he said. “We’ve proven that our formula can work, and we’re confident that we could apply it to another game if needed.”

Nevertheless, given that approximately 50,000 more people have subscribed to Your Overwatch in the last month, it may be some time before the Your Overwatch team have to bring their trademark rigorous analysis and explanation to another game.