Michael “MTashed” Tash has become superstitious about Destiny footage on his YouTube channel. To keep his videos on the first-person shooter monetized and his bank account in the green, Tash has developed a sort of spiritualistic approach to determining what YouTube thinks is advertiser-friendly. He doesn’t use all-caps lettering in titles, but is experimenting with capital letters in bold fonts in his thumbnails. He’s tried pre-uploading videos to divine whether they will get flagged as inappropriate before the public can see them. Showcasing guns in his thumbnails is risky, he says, but when your entire video is a gun review, how can you avoid it?
Tash is still uncertain why his videos keep getting demonetized—especially during the precious days leading up to Destiny 2’s much-anticipated release on September 6. “I have one video titled ‘Destiny 2 Beta: Best Weapons for the Beta,’” Tash told me over the phone. Of the thumbnail, he says, “It’s a picture of a gun. I have it in the Destiny 2 directory of videos and it’s not demonetized. I have another one with a more tame title and more tame thumbnail and it is.”
Tash is among several Destiny YouTubers whose videos hyping the upcoming Destiny 2 are getting demonetized, Forbes reported last week—a repeat of what happened with Call of Duty YouTubers just a few months ago in anticipation of Call of Duty: WWII. But what’s driving Tash and his peers crazy isn’t some cut-and-dried algorithm uniformly demonetizing Destiny-related videos. It’s that Tash feels cursed. While he says he’s seeing a 75% decrease in revenue, other YouTubers with near-identical content, like Cameron “CammyCakes” Garza, are unscathed. “0% of my videos are demonetized,” said Garza. “I don’t know what YouTube guardian angel is watching me… I’d like to think it’s because of my dashing good looks.”
Since March, a lot of YouTube channels that primarily cover first-person shooters have seen their channels’ revenue slow to a sad trickle. That’s because of a calculation YouTube made after the “adpocalypse,” in early April, when advertisers pulled out of YouTube en masse following reports that YouTube’s automated ad-placing system occasionally advertised, say, the movie Boss Baby prior to an antisemitic monologue. In response, YouTube offered improved control over where advertisers could peddle their wares, helping placate a significant number of advertisers who had boycotted the platform.
YouTube today acknowledged complaints from its gaming community, publishing a blog post from the company’s head of gaming, Ryan Wyatt, who explained in broad terms what types of videos might get flagged by YouTube’s algorithms:
“Our automated systems DO NOT make video-specific decisions around what can or can’t be monetized based on the publisher or game,” Wyatt wrote. “On the contrary, not only do we want to see epic gameplays, we want you to have the opportunity to make money while doing it. As we said in our advertiser guidelines - violence in the normal course of video gameplay is generally OK for advertising, but gratuitous violence as the focal point is not. Excessive profanity as well as title, thumbnail or meta data can also impact a video’s monetization.”
For YouTubers like Garza, however, this explanation may not suffice. It’s the inconsistency of YouTube’s automated demonetization that is bothering people who make videos on games like Destiny. “I feel that I should have been one of the first to be stamped with a ‘not advertiser friendly’ sticker,” Garza said. “My content doesn’t shy away from much.” He displays guns prominently in his thumbnails. He curses. In one video, he spends half a minute shooting an already-dead corpse glitching out in Destiny 2’s beta. Is it gratuitous? Who can say?
YouTubers making content within the bounds of the platform’s advertiser-friendly guidelines are doing fine. But in the words of today’s blog, “As a part of these recent changes, however, some videos were classified as not suitable for all advertisers, limiting the number of ads served on those videos.” YouTube’s enormous first-person shooter community has taken a huge hit as video “montages where gratuitous violence is the focal point” can be automatically demonetized, pending a days-long appeals process.
That means kill montages, gun reviews, gameplay highlights and the most popular types of content published by Destiny YouTubers are no longer a dependable source of income. It also means that, in the lead-up to a new release like Destiny 2, a lot of YouTubers aren’t able to seize the opportunity to grow their channel. Destiny YouTubers interviewed for this story say they can’t quite discern the science of monetization, despite the guidelines YouTube spells out.
Patrick Casey, who had only one video demonetized—a “Xur Inventory Review,” part of a weekly series that had remained untouched for a year—describes demonetization as “inconsistent. Some content creators are having nearly all their videos flagged. Others, like me, aren’t having a single thing hit.” What’s risky, Casey said, are Destiny 2 weapon reviews, which will presumably help lead new fans to these YouTubers’ channels. For the first Destiny, weapon reviews were consistently popular, but this time around, YouTubers are worried. As Casey puts it, “A weapon review will typically take me 24 hours of continuous production time. I can’t flip a coin on whether or not that video makes me money.”
YouTube has been adding features to help funnel more money into its gaming community, like a platform that facilitates brand deals and a Twitch-like chat that enables fan donations. As of early August, YouTube offers content creators more expanded options to appeal demonetization, which helps the company’s automated algorithms better determine what should fly. “No system is perfect,” YouTube’s Wyatt wrote today. “When you appeal, our reviewers take a look and their decisions help our systems get smarter over time.”
But some YouTubers say they’re not thrilled with the results so far. “The ‘appeal’ system takes 5-7 days to get a response,” YouTuber Skill Up told me over e-mail. He estimated that, lately, he’s down 60% what he should be earning per Destiny video, and he said the appeals process isn’t doing too much to help mitigate that. “The average YouTube video will get about 90% of its views in the first 1-3 days,” he said. By the time an appeal goes through and a demonetized video is restored, it’s too late to earn back the money lost from those early views. Other Destiny YouTubers echoed Skill Up’s sentiment.
Trying to keep Destiny videos monetized is like performing a continual rain dance for the Silicon Valley algorithm gods. Without clear guidelines and until YouTube’s appeals algorithms get better, these YouTubers are relying on luck, superstitions, and whatever gods to whom they might pray. Some have given up entirely on YouTube, moving instead to the streaming website Twitch or launching crowd-funding campaigns. “The coming weeks will be the real test of my relationship with YouTube,” said Patrick Casey. “Destiny 2 launches, and I will be back to making multiple weapon reviews per week. If those videos aren’t going to make money, then I will have to completely move to Twitch.”