Creator of the Year
The lights are dim and almost everyone has left for the holidays at the Rocket Jump studio in Burbank, California. Seated behind dual computer monitors, his metal-rimmed glasses reflecting soft electronic light, Freddie Wong renders what looks like a computer-generated explosion. On the second floor of an industrial warehouse, the studio around him is like the world’s most elaborate clubhouse. The biggest TV I’ve ever seen sits atop an entertainment center decked out with too many game consoles to count. Each desk in the studio supports two monitors and most are lined with toys, baubles, and novelty mugs. A Lego “Lord of The Rings” set is proudly on display next to a bookcase that has just as many books as it does tokens of the pop culture of today and years past. This is the headquarters for Rocket Jump, Wong’s co-owned production studio — and from the looks of the sleeping bags draped over sofas and arm chairs, his home as well.
When I tell Liam Collins, head of YouTube Space LA, that we’re naming Wong the Creator of the Year, he tells me the title is “well deserved.” I ask him to elaborate and unsurprisingly he chooses to highlight Wong’s early adoption of YouTube Space LA, Google’s 41,000 square foot digital video production studio. “Freddie was one of the first residents we had who worked in the space,” Collins says. Wong and his co-creators were given free run of the space while filming season two of their web series “Video Game High School,” a young adult-skewed show about a fictional academy where men and women game competitively for fame and fortune.
Season two of the series appeared on YouTube and the Rocket Jump website, where a 48 frames per second version streamed for free. Speaking with Wong, he tells me that each one of the six episodes garnered around 3 million views on YouTube and another 1.5 million on Rocket Jump.
Season two of “Video Game High School,” which premiered in July and ran through August, was a revolutionary series for several reasons. Directed by Matthew Arnold and Wong, the second season consisted of six 30- to 45-minute episodes. That’s TV-length content on the web — a runtime that would have seemed outlandish a few years ago. But for Rocket Jump, that half hour was paramount. “One thing that we noticed was that the response to the first season was that people wanted the episodes to be longer,” Wong says, seated in an editing bay. He’s barefoot and he looks tired. A sleeping bag sits folded beside me on an overstuffed leather couch. As the last episode of the first season of “Video Game High School” aired, Rocket Jump saw that even though it was around 20 minutes long, it was the most watched and most liked episode in the season. The studio pushed the boundaries of web video length and the result was convincing enough to build season two out in a longer format.
“People sit around for Netflix and people sit around for Hulu. There’s a lot of storytelling possibilities that TV-length content gives you,” Wong says. He specifically mentions season two’s emphasis on multiple character arcs. It’s a departure from season one’s more linear narrative, which Wong says was required given the season’s 10-minute per episode runtime.
Speaking with Wong in the Burbank studio, he seems fixated on the length of modern digital content. But to be fair, almost everyone I talk to has TV-length web video on their minds these days. When asked about Wong, Collins is quick to mention the creator’s talents when it comes to developing a complex story for the web. “He’s a great storyteller,” he says. Collins switches gears and begins explaining YouTube’s focus for next year. “One thing you’re going to see us do next year is focusing more on storytelling and how creators can think about that in new and different ways.” When I ask Collins if evolved storytelling correlates to longer content, he is quick to explain that storytelling, “as YouTubers do it,” is fluid and can take many forms.
But what everyone seems to be dancing around is how primarily TV-based advertisers will react. What is the secret recipe to bringing TV ad bucks to the digital space? Alex Angeledes, chief revenue officer at Collective Digital Studios, believes that content like the second season of “Video Game High School” is imperative to making traditional advertisers feel comfortable. Speaking about the second season, Angeledes says brands will be particularly interested in a metric like completion rates. “I think that bodes very well for advertisers looking at it and saying, ‘This is something I can identify with’,” he says. With each episode running for 30 minutes or longer, season two of “Video Game High School” was able to support mid-roll ads, which most advertisers are familiar with given that it’s most similar to the TV model. Angeledes explains that, per episode, season two of “Video Game High School” performed better than season one in terms of audience size. “That to me is a strong, positive foreboding to the shift of TV dollars coming over,” he says.
Long-form content, as viewed by Angeledes, is arguably a lock for ferrying over TV ad dollars, but for Wong, half-hour shows present a greater opportunity to create artistically-driven content that rivals TV shows in quality. I explain to Wong that the first time I saw “Video Game High School,” I had an overwhelming feeling that I was watching the future of web shows. Here was a show that would look at home on any cable network. It was something that few if any web series have achieved to date. “To be fair, I don’t think a lot of people are trying to do that, at least on the YouTube side,” Wong says. “On YouTube, we were looking around for other web series that did television format. There are some, but, for the most part, they really all kind of fall into the 10-minute, 15-minute type of mentality.”
As Wong explains, the lack of long-form content on YouTube is a symptom of the platform’s overall strategy. “What YouTube caters to is not necessarily people who are interested in long-form content,” Wong says, then breaks down his vision of the three-tiered YouTube content structure.
First there is tier one, which Wong describes as “content that pretty much costs nothing to make,” or user-generated content. Then there is tier two: Partner content. According to Wong, partner content costs money to make. He specifically cites the visual FX shorts Rocket Jump produces several times a month. “I define partner content as something that is made with monetization in mind and something that can be supported by YouTube’s ad infrastructure.” Tier three content, unlike tiers one and two, is highly produced. It is content like VEVO music videos and movie trailers. “It’s stuff that is not supportable under the current advertising model on YouTube,” says Wong. “You need to go elsewhere to finance it and you won’t necessarily make your money back by just putting it on YouTube.” Wong explains that tier two is where most creators feel comfortable and where YouTube offers a sustainable monetization model. “I think it’s a whole new form of entertainment and younger generations are latching on to it,” Wong says. “For us, our goal has always been to march on toward that type three content. That’s what we’ve always geared ourselves to do.”
As Wong sees it, most creators are comfortable making tier two content because it makes the most sense financially based on YouTube’s ad system. “From that perspective I can totally understand,” says Wong. He uses Howard Stern as an example, saying that being a shock jock is an incredibly difficult thing to be good at. Anyone can talk into a mic, but how many of us can engage and entertain consistently? The same applies to tier-two vloggers. “He’s found his form of entertainment, it works well for him, and it’s just as legitimate as anything else. But for us, we’ve always wanted to do series and shows and feature-length films and explore what you can do with that type of content online,” Wong says.
With tier three content being unsustainable on YouTube, where does that leave Rocket Jump and its vision for highly-produced, TV-quality content? “We have no choice,” Wong says. “We can’t make the kind of content we want to make and have it live and be supported on YouTube. It’s just impossible.” Wong explains that Rocket Jump’s forthcoming shift to off-YouTube support isn’t something he is necessarily happy about. “We’re a little bummed, but frankly I don’t see YouTube making any effort to support that type of content.”
YouTube, in Wong’s eyes, doesn’t necessarily have anything to gain from supporting long form content. “It confuses me because on one hand I can see where YouTube has no incentive to create that stuff from a shareholders perspective. But on the other hand, I’m baffled by the fact that at the same time, they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on creator spaces and partner channels. I feel like they want to do something in that direction to support the evolution of content, but at the same time I don’t think they quite know what that is.”
Wong is incredibly transparent in expressing Rocket Jump’s push away from YouTube. He explains: “The fact is that at this point in time, it is not possible for us to subsist solely off of YouTube. I think YouTube is a platform that works well for type one and type two content. For type three content, I think it works well as essentially a marketing vehicle. So yes, we are exploring other methods of distribution. We can’t not explore other methods.”
Wong’s career has largely been defined by his presence on YouTube. In many ways, his decision to look beyond YouTube as a support model and distribution structure speaks volumes about his relationship with the platform. In short: Wong and Rocket Jump have outgrown YouTube. During our interview, he pulls out his phone and begins doing rough calculations on how many views it would take to recoup the expenses for season two of “Video Game High School.” Generating revenue solely through YouTube CPM, Rocket Jump would break even if the season was watched roughly 600 million times. “We’re talking buku views here,” Wong says.
The plan for Rocket Jump in a post-YouTube landscape is slightly up in the air. “On one hand, there is a lot of stuff that is out of our hands,” Wong says. “When you deal with a corporation online now you are not engaging with them on a media budget level, you are dealing with them on a digital marketing level.”
Most brands allocate a certain amount for digital marketing, which ends up being a number significantly lower than that what goes to traditional media. This, of course, is an issue for Rocket Jump and Wong who are creating content worthy of a TV budget but receiving digital-level financial support for it. “I think that money from traditional marketing will percolate out into other avenues soon here because what’s the point of buying all of this television ad time if no one is around to watch it?” says Wong. “For us, it’s about trying to capture and engage an audience. It’s about trying to find that audience and make stuff for them. Those are the two things in our control. To engage and to create: That’s what we understand and are comfortable doing. I think the world’s going to shift under our feet and there are a lot bigger forces at play that we don’t have much influence on, but we have to be flexible.”
For now, as traditional ad dollars become digital ad dollars, Wong tells me Rocket Jump’s immediate goal is to create the necessary infrastructure to support multiple large scale productions internally. “For us, the big goal is to say ‘Here’s everything we have and we want to be able to do more with it and bring people in and grow as an organization.’ That’s the big goal and what we’re focused on for 2014.”.
By the time we finish our interview, Rocket Jump is cleared out. A few employees drift in and out of rooms, but most seem to have left long ago to enjoy their Holiday off time. It’s the end of the day and I expect Wong to walk out with me, but instead he sits back down at his desk and, without missing a beat, starts working on that CGI explosion. I ask him what his holiday plans are. “I’m going to visit family for Christmas,” he says. “Then I’m coming back the next day to work more.” He laughs out loud at this. As I walk out, Wong’s shoulders are angled down, his neck craned closer to the monitor. He presses a button on his keyboard and the reflection of his screen turns his glasses into a maelstrom of fire and smoke. I’ve got a good feeling about 2014.