Skip to main content

The unlikely story behind YouTube's most-viewed gaming video

"We'd check it every couple of weeks and watch it go up and up and up."

The most viewed video game video on YouTube is not a scream-filled Let's Play by PewDiePie or a trailer for League of Legends.

Nor is it the work of some glitzy production company, a video game publisher with money to burn or a YouTuber with a book out at Christmas.

The most viewed video game video on YouTube is throwaway footage of a game you've probably never played, chucked up on YouTube by a hobbyist from West Yorkshire.

It's called "Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation", and it's been viewed over 120 million times.

Watch on YouTube

Dominic Sheard is a 30-year-old software programmer from Mirfield, West Yorkshire, (the home of Star Trek's Captain Picard, he tells me over Skype with the air of someone who has pointed that out a great many times over the years). During the day he works for a manufacturer of coffee and tea, creating reports with business intelligence tools. By night and at weekends he runs and writes for hobbyist video game website, reviewing games such as Samurai Warriors Chronicles 3, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Cars 2.

To support the 2011 release of Pixar's Cars 2 animated film, Disney sent DarkZero the Xbox 360 version of the video game tie-in, developed by Avalanche Software, for review. Dominic thought it a good idea to test out a new capture kit he had bought, so set about recording footage.

The plan was simple: capture the opening cutscene, a few races, and put them together to form a 20-odd minute gameplay video that would support DarkZero's Cars 2 review. "I thought, let people see the track design and the weapons, the vehicles," Dominic says. "I got some different cars and raced them around, and then just joined them together and threw them up."

Anyone who works on YouTube will tell you the title of a video is as important as the content. An attention-grabbing title can catch viewers' eyes in the short-term, but a smartly-worded, "search engine optimised" title, designed to mimic a phrase someone might bung into YouTube or Google, can catch viewers' eyes for years to come.

Dominic went for a "say what you see approach" with his Cars 2 video title, and came up with "Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation". There are no bells and whistles, or fancy editing going on here: Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation does exactly what it says on the tin.

"What is it then? Well, it's footage of Cars 2 the game. It's in 720p, so I thought, okay, HD. It's gameplay. It's just spliced together. It's just a compilation of gameplay."

Dominic Sheard, creator of the Cars 2 HD gameplay comparison video.

Dominic's video was uploaded to the DarkZeroTV YouTube channel on 7th August 2011. Nearly four years later, it has just over 120m views.

At first, Dominic didn't keep a close eye on the video. It wasn't until he started uploading more videos to the DarkZeroTV YouTube channel that he noticed Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation had an increasing number of views. A few months later, he noticed it had a couple of million views. Clearly, something unexpected was going on.

At the time Dominic was studying games programming at Huddersfield University. He and his friends would laugh about the video's rapidly increasing viewer count. "It was like, oh, it's on 24m views. That's not too bad. That's pretty good. Come back a couple of weeks later it's like, oh, dude, it's like 31. What's going on? It became a joke to refresh it every so often. We'd check it every couple of weeks and watch it go up and up and up."

But it wasn't until the middle of 2012 that the video blew up with a huge spike in views. It was getting over 200,000 views a day at this point. Then, another spike in April 2013, when it was getting around 200,000 views a day.

"It got to the point where it was getting to about 90m views and I'm thinking, this is going to overtake Angry Birds," Dominic remembers. "Around that point Angry Birds was around 104-105m, and I remember trying to estimate in my head that, if it's going at this pace it's probably going to overtake Angry Birds in about four or five months. And it got to the point where it did overtake Angry Birds and I said on Twitter, oh, I've somehow managed to get more views than Angry Birds on this Cars 2 gameplay, and people were just randomly laughing about it."

Dominic's Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation video has become so popular, others are ripping it off. A YouTube search of "Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation" returns about 15,100 results. Some of these videos have hundreds of thousands of views. Some aren't about Cars 2 at all. Some people have even downloaded Dominic's original and uploaded it to their own channel. People comment on the video advertising their own channels. Brilliantly, a Shenmue fan took to the Cars 2 HD Compilation Gameplay comments to plead with people to back the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter.

The problem isn't isolated to YouTube, either. A Google search for the phrase "Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation" returns a website called that uses the video title in a page that lists word search games. It's clear the back-end of the internet has noticed Dominic's video - and there's not much he can do about it.

Despite the video's popularity on YouTube, it passed me by completely. I stumbled upon it in a Reddit thread submitted one month ago by a San Francisco software quality assurance engineer called Max "minimaxir" Woolf. He'd dug into the YouTube API to drum up a list of the most-viewed video game videos on YouTube, just out of curiosity, it seems. Dominic's video was top, ahead of the official Minecraft trailer, and a few Angry Birds trailers.

List courtesy of Max Woolf.

The Reddit thread is packed with comments from people wondering how Dominic's video had come out on top. "I have no explanation for Cars 2," Woolf wrote. "From what I can tell from the daily views, it went viral at one point and has been riding that."

It's a similar situation on the video, itself. Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation has over 56,000 "likes" and over 44,000 "dislikes". There are over 3000 comments, many of which are your standard nonsensical YouTube fare. Some accuse DarkZero of using "bots" to boost the viewer count - an accusation Dominic denies. But many ask the same question: how did this video get so many views?

"No-one could really believe why this simple video was getting so many views," Dominic remembers. "There was no explanation behind it."

Dominic has a few theories as to why his Cars 2 video caught on. The obvious one is the title of the video itself. This alone has guaranteed many millions of views from people bunging in "Cars 2" into YouTube search, and many millions of those will have hoped to score a pirate HD version of Cars 2 the movie.

Millions of views come from YouTube's own recommendation system, too, which suggests people watch the Cars 2 video after watching another video. There is a small percentage of traffic from external websites, around 2.3 per cent of overall views, Dominic says. This is when a website embeds the video inside a page., the largest search engine in Russia, tops this mini-list. Surprisingly, 19,300 views have come from - the maker of World of Tanks.

As you'd expect, the United States has provided the most views of the video (close to 14m). Then it's Turkey (6.8m), Russia, Brazil, France, Mexico, and then you have United Kingdom after that. Then you've got Germany, Argentina, Japan, Italy and Saudi Arabia.

YouTube video popularity fuels more popularity. Over time, Dominic's video has risen up YouTube's internal ranking for certain search terms, meaning it appears higher up in search results. Search for Cars 2 in YouTube, and Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation is the fourth result. Kids on the hunt for the movie they'd just seen in the cinema or on DVD will have tapped on that search result thinking they'd just scored a free watch of their favourite movie.

Dominic had inadvertently played the YouTube SEO game to perfection, but there's another, more homely explanation for his video's gargantuan popularity.

"At one point I was browsing through the comments and saw someone mentioned they put on this video for their kids at breakfast just to keep them quiet while they were around the table," Dominic remembers.

Does your child like Pixar's Cars 2 movie? He or she is not alone. Cars is one of the biggest child-focused entertainment franchises in the world. A Cars-based attraction opened at Walt Disney Studios Paris in 2007 and a Cars Land opened in Disney California Adventure in June 2012. Estimates from the New York Daily News indicate sales of Cars merchandise two weeks out from the release of the film amounted to $600m. Cars was already a $1bn franchise in 2006. Together, the two films have received over $1bn in box office revenue worldwide.

Cars Land at Disney California Adventure Park.

So, there are a lot of kids - or at least there were circa 2012 / 2013 - on the hunt for Cars-related videos on YouTube. And so there were a lot of parents. Bung Cars 2 into YouTube, check out the first 20 seconds or so of the video, and you'd get the impression it was the movie, such is the quality of the video game cutscene and the voice acting. We hear what sounds like Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen (in the game they're voiced by sound-a-like actors). This must be the film, you'd be forgiven for thinking, so over the tablet goes into the child's anxious arms. That's entertainment.

By putting the game's opening cutscene at the beginning of the video, Dominic has fooled millions of parents into thinking his video is the actual Cars 2 movie. Most parents won't stick around long enough to see the Mario Kart clone revealed. They're just happy with the peace and quiet.

"I used to do the same when I was small," Dominic says. "Same with my brother. You'd rewatch random cartoons you really liked or play the same game again and again. You didn't get a sense of boredom when you were younger.

"People click on it and think, is this the animated film? It seems animated. People are talking. There's action going on. It looks pretty good.

"Cars 2 isn't exactly one of the best games ever. It doesn't have any customisation stuff you see in Minecraft videos. It's basically a Mario Kart clone."

Search for Cars 2 in YouTube and Dominic's video is one of the top results.

We live in a world where people make millions of pounds out of video game videos on YouTube. The most popular YouTuber in the world, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg, makes video game Let's Plays. (Incidentally, PewDiePie's most viewed video, "A Funny Montage", has 67.9m views). If monetised correctly, popular YouTube channels can generate a tonne of cash. Eurogamer, like most video game websites, is involved with this business. Adverts on YouTube videos make money. Adverts on popular YouTube videos make even more money.

So, you'd imagine adverts on Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation, with its 120m views in four years, would have made Dominic a hell of a lot of money. Tragically, not so.

Dominic did monetise the video so that it carries a 30-second skippable "pre-roll" advert and AdSense pop ups (the ones that appear at the bottom of a video on YouTube you can make disappear by clicking the tiny "x") - but only two years after it was uploaded back in August 2011, meaning he failed to cash in when the video was at its most popular.

He tells me his initial effort to monetise the video was blocked because of an audio-related copyright claim. At the time Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation wasn't pulling in the punters in huge numbers, so Dominic shrugged his shoulders and moved on. "I didn't keep a track of much back then, as I was a newbie YouTube holder who didn't know what exactly you could do with the service," he says.

"Then one day I came back and it had gone," he recalls. "We were like, okay, let's try it. Click it on." That was at the end of September 2013 - Dominic was late to his own party. He messed up, and he holds his hands up - the idea of making serious money out of the DarkZero YouTube channel didn't occur to him until it was too late. "If you look at the graph, it's like, ah! It's a shame I didn't catch that."

Daily viewer numbers have fallen steadily after the early 2013 spike. It was seeing around 100,000 views a day at the end of September 2013. By the middle of 2014 it had fallen to 50-60,000. The past couple of months it's sat at around 30-40,000. On 9th June, for example, it had 45,509.

This is a huge number for your average YouTube video, but it's clear Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation's sun is setting.

DarkZeroTV's Cars 2 video has been hugely popular, although views are steadily declining.

At the time of publication, the video generates enough cash for Dominic to buy a few games a month for DarkZero to cover. He tells me the video made $390 in May from 263,000 views. He puts the money straight back into the website.

"I use the money to go buy some games. It would be nice to have something to live on, but it's not really enough.

"We're thinking about upping some video production, with more capture devices, getting more people making videos and talking over them.

"It's just enough for a few games. I still have to have a job, have to work office hours, programming away."

What might have been? Dominic estimates when Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation was at its peak, when it was pulling in 3-4m views a month, it would have generated around $5000 a month.

No-one's saying it would have made Dominic a millionaire, but, he says, if he had monetised Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation from the moment it had been uploaded to YouTube in 2011, if each and every of those 120m views had been cashed in on, it would have made him enough money to be able to quit work and focus entirely on DarkZero for a couple of years. Or travelled the world.

"I could have taken a year off after finishing uni and travelled the world," he says. "At the moment I'm saving up to go to Japan for a holiday with some friends. That could have been much earlier if that money came in.

"In a way it's kind of gutting."

Now, Dominic is philosophical about Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation. It's a weird claim to fame, for sure. He's the creator of the most-viewed video game video on YouTube, but it hasn't changed his life. It's an aside. A curious footnote. A memory. It's not like he uses it as a pick-up line, or anything.

"I look like Dave Grohl quite a bit," he says. "When I straighten my hair and go out to a rock club it's more like that. I don't really go, oh, I've got the highest viewed game video on YouTube! It's something to laugh about with my mates.

"I told my dad, oh, one of my videos is really high on YouTube. He goes, ah, well done. Obviously he doesn't know what that means. It's mainly something I talk to about with my friends. I post it on Twitter. It's just a joke."

Surprisingly, no-one has ever got in touch with Dominic or DarkZero about the video. Disney has never issued a copyright strike, or sent an email. Neither YouTube nor Google has had a word. Some will say Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation makes a mockery of Google's mysterious YouTube search algorithm. Many will say Cars 2 HD Gameplay Compilation doesn't deserve its 120m views. For Dominic, who accidentally mastered YouTube SEO, it's just a video he made that's popular enough for him to continue to do what he loves: write and talk about games.

I get the impression that's enough.

Read this next