The cult of TotalBiscuit
The life and times of professional YouTube malcontent John Bain.
I asked my Twitter followers what they thought about Total Biscuit yesterday. The response was as instant as it was polarised: 'he's arrogant', 'he's passionate', 'he's unique', 'he's rude', 'he's got a God complex', 'he's just a dude', 'I can't forgive him for something he said, and how he refused to back down'. In two short years he's become more marmite than man.
Whatever your take on prolific YouTuber John Bain, a 27-year-old law graduate from Newcastle on Tyne, his rise to prominence is a fascinating one. Working from his ex-pat home in North Carolina the Cynical Brit, now better known as TotalBiscuit, pumps out commentary videos introducing indie games, discussing Starcraft and mulling over the gaming news of the day - all laced with a trademark bite. His audience is vast and, like the Yogscast or Syndicate, his video-based patronage of his chosen games is a major component of the modern PC games scene.
His oh-so-British voice is hard-edged and theatrical: a clear tone of authority. When he's displeased he spits his words like bullets, seeming not to mind particularly who gets caught in the crossfire. He's a champion of indie gaming, he's often seen as an outlet for common sense in a sea of PR bluster and he's got a YouTube entourage of over 800,000 subscribers. He has fast become YouTube's foremost 'love him or hate him' personality: Clarkson with a battle.net account.
"It's, sadly, not really about quality, it's about the person delivering the content - the guy behind the microphone."
“YouTube commentary of this style relies on the cult of personality,” explains Bain when I ask him about the appeal of watching YouTube game commentary. “It's, sadly, not really about quality, it's about the person delivering the content - the guy behind the microphone. Strong personalities succeed because they attract large numbers of followers, enough to sustain a reasonable income. Just like other commentators, I reckon this is why people watch me: because they like (or hate) my personality. They certainly don't enjoy watching me for the skill demonstrated in the gameplay, because that's just not there.”
Bain's rise to prominence began with World of Warcraft coverage. He produced the Blue Plz! Podcast and ran WoW Radio from 2005 to 2010 before the fansite splintered in three directions - one of which was known as The Cynical Brit. “I'd dipped into YouTube during my time with WoW Radio,” he recalls. “I produced some small pieces of fairly incompetent video content, the most successful of which was a couple of videos entitled 'Chronicles of the Gold Farmer' where I'd follow goldfarming bots around within World of Warcraft. It was a comedy of sorts, an odd mix of nature program commentary with some detective sleuth elements. It was pretty rubbish, honestly, but it was watched by a few hundred thousand people so I guess it did reasonably well.”
YouTube became something of an employment life raft for Bain as recently as 2010. “I was working a fairly mundane job at a financial advisory when the recession forced downsizing of the company and I was out on my arse,” he says. “This happened to be around the time when World of Warcraft: Cataclysm entered its beta period and the NDA lifted. While I was looking for another job I started producing video commentary on the game with a view to pushing more traffic to my website - thinking maybe the extra ad revenue could keep myself and my wife afloat financially while I found more work.”
“The popularity of the videos exploded overnight, quite literally. They were pulling in vast numbers of views so I focused as much of my time as possible on creating that content. My familiarity with the game and my experience doing the live online radio stuff let me commentate quickly and efficiently in a way that very few people had done with World of Warcraft video content before.”
It was around this time that Starcraft 2 commentator 'Husky' got in touch, and the Cynical Brit became part of a network called The Game Station, where he was to be joined by the likes of Yogscast. YouTube monetisation was suddenly a lock, and Bain could don the mantle of TotalBiscuit, the questioning tones of the Cynical Brit becoming a full-time employment.
"I've got a reputation for speaking my mind. Why dance around with the pleasantries, white lies and the like?"
Bain's most popular videos are 'WTF is…' - Bain's first impressions of a game as he boots it up and gets to grips with its systems. “I like to think of it as the demo that most games never have,” he says. “Only with a grumpy British man standing behind you as you play pointing out everything that's awful (and sometimes what's awesome) about it. Viewers find this content very helpful because it's the kind of video they can watch to help them determine whether or not a game is worth their time as well as, sometimes more importantly, letting them know the game even exists.
“While I'll do videos of big triple-A releases, the majority of my content is about smaller titles. This is a nice niche to have because you've got millions of eyes on the latest releases on Steam, which are often smaller games, yet there's much less information out there about those kind of titles. Anyone that uses Steam is going to get curious about the stuff that keeps popping up on their new release list for $5-20 and I often provide the most detailed or at least the most lengthy/gobby coverage of it.”
One of Bain's talents is to simultaneously be verbose, but also to be clear, concise and striking in what he says. A lot of the time, even when re-reading his responses in this interview, you find yourself nodding along like a plastic dog on the parcel shelf of a hatchback. He summons a degree of clarity above the terrifying YouTube comment maelstrom. He'll bark something like the following, and your thumbs will prickle upwards: “Fanboys are at the heart of many of the problems the gaming community has. They are the reason for the console wars, ineffectual boycotts and the media, the developers and the publishers not taking the consumer base as seriously as they should.”
“I've got a reputation for speaking my mind,” he explains. “It just saves time. Why dance around with the pleasantries, white lies and the like? Just get right to the point. A properly matured, secure adult isn't going to get offended by that - quite the opposite, they value that kind of useful feedback. That's the response I've got from the vast majority of developers; they find the honesty refreshing and sometimes useful.”
Is it put on though? Is the Cynical Brit all one big act? “It's real," he underlines. “I mean what I say in my videos and when I do use hyperbole it's hammy and obvious for comic effect. Just don't take my Twitter feed seriously, hell don't take Twitter seriously. Terrible idea, it's a dumping ground for every dumb thought that goes through one's mind.”
Finally, is there too much invective in the delivery and the personality? TotalBiscuit's internet presence is certainly a spiky one - and on the stormy seas of the internet Bain is often the one providing his own thunder and lightning. Some Twitter followers aren't strangers to short shrift, and there are many online who'll happily state their dislike for him - as, no doubt, the comments thread below will show. The Cynical Brit, however, seems unruffled - to him it's all part of the job.
“I think being brutally honest about everything and fearless about what you criticise and who you offend is beneficial,” he adds, when questioned on his bullishness. “It means people will have an opinion about what you're saying. Maybe they idolise you, maybe they loathe your every word - but they will talk about you.”
"At the end of the day, being successful in this business is about rising to minor celebrity from an ocean of hundreds of thousands (maybe even millions) of other wannabe minor celebrities. You'll only be able to do that if people know who you are and remember your name - even if that memory is accompanied by the strong, burning desire to punch you in the face.”