PopCon goes viral with Indiana YouTube stars 

The Indiana YouTube stars you didn't know lived here and the Hoosier actor who wants you to lose all of your followers.

click to enlarge web-popcon.jpg

YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world. The only thing beating it is its algorithm parent Google. The sheer size and rapid growth has created a race among young content creators — all hoping to be the next PewDiePie and get 45 million subscribers.

And some of them have.

A few of those people call Indianapolis home. Two Internet-famous artists and game players are cracking the YouTube code to success. Their stories stem from all things geeky, and Indy PopCon is giving them a megaphone to tell those stories.

click to enlarge Elspeth Eastman
  • Elspeth Eastman

Elspeth Eastman
114,664 subscribers

Elspeth Eastman has always had a fascination with quality audio. She even made her closet soundproof. It's there among her clothes where she now makes her livelihood as a voice actor and professional video game player.

It's not as odd as it sounds. Eastman, an Indianapolis resident, is rather famous for her audio recordings. Her most well-known character to date is Tristana on a little game called League of Legends. (Note the sarcasm there: League of Legends is literally the most popular video game on earth right now with over 27 million people playing in the next 24 hours alone. You read that right: 27 million, just today.)

But it wasn't auditions or an audio recording degree that led her to the gig — it was YouTube.

She started by making videos of herself doing vocal impressions of different characters in video games. In 2012 she made a video in which she voiced all of the League of Legends characters, even the males. Today that video has over 4 million views — 4,092,240 to be exact. It was a clip that took 14 hours of editing to produce.

"You have to make it presentable and actually watchable, and the audio quality has to be good too, says Eastman. "Taking all of these things into consideration is what makes a really good YouTube video — production quality is everything to me."

And it shines through on her channel (Rated E With Elspeth). Her setup at home includes two monitors, a webcam, a great microphone, a closet for audio recording, and a green screen.

click to enlarge PopCon 2015
  • PopCon 2015

"You have to ask, 'What do I want out of YouTube?'" says Eastman. "Do I want to be YouTube famous or do I just want to have fun? For me I just wanted to have fun. And I still do. It's definitely not my main source of income. And I don't think I would want it to be. I enjoy it as a medium for people to view my other works."

Bringing all of that work to YouTube built her a following that consists of over 100,000 subscribers. But her real army lives on Twitch.

Twitch Interactive is a fairly simple concept: Users subscribe to watch people play video games in real time. Before raising an eyebrow at the idea, know that 100 million unique viewers watched rounds of video games on Twitch by the end of 2014 alone ... each month. And the platform is only getting bigger.

"Basically that's like playing community manager to a bunch of different people," says Eastman. "You have an audience, you play a bunch of different games in front of them and they watch for some crazy reason. It's good times."

She describes herself as an entertainer and a leader of the community she has built, which goes live almost every day of the week. In each one there's an open chat where subscribers can interact with one another and play along with her if they want.

But she has some help managing that community, specifically about six other Twitch users who serve as moderators in the chats. Their job is to keep trolls away and make sure everyone is welcome — something that's the heart and soul of her channel.

"I really just want to be a positive source of entertainment," says Eastman. "I want people to come to the channel and feel like they are welcome and accepted. That's what I really strive to do."

People have emailed her and told her that her stream has changed their lives, and even helped in battling depression by finding solace in a topic they love.

"You are almost helping contribute to their emotions," says Eastman. "You are a part of a community instead of being a part of an audience. It's very instantaneous — as opposed to YouTube, which is more gradual."

Eastman added that she has tried to pay her moderators several times and they have always refused. It's a labor of love. The moderators are fiercely protective of the virtual treehouse they have created.

"You don't see their faces, you don't know what they look like," says Eastman. "They are just a screen name. On the other end of that, they always see you."

And that one-way channel puts Eastman in the public eye in a big way. While misogynistic trolls do break in from time to time, she notes that most of the space is remarkably friendly.

"I have run into that sort of thing — where people just flat-out hate me for being a woman," says Eastman. "In that instance there is really nothing you can do to change their mind."

She noted that many of the users are definitely male, but there is a balance.

"There are ton of people who stream who are women and who also enforce a really good community," says Eastman.

"It really is a great way to bridge gaps and, I don't know, bring people of all walks of life together," says Eastman. "To see where people are coming from, and humanize the people on the internet.

"The crazy thing about Twitch is that you get out of it what you put into it," says Eastman. "I know that sounds like every line offered to you by a commission-based retail manager, but it's very much like that. However, [the number of] people you have as subscribers really drives how much income you are going to get."

click to enlarge PopCon 2015
  • PopCon 2015

She is a partnered streamer now — people can subscribe to her channel for $5 a month and that's what keeps her lights on. Right now she has 59,240 followers (which is not the same as subscription, for the record). That number is hidden and Eastman didn't want to share how many she has, as it would reveal how much she makes.

"Something that I could have never imagined myself doing is saying, 'Yes, I play video games professionally,'" laughs Eastman.

She notes that everyone runs their streams differently. Like any business, there are those who are passionate and there are the "dollar hounds." One of the features of Twitch is the ability to tip the streamer — and some use it to get as much cash out of viewers as possible. For example, some users will stop streaming until they pull in $100 within an hour.

"I prefer not to center it around money," says Eastman. "To me it comes across as kind of greedy, and I don't want to be that kind of streamer."

But there's a lot of money that can be made if a personality is at the top of YouTube's charts. It was leaked that YouTube star PewDiePie brought in around $7.5 million in 2014.

Although it's safe to say that Eastman isn't in that tax bracket, for her that kind of information gives the public respect for the platform of making videos about gaming.

"That sort of thing impacts people," says Eastman. "When people learn how much money YouTubers make ... they are like, 'This is not something to be taken lightly. This is an actual career.' This isn't just making videos, playing games and shouting at things. This is a living and it's an amazing living."

click to enlarge Steven Ray Brown
  • Steven Ray Brown

Steven Ray Brown
167,929 subscribers

For Indianapolis artist Steven Ray Brown (or StevRayBro as his screen name rings), YouTube was not only a way to show off his animation skills, it's what led him to his first big freelancing gig.

Later this year Netflix will release Kulipari Army of Frogs featuring Brown's handiwork. He got the job through another YouTuber who was working on the show and connected him with a network of animators.

His start was humble: Around the time he started his own channel he was asked to draw for a show called Animeme. It's primary content? "Your Momma" jokes.

"We are the highest brow of comedy," laughs Brown.

His channel began as a place to show how his characters come to life. Now, he spends most of his time talking about other animators and their work.

"I have been striving to make myself more of a personality by speaking my mind more and expressing my opinion through article-style videos," says Brown.

That shift came because YouTube is pressing for longer content — it allows the platform to compete with cable networks. For Brown, animation takes more time to produce than a review video of a series on Cartoon Network.

"With YouTube the longer your videos, the better ads you get," says Brown.

Which is why there is a huge surge of recorded video gaming and "Top 10 lists" — they're easy to produce and can readily be cut into videos more than 10 minutes long. Even if a user doesn't watch the whole thing, a longer "time spent viewing" means more ad dollars. A three-minute look at a 10-minute-long video is worth more than a complete view of a two-minute art tutorial.

"It doesn't seem like YouTube has the 'you' part anymore," says Brown. "A lot of people feel like if they are not the top one percent of YouTube ... part of that big YouTube royalty ... You don't get a lot of treatment from them."

YouTube has instituted and supported certain changes and penalties — some recently ­— that make the platform increasingly prickly for users.

For example: If someone's accused a YouTuber of stealing content, it can feel like the user is guilty until proven innocent. They are often ostracized by the community and can be penalized by the service with an account deletion ­— even if they didn't actually plagiarize.

This isn't new. But YouTube Red — no, it's not a porn site —  is.

YouTube Red is a subscription service established in October of last year where users can pay $10 a month for an ad-free experience and uninterrupted Google Play for music. Not everyone has embraced Red, and big name YouTubers like John and Hank Green have said they find Red a bit troubling.

In one vlogbrothers video, John raised concerns regarding the division on the site of paying fans versus non-paying. He contrasted that it would allow exclusive content for those who pay a monthly fee that wouldn't be possible in an ad-funded space.

Whether or not it's a good idea isn't really the point. For Brown it's a concern that YouTubers are being pressured to sacrifice quality for the duration of a view.

It's also part of the reason why he's focusing on podcasts and reviews — a decision that came around the time of last year's PopCon. Streamers like the duo Jaltoid influenced him to make the move toward branding his personality while making videos a bit longer.

"But I am also trying to make really high-quality reusable footage," says Brown.

Some of his videos currently have over four million views. In the coming months he will release a web comic on Tumblr, where he shares a lot of his artwork. But the main way he stays in touch with fans is through live streams on YouTube.

"People really like that validation of being responded to," says Brown. "People go on live stream and if you acknowledge their username they freak out."

He will often go to a coffee shop to draw, posting a message online that he will sketch images of fans. One of his favorite things is when fans love it and make it their profile picture.

"I think people are definitely looking for friends," says Brown. "Deep down I think they are looking for something more. You can't really get that with actors who are pretending to be someone on the TV ... You hear how attached people are to these bigger YouTubers and it's because they have hours and hours of footage of them being themselves for you to feel like you became their best friend ... People really like that closeness. They thrive on it."

But many see the dark side of social media, marking it as a semblance of connection and should be kept at arm's length. Hoosier actor Jose Cantillo is one of those people.

click to enlarge Jose Cantillo
  • Jose Cantillo
Jose Cantillo:
The guy who wants you to lose all your followers

Terre Haute native Jose Cantillo has appeared on shows like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Damien, Crank, Elysium, and Chappie. Cantillo's not a fan of our current obsession with smartphones, and that discomfort was solidified by a friend's epiphany.

As Cantillo and his close friend Jeff Levine were prepping for a flight to New York — kissing their kids goodbye and the like — Levine came across an open page of his 9-year-old daughter's diary. He snapped a picture.

When Levine boarded his plane and opened up his camera, his jaw dropped. The first line in his daughter's entry: "I wish my dad would just put down his phone and just play with me."

Beyond his immediate reaction —  a desire to grab the yoke from the pilot and turn the jet around — Levine knew making some immediate changes in his cell habits were a must.

"[Levine and I] started talking about where phones have gone," says Cantillo.

Cantillo has a rule in his house that you can't multitask: If you are going to the bathroom, then you are going to the bathroom. If you are eating in the kitchen, then leave your phone in the living room and come eat.

Levine and Cantillo challenged each other to stay off their phones for entertainment for the rest of the trip. Family, work and emergency communiques were allowed.

"Immediately we started noticing the overuse and abuse of phones," says Cantillo.

It was Levine who broke first and pulled out his phone, opening up Facebook while they were in an elevator. Cantillo had a Shakira song cued up on his phone, ready for the moment Levine might cave. The punishment for failing the challenge? Act out the music video for "Hips Don't Lie."

"It was hysterical," says Cantillo.

On the flight back they discussed ways to get their families on board. They knew they would have to make it a game of some kind. After the rules and ideas were sketched out on dozens of cocktail napkins, the card game Free Me was born by the time they landed.

click to enlarge The anti-social media card game created by Jose Cantillo
  • The anti-social media card game created by Jose Cantillo

The goal of the game is to lose "social media followers" (in the game they're fictional followers, handed out by the dealer). If a player fails they have to take a dare, like posting something silly on social media.

They began by making their own cards at Kinkos. Then other people started asking for decks. Soon the two began seeking funding on Kickstarter and brought in graphic designers. Now Cantillo is bringing the game to PopCon — ironic, considering the level of social media involvement at the convention every year.

"I think for us that's a lot of the appeal — the disruptive nature of it," says Cantillo. "We like to say it's analog meets digital."

click to enlarge The Free Me card game is won by losing all of your followers
  • The Free Me card game is won by losing all of your followers

"It's really your little dose of medicine to say, 'Hey, stop living online. Stop worrying so much about what your network thinks of you and your profile, the perfect sunset photo, how your food looks,'" says Cantillo. "... I am going to remove and release you from that obligation by barking a love song or taking a new funny profile pic."

He calls the game an act of protest against social media. It's a bandwagon that may have hurt his career a bit.

"Being an actor and always going out and winning my next job and next role, I always like to think it's about the work and your take," says Cantillo. "... [But] there are those conversations behind closed doors: How many followers does that particular actor have, and is that going to promote our project once it's finished? That's a direct way that it has already impacted my career. I don't know if it's a positive thing."

He has seen a swell of YouTubers taking on movie roles — which makes sense because they are becoming the virtual "best friends" of the exact demographic production companies are seeking. They also watch these stars and use specific analytics to see exactly who is watching and for how long. It can tell filmmakers what kind of flicks will sell and to whom.

"In some ways it reminds me of what reality stars did twenty years ago, says Cantillo.

"YouTuber is now a word," says Cantillo. "I feel like anytime a word becomes a verb you know that it's really become common."

Even some of his daughter's' high school friends say they want to be "YouTubers" when they grow up.

click to enlarge PopCon 2015
  • PopCon 2015

The future of YouTube

Elspeth Eastman noted that she thinks YouTube production will soon be taught in colleges.

It's not hard to imagine syllabi with video blogging and branding classes, especially when outlets like The Big Ten network are broadcasting esport competitions: Ohio State went up against Michigan State earlier this month in a live streamed battle of League of Legends.

"It follows in this trend we seeing these days of how cable and traditional television is becoming this ancient dinosaur that younger kids are not paying much attention to," says Shawn Smith, one of the minds behind Indy PopCon. "Instead they are ... watching people play video games and engaging directly with creative."

PopCon wanted to take that personal virtual connection and translate it into reality. They will have a scaled down version of an esports battle with two teams of four going against each other in games like Rocket League, indie titles and a few games getting a world debut like Quiplash 2. Some of the bouts will allow attendees to play along on mobile. There will be 1,200 seats to view the competition in the ice hockey arena that they converted to a battle stage and spectator seats.

Last year PopCon amped up their appeal to fans of online content, booking internet and video stars. The responses were mixed.

"It was either young individuals who were all in and screaming their digital heads off," says Smith. "Or it was older people who wanted to know ... why it was relevant that they were playing video games. A lot of fans even said this is going to be the year Pop Con washes out."

PopCon's attendance tripled in 2015.

"The next step in gaming is to get gaming accepted by mainstream culture to get people to tune in and watch it," says Smith.

And what might be the biggest lure is the seemingly unscripted look into people's daily lives — the bread and butter of YouTube.

"One of the things about YouTube is that it's easy," says Eastman. "It's really easy to make a community."

Especially when that community can jump in anywhere with the internet.


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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more
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