There’s no shortage of gaming creators on YouTube. In order to truly stand out, you have to do something unique and special. Neebs Gaming has undeniably found that niche. From animation roots in the early days of YouTube, the group have become one of the preeminent gaming channels with 1.9 million subscribers. We recently spoke with team member Tony Schnur about their approach to content, dealing with a major hack, and the secret to their success.
Early beginnings and gaming transition
Neebs Gaming as fans know them today include Brent Triplett, Bryan Mahoney, Nate Panning, Tony Schnur, and Jon Etheridge. The group started as a comedic trio (even before YouTube existed) known as Hank & Jed. They made short films for festivals and even Public Access TV.
With the advent of YouTube in 2006, Hank & Jed went online, bringing their brand of humor to internet audiences. As the crew expanded, they began making a name for themselves as they developed animated series in conjunction with Machinima. One thing has never changed, however, and that’s their approach to creating stories.
“Everything we’ve done has been improv,” Schnur explains. “[Even] going back to our animated series Doraleous and Associates. That was kind of a parody of Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings. There was no script and we found [in] doing that, there’s much more gold there with the interaction with our group. We know each other and we really knew our characters and how they would react to one another.”
This loose style has formed the core of their content ever since. Even their acclaimed animated series, Battlefield Friends, utilized the approach. “We never had a real script…It’s messy a bit, but it works. So we’ve been doing this from the beginning.”
While animation was their main bread and butter for years, the crew formed Neebs Gaming and shifted their focus entirely in 2014; even quitting their regular day jobs to handle it full time. “We weren’t making much at the beginning,” Schnur reminisces, “but enough to get by. I had a pretty good corporate job at the time [and] my last day at work I was sick to my stomach! I was like please, oh my God, this is the biggest leap of faith that I’ve ever taken. [But] it paid off!”
With backgrounds in animation and filmmaking, the jump into a pure gaming focus seemed odd. Schnur explains the decision was relatively simple; boiling down to risk versus reward. “YouTube doesn’t reward animation anymore. Back in the day, you’d make pretty good money off of animation on YouTube…Not so much anymore. The amount of time, energy, and money, all the stuff that goes into animation…You’re putting all this work into it and you’re getting very little.
With backgrounds in animation and filmmaking, the jump into a pure gaming focus seemed odd.
“Doraleous and Associates, and I think Battlefield Friends as well, was two weeks turnaround time for everything. That was a big credit to Brent Triplett (or Neebs) because he animated most of those. It’s like 110 hours a week…he was a nightmare to deal with when he’s animating! We joke all the time, we never want him to animate again…I just want him to be happy.
“Gaming is very much the opposite, even though we do put more work into it than anyone we’ve seen, as far as gaming videos. You get a much larger reward out of it, monetarily, and you still get to be creative.”
A combination of factors has allowed them to grow beyond their animated roots; between being able to develop more content as well as being able to craft longer videos. “With that long-form content we’re able to put mid-roll ads in there [and] those are going to perform way better than any five minute animated thing we do. Even if we brought back our biggest series, Battlefield Friends…A 20-25 minute ARK video would make more money at a fraction of the time [to create].”
Setting themselves apart
Even with Neebs Gaming, the goal was to bring their same brand of improvisation to audiences. They wanted to make sure they weren’t like other gaming channels and leveraged their prior skills to deliver on cinematic gaming content:
“[There are] content creators [who] play a game for thirty minutes, and that’s what they upload. They don’t do anything with it and they’ll get ten times more views than we will, but we put a ton of work into [ours]. I almost equate it to like decorating a birthday cake for a dog sometimes. We almost overwork it, but at the end of the day you have a really good product…even though the dog is just gonna eat it!”
Schnur is quick to emphasize he’s not “dissing” other gaming channels and respects what they’re able to do. For Neebs Gaming, however, this is what works for them. It’s also is a major factor in how they choose the games to build content around.
“We don’t go with what’s popular,” he adds when asked about how the group picks titles. “We just keep an eye out for open-world games. Games where you can build, or you can manipulate the world, or just have fun. If we can [make] a narrative while also having fun, then you’re going to get something good out of us.”
Open world games like ARK: Survival Evolved, Conan Exiles, and even Minecraft form the brunt of their content. They’ve dabbled in more linear games before, however, “God of War is a good example. It’s an amazing game that had such a fantastic story, score, everything was perfect about that game. And we just played it…It’s like a ‘Let’s Play.’
“[Those videos] do fine but it’s not the content we like to sink our teeth into, because we can’t control a lot of it. Once we can control things (camera, story) then we’re like kids in a candy store.”
Regardless of the game, Schnur and the team know their own personalities are what keeps viewers tuned in. As such, they don’t change characters depending on the game they’re playing. “We’ve been working together for so long, our personalities—I guess the characters’ personalities—which are just very heightened versions of us as real people, interact the same way. We argue the same way and we do things wrong the same way.”
Making it work
When discussing the logistics of crafting videos, the process isn’t dissimilar from making any other kind of video content. “It’s funny because people think that it’s scripted, but it’s just us improv-ing the situations and reacting….We’re not that good at playing these games, so usually bad things happen which makes good content!”
Making narrative-driven content without a script seems difficult. Over the years, however, they’ve developed a system that works for them. “Whenever we go into a video—say it’s Ark—we’ll have some goals. We don’t really have a beginning and end, [instead] it’s like ‘I wanna do A, B, and C’ and we just kind of play and see what happens.”
The free form nature of the content itself doesn’t mean there’s no structure to capturing it. As Schnur describes, the team normally divides into two groups (an A and B group) while playing. There’s also a Spectator who bounces around the map without actually playing, which allows them to get cinematic shots; giving their videos that movie or television show quality.
They aren’t locked into any specific role, however, as they all wear multiple hats throughout production. Schnur himself handles all the music on top of dealing with social media, but “Whoever’s running spectator is the showrunner, in a way. They’ll let us know, ‘Okay, I’ll probably cut right here, you guys hold, we’ll move on to [the next] group.’ So whoever’s running the Spectator cam is usually acting as the director.
“We each have our strengths in certain areas. I sort of ducked out of the Minecraft world, I’m not a big fan of playing it. That’s the nice thing [in our group]; if you don’t have fun playing something you don’t have to play it. No one’s forcing you. We want to be very authentic and not fake it, because our audience can tell.”
All five are involved in each recording session, lasting roughly an hour and a half to two hours. All this footage is used to develop 20-25 minute videos. Unused content winds up on the cutting room floor rather than being turned into additional videos. It’s not the norm for gaming channels and speaks to their desire to ensure only their best makes it into an episode. “Sometimes you just don’t have that great of a recording,” Schnur says candidly, “which you rely on the editor to punch up a few things to make it better.’”
Cutting episodes together, adding in the cinematic elements and sound design falls to the crew’s three editors: Alex, Anthony, and John. “Patreon pays for our editors, so those three are being supported by our patrons who have been awesome. We have a very, very solid and supportive Patreon group and we try to take care of them the best that we can.”
Managing a major YouTube channel with millions of subscribers brings plenty of challenges. Their biggest, and scariest, hurdle, however, came earlier this year in the form of a giant hack to their channel. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for many creators, but as one of the bigger gaming channels out there, Neebs Gaming treats it as something of a cautionary tale.
One of their editors, “I’m not throwing him under the bus!” Schnur quickly remarks, “Has his own channel and somebody reached out to him with a sponsor deal that seemed a little bit too good to be true.”
The “offer” was to review a new photo-editing software, which he jumped on quickly. The company sent a link to download the software…A link that contained malicious software. Unfortunately, he was logged into the Neebs Gaming account at the time of download, “It was like a Trojan virus that took over our account and all our credentials. They were able to log in, get rid of all the account managers, and transfer partial ownership over to whatever company that they had.”
The company in question, posing as CoinBase Pro, changed the channel’s name and banner. Then they started live-streaming a Bitcoin scam video on both Neebs Gaming and the original Hank and Jed channels. Fans on social media were quick to notice and brought it to Schnur’s attention, “Our community jumped right on it and was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? I think you guys were hacked. All your videos are gone.’
“They didn’t delete the videos that were there thank God, but we do have a backup of all those, which…You should. If you’re a creator, have a backup of everything.” From there it was a matter of getting into direct contact with YouTube/Google to take back control of their channel. Neebs Gaming had signed on with the Creative Artist Agency (CAA) in 2019 which gave them a much-needed leg up on sorting through the mess:
“[Our] agent has a contact over at Google, so he was able to get me some sort of communication within 24 hours, which is rare. In the past when we’ve tried to contact YouTube it’s been hard to get a hold of them. From the time we spoke with somebody at Google, it took about four days to gain complete control back.”
They had to deal with a number of copyright strikes and reports (due to the scammers) which prevented them from uploading. It took another two days after regaining control of the channel before they could start posting new content.
Despite everything, Schnur praises the overall response from Google. A response boosted by the pressure and support of their community, “It’s easy to complain about [stuff[ when something goes wrong, but you have to take into consideration the other guys. Google is a huge company; they have a lot going on. We tried to be patient with them and work with them as best as we could. And they were pretty good considering how many people they have to deal with, you know?”
Even though it was a scary experience, the team has tried to turn it into something beneficial. “It seemed like a catastrophe at the time,” Schnur says, “but I figured we could probably turn a negative into a positive by informing others of what not to do. Don’t open certain software, make sure you have a lot of…you know, dual authentication.
“You have to maintain some sort of composure. Rally your community, yet don’t go in there with pitchforks and torches demanding that YouTube do whatever you want. Just like, ‘Hey, bear with us, don’t click on any links, don’t watch these videos…we’re gonna be back.’”
Creating more than viewers
Beyond helping in the fight to regain control of their channel, Schnur credits the Neebs Gaming community as the secret to their overall success. “We stay very engaged on all social media,” he remarks. “That’s one of the biggest reasons we have such a positive community; because we interact with them. We know their stories and they know ours. The communication is constant, regardless of content going up or not, we’re always wondering what they’re doing and asking about things they [want] to see from us.”
Schnur encourages creators to take the time to develop this approach with their audiences, “I see people upload videos all the time and I don’t see any comments from them within the [video’s] comments or on Twitter [and] Facebook…When you’re engaged with your YouTube comments, that is going to really solidify your community. If you can build a community—if you can build a culture within your channel so they’re not just watching content, [but are] a part of the community, then you’re going to have more success.”
It’s one of the primary reasons they didn’t see any real loss of subscribers during the “hackening.” In fact, they’re social audience even grew during that period of time, which in turn created more subscribers once they were back up and running!
He adds one more tidbit of advice for other YouTubers out there. Whether they’re getting started or trying to get a big break: do what you do best and don’t sacrifice on quality: “I’ll say this right now, I stay in my lanes. I am the worst editor out of the whole team. I can still do the cinematic stuff but the other guys are so good at it and they have it down.
“Just do your best work [even] when you think no one’s looking.” Schnur emphasizes everyone on the Neebs Gaming team works toward this goal, constantly checking on one another, “We want everything to sound right, it’s gotta be perfect…and this keeps everybody on their toes.”
With over 700 million channel views, there’s no denying their approach to content is working for them and their community. Combining passion, dedication, and a strict adherence to their style, they’ve transformed into a channel that can not only survive hard times but manage to thrive.