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The Yellow King

Marques Brownlee has become an internet celebrity and earned the label of “best technology reviewer on the planet,” but the 22-year-old’s video creations haven’t just shaped his own image: They’ve helped legitimize the entire tech community on YouTube and redefine what life on the platform can be.

Joon Lee
Joon Lee

“I sound like Elmo,” Marques Brownlee, the 22-year-old tech reviewer behind the immensely popular YouTube channel MKBHD, says as he rewatches his first video review, a look at an HP laptop remote that he posted at the formative age of 15. Viewing an old YouTube video induces a version of the dread in Brownlee that most of us feel when an old photo resurfaces on Facebook, except in his case, the personal horror is widely available for millions of viewers to see. “I can’t delete it,” Brownlee says, cringing slightly from embarrassment. “It’s too late. If I delete it, they’ll all know I deleted it. That makes it worse.”

It’s late spring, and Brownlee is scrolling through his old MKBHD videos in his new Kearny, New Jersey, studio. After graduating from the Stevens Institute of Technology in May 2015, Brownlee began to feel constrained by the confines of his 12-by-12-foot bedroom in the Hoboken apartment he then called home, and started to look for studio space. The building he found is on the site of an old industrial park that’s being renovated and converted into office space, and Brownlee is among the first handful of tenants. As the HP-remote video plays, construction roars outside, even with the windows and door shut. The studio itself is a little smaller than two basketball courts and still partially unfurnished: Some soundproofing foam lines the ceiling to dampen the echo, while trinket-littered tables, tripods, lights, unopened boxes, and a hoverboard dot the floor. There are two chairs.

Far removed from the days of filming in his apartment and relying on a webcam and basic editing software, Brownlee currently utilizes a RED Weapon Dragon, a camera setup that can fetch north of $70,000 and was used to film blockbusters such as The Martian, Jurassic World, and The Revenant. Though Brownlee acquired the camera at a significant discount through RED’s upgrade program, he’s poured an estimated $50,000 into equipment.

That level of investment is essential for YouTube tech channels such as MKBHD, a full-fledged studio operation that posts to an eager audience of 3.6 million YouTube subscribers, as well as 735,000 Twitter, 516,000 Instagram, and 254,000 Facebook followers, accumulating 453 million views since launch and making as much as an estimated $502,100 a year from ad revenue, according to SocialBlade.

That scale reflects Brownlee’s standing in the burgeoning YouTube tech review community. In 2013, former Google senior vice president Vic Gundotra called Brownlee “the best technology reviewer on the planet,” and MKBHD’s success has been at the forefront of the evolving understanding of what a life lived on YouTube can be. It’s no longer just a platform for stay-at-home amateurs working out of their basements; it’s a social media outlet with massive reach, huge financial stakes, and mainstream implications. And what sensations like PewDiePie and Grace Helbig have done for YouTube as a whole, Brownlee has done for the tech community in particular.

It didn’t happen overnight. As the Brownlee on the monitor critiques the HP remote, the Brownlee in the studio critiques his younger self. “Look at that reflection. Tilt [the laptop]!” he yells at the screen. At one point, when the 15-year-old talking into the webcam doesn’t know what function a particular button on the remote serves, the now 6-foot-3 Brownlee puts his head into his hands, mortified.

As the nearly three-minute video draws to a close, Brownlee visibly eases up when his on-screen self says, “As you can see, I have a big hand, but [the remote] is pretty small.” “Wow, I said that in the first video,” Brownlee says, perking up. “I’ve said that in years of video. I’ve said that as recently as last week.”

Brownlee’s tendency to mention his hand size encapsulates why he’s been so successful on YouTube: He’s oddly charismatic, acutely articulate, and incredibly deliberate in his presentation. He’s also refreshingly authentic: In the flesh, Brownlee is almost alarmingly consistent with his video persona. “He’s not even playing a slightly amped-up version of himself,” says David Pierce, a senior writer for Wired. “He’s never enthusiastic in his videos, which I always get a kick out of.”

Consistency has been Brownlee’s hallmark in part because his primary motivation is pretty simple: He’s trying to make something that’s expert, but accessible — and something that he would want to watch. “[Making tech recommendations] feels like an extension of what I’m already doing with grandma,” Brownlee says. “Or maybe a more tech-savvy version of grandma.”

Millions of grandmas, it turns out, yet Brownlee isn’t intimidated by MKBHD’s audience or the fact that his opinions influence the purchasing decisions of so many. “I’m just glad that there’s 3.5 million people out there who are interested in the same technology and stuff that I am,” he says. He’s interviewed Kobe Bryant about sneaker tech and been interviewed by Neil deGrasse Tyson for the web series Innovators, and he’s proud of his channel’s steadily rising reach over the last seven years.

“Imagine a piece of paper,” Brownlee says, making a rectangle with his hands. “It’s blue on one side and it’s yellow on the other side, and there’s a gradient from blue to yellow. How the fuck did it get to yellow? When was the first yellow point? … It’s been all of these things and then just yellow, 3.5 million subscribers. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s yellow now. I love it.”

Just about two years ago, Brownlee filmed a video in which he attempted to both scratch a piece of glass with a knife and bend it at a 90-degree angle under his foot. This wasn’t just any piece of glass, however; it was a prototype sapphire crystal rumored to be the material used for the display screen on the iPhone 6, then a few months from release. Overnight, the video went viral, getting featured across numerous mainstream outlets including The Verge, The Huffington Post, CNET, Time, and NBC News, and eventually accumulating more than 8 million views on YouTube.

What outside observers might have considered a sudden breakthrough for Brownlee was years in the making, however. Brownlee’s father, Marlon, is a politician serving on the Maplewood, New Jersey, Township Committee, and worked as an information technology consultant before founding Syntelligent Solutions, so gadgets were always around the house. At 15 years old, Brownlee searched the internet for videos about his new laptop, the HP Pavilion dv7. When he didn’t find any, he decided to make the video himself.

By 2014, he’d already spent five years posting tech videos to YouTube and was among the most popular YouTubers covering the tech world. The success of the sapphire-crystal display video represented years of preparation meeting opportunity, Brownlee’s moment in the intensely bright mainstream spotlight powered by the insatiable Apple-product rumor cycle.

The iPhone-display news wasn’t just a high-profile moment for Brownlee; it also marked a key point for the YouTube tech community as a whole, which was already thriving among its hyperloyal following, but hadn’t yet enjoyed a shift in the masses’ perception. MKBHD’s scoop helped pave the path of understanding from folks filming videos on their bedroom webcams to skilled content creators using professional equipment to generate highly produced reviews.

Among the first people producing YouTube tech reviews at a high level, and later as their full-time jobs, were Jon Rettinger, president and founder of tech website TechnoBuffalo, and Mark Watson, who runs the channel Soldier Knows Best. Rettinger and Watson share similar YouTube origin stories: They were bored at their jobs (marketing for Rettinger; working in an AT&T call center for Watson) and channeled their passion for technology into making videos about computers, smartphones, and the tech industry as a whole. When YouTube launched its partner program in 2007, giving content creators the opportunity to make money from ads placed on their videos, both became successful, eventually focusing on YouTube full time around 2009.

“I remember Jon, when you looked at his first videos, you saw his bed was unmade in the background and he was sitting there with a big ol’ steak knife in his videos,” Watson says. “I do kinda miss those days.”

Joon Lee
Joon Lee

Rettinger’s and Watson’s success in the early days of YouTube set the stage for creators like Brownlee to make a living by creating videos about the latest smartphone. Watson used to frequently host livestreams in which he’d answer tech questions from viewers young and old alike, and Brownlee, then in high school, was a frequent caller.

“We were all hungry to make that next step,” says Austin Evans, a good friend of Brownlee’s whose tech channel boasts 1.5 million subscribers. “You would look up at the big guys like SoldierKnowsBest with [10,000], 15,000 subscribers and think about how we could get there.”

Brownlee has rocketed past both Rettinger and Watson, who have 1.28 million and 765,000 subscribers, respectively. He’s also helped push the boundaries of YouTube video production quality. Whereas videos were once 10 minutes of uncut commentary with cameras pointed directly at a product, the increased accessibility to high-quality cameras allowed cinematic production to become the norm rather than the exception. By 2010, high-quality videos were being put out by individuals, not just large media outlets.

“We don’t have, or no longer have, any exclusivity on something that feels highly produced,” says Dieter Bohn, executive editor of The Verge, which has teamed up with Brownlee on multiple videos. “The quality of the videos that Marques puts out is incredibly good.”

Consumers and media outlets weren’t the only ones who noticed the change: Slowly but surely, technology companies also came to respect the work appearing on YouTube. “I remember in 2011, 2012, most companies would not even email you back,” Evans says. As more and more companies began to recognize the untapped potential of YouTube’s reach, though, more and more content creators began receiving invitations to press events.

“It’s gone from people not even considering videos as a medium that they wanted to get involved with to now considering videos as the only medium they want to get involved with,” Rettinger says.

While becoming notable on the internet is itself a feat, maintaining that popularity is as daunting a challenge. Channels that once ruled YouTube — such as the notorious Fred, which in 2009 became the first YouTube channel to reach 1 million subscribers, but has only grown to 2.5 million by 2016 — now barely register. The products that are able to meet that challenge by continuing to grow then face another battle: holding onto their initial small-shop charm.

“You’re trying to reach that NBA level within in the tech community,” Watson says, “but you still want to have that excitement level of college basketball.”

YouTube personalities used to feel like secret discoveries for those in the know, but that exclusivity is starting to dissipate as young people flock to the site as their primary source of information and entertainment. “You have real, actual celebrities on YouTube,” Brownlee says. “I wonder if it affects the way that people who watch the videos think about it because they look at it and it’s like, ‘Oh, 10 million people are subscribed to this. Am I still part of this small intimate club of people who listen to them talk? Is it the same anymore?’ I don’t know. If it doesn’t change the videos, keep going. Keep making good stuff.”

The tech review community is in many ways ideally situated to grow without compromising. What differentiates tech from comedy or music, for example, is that content creation in the tech realm is not dependent on the constant creativity of a producer. There’s always a new phone around the corner. The cycle self-perpetuates.

“I’ve seen other YouTube channels where it’s this character you’re subscribed to and it’s a great channel because they’re hilarious and it’s really funny or extreme,” Brownlee says. “Then it gets old after a while. With tech, on the one hand, you have personality that can spice it up and deliver it well and consistent across the board, but at the same time, we’re not really relying, most of us, on being hilarious or extreme or eye-opening or whatever to make videos. That’s why a lot of it keeps barreling forward.”

When Brownlee earned an invite to Apple’s 2015 introduction of the 12-inch MacBook with retina display, becoming the first YouTuber invited to any of the company’s press events, it in many ways symbolized the YouTube tech review community clearing the final hurdle into mainstream legitimacy. “It felt like a long time coming,” Brownlee says. “It just gives you a sense of legitimacy. I’m around the tech blogs and The New York Times of the world, because [YouTube] matters.”

As Brownlee drives back from picking up a chicken bacon ranch sandwich from Subway, he accidentally takes a wrong turn and joins traffic onto the Lincoln Highway Bridge. Sitting in a seemingly never-ending sea of cars, Brownlee begins to recount another time he sat waiting — that time at an airport in 2014, waiting to be verified. “I was talking to the Twitter guy right before I was about to get on a plane and was trying to get it right before I got on the flight and when I got it, I was like ‘Yes!’” he says, clapping emphatically, then pumping his fist.

Brownlee appears to enjoy being recognized for his work at MKBHD, to appreciate the followers who storm his every tweet. Fans who have followed Brownlee for years have seen him grow up on screen. They’ve heard his voice crack, followed him as he graduated high school and went through college, come to recognize the Honey Nut Cheerios that, for a long time, sat in the background of his videos. Consumer has bonded with creator.

Only once has the attention overwhelmed Brownlee. In February 2016, he helped host a Los Angeles Q&A event for Team Crispy, a group of video collaborators including Brownlee, Evans, Jonathan Morrison of TLD, Lew Hilsenteger of Unbox Therapy, and Judner Aura of UrAvgConsumer.

After the event, the quintet hosted a meet and greet, and Brownlee noticed that the line stretched out of the auditorium, down the aisle, out the door, and down the stairs, 200 people long all waiting to shake his hand. “I looked around the corner, and I was like, ‘Oh my fucking god, there’s no way I can make all of these people happy,’” Brownlee recalls. Even in an anxious moment, though, Brownlee found reason to celebrate: “It was really rewarding to talk to people who have their own story of how they came across the videos and started watching it and got really into tech.”

Pierce knows that this level of engagement is rare: “The amazing thing that not many people do is getting a giant group of people who really want you to be successful,” Pierce says. “[Marques] has that and his fans root for him.”

While major outlets have long strived to develop personal brands in video content, the more casual nature of YouTube has allowed content creators like Brownlee to build more memorable online personalities. “The truth is that everyone on The Verge, myself included, have been trying to build up personalities since long before YouTube and have been trying to do it on YouTube,” Bohn says. “We just, quite frankly, weren’t quite as good at it.”

Becoming a full-time YouTuber after graduation wasn’t always Brownlee’s plan. “I thought about it because other people at my level were doing it, so it crossed my mind naturally, but it was still a hobby outside of school,” Brownlee says.

In some ways, it still isn’t: In addition to attending classes, Brownlee devoted 75 percent of his free time in college to playing ultimate frisbee, which he now plays professionally for the New York Rumble of Major League Ultimate, and in which a travel stipend comprises the bulk of his compensation. “As far as I’m concerned, right now, I’m a professional ultimate player that makes video on the side and it’s totally not that at all,” Brownlee says. “I’m definitely a professional YouTuber, but as far as priorities go, I’m scheduling time around frisbee so that I don’t miss games or anything and then when I wake up, I come over to the studio and brainstorm and try to make a cool video and see what happens.”

Now that he’s graduated, Brownlee says he splits his time 50–50 between YouTube and ultimate frisbee, spending most weekends with his team traveling for games. When he’s not playing frisbee, Brownlee talks endlessly about how his new studio space will allow him to expand the possibilities for his videos and give him room to take more risks and be more creative. “I get the sense that there’s somewhere in his brain or in some huge Excel spreadsheet like a 20-year MKBHD plan that he’s ruthlessly executing,” Pierce says. “[Marques] could be President of the United States.”

Joon Lee
Joon Lee

Being a professional YouTuber presents challenges, of course. YouTube was a simultaneously expensive and fruitful hobby for Brownlee during college, but it was still a hobby. Now he’s facing both the benefits and challenges that exist for those who make a living on the internet.

Though Brownlee has no shortage of professional opportunities, his focus in the short and long term remains on making YouTube videos. During his freshman year of college, Brownlee says, he turned down an opportunity to join Rettinger as a video personality for TechnoBuffalo in Los Angeles. Two years ago, Brownlee received offers to join CNN and another television news outlet as “the guy who talks tech,” but decided to pass. “I would be on TV, but if I’m not doing what I was doing before, which is making videos, then I’m not longer enjoying it,” Brownlee says. Brownlee’s passion isn’t just about being an analyst; it’s tied up in the entire process of creating a video, from setting up new shots, to testing out different graphics, to playing with the color of the visuals to editing everything together.

That creation process is why he’s committed to remaining independent; it’s also why he’s ready to move beyond being a one-man operation and is currently thinking about hiring someone to assist with video production. With “extra space for activities,” he’s eager to bring in other YouTubers to collaborate. Beyond that? “You might as well say I’m winging it,” Brownlee says. “The short term to me is tonight.”

Despite his prior uncertainty, Brownlee now says that his future will always be creating videos, regardless of whether or not they appear on YouTube. If YouTube disappears, Brownlee will go to wherever people are searching for videos. “I want to see this video of this laptop, where do you go?” Brownlee says. “Wherever that answer is, that’s where you’ll find me.”

As Brownlee continues to flip through his videos, he starts skipping around; sitting patiently through the past mistakes, janky pans, double watermarks, and evolving on-camera presence is too hard. Eventually, however, he stumbles upon the video of him celebrating his millionth subscriber, a milestone he became the first tech review YouTuber to hit.

Suddenly, Brownlee eases up. He watches the opening montage of some of his milestones: the first video filmed with a new camera, the first video shot in a new space, the first video recorded at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as “Cut to Black” by Lemaitre plays in the background. “This is just the beginning,” the on-screen Brownlee says. “More than ever, thank you.”

“Yeah, that was pretty solid,” present-day Brownlee says, grinning as he looks at the monitor well after the video has ended. Hitting that millionth subscriber was a massive moment for Brownlee, but it was also just one of many. This moment two years later, with a new studio at his disposal and his devotion to YouTube reinforced, feels massive and new too.

“It’s so yellow,” he says, as his laughter fills the room.