Bnd partnerships, a clothing line, millions of fans: What was once solely the province of superstar athletes and Hollywood A-listers now includes “Markiplier,” one of the world’s highest-earning YouTubers, who hauled in $17.5 million over our 12-month scoring period.
The Hawaii native (real name Mark Fischbach) launched his YouTube channel in 2012 when he was a biomedical-engineering student at the University of Cincinnati. He was going through tough times: He’d broken up with his girlfriend, been laid off from his desk job and had an adrenal-gland tumor removed that surgeons found when they went to take out his appendix.
“A whole bunch of things happened that made me feel like I didn’t have any control in my life, so I had to do something,” says Fischbach, 29, who now lives in Los Angeles. At first he recorded audio snippets as practice for a potential career in voice acting, but he soon found an audience through clips in which he played video games while providing wry running commentary.
Don’t think watching someone play PS4 sounds like fun? Markiplier’s 22.4 million YouTube subscribers, with their 10 billion video views of his work, beg to differ. Indeed, Fischbach is one of five gamers on this year’s list. The top 10 YouTube stars earned an aggregate $180.5 million this past year, up 42% from 2017. It pays to play: Compared with other common YouTube categories, such as scripted comedy or elaborate pranks, gaming clips can be produced and edited quickly; some gamers post new footage daily. More posts mean more viewers, naturally—and more ad dollars. (The going rate for top online talent, Forbes estimates, is about $5 per thousand views.)
It helps, too, that the same young viewers who eschew television in favor of YouTube are bonkers for video games. “Ten to 15 years ago, gaming wasn’t cool. You didn’t game because it was cool, you gamed because you loved it,” says David Huntzinger, a digital-talent agent at WME. “Now you have Drake going on Twitch and playing Fortnite, and [professional] athletes in the locker room saying they can’t stop playing Xbox—it’s what these kids are living and breathing.”
Like any good mogul, Fischbach is diversifying: In October, he cofounded an athleisure line, Cloak, with fellow list member Seán McLoughlin, better known as “Jacksepticeye” (No. 8, $16 million). The workout line includes $85 sweaters and $35 T-shirts. Even if they intend to exercise nothing more than their thumbs, fans have snapped the gear up: The presale items sold out in 48 hours.
Merchandise has become an increasingly important revenue stream for these top digital stars, almost all of whom (No. 1 being a notable exception) are in their 20s and 30s. Each of the 10 on our list now has a line of merchandise, whose blossoming sales help account for that 42% income increase from a year ago. “I’ve built this huge community, and we’ve made a lot of people laugh,” says Fischbach, who sees Cloak as the first step toward an empire built on assets more tangible than video uploads. For now, though, all those gaming clips serve as a force multiplier for the man known as Markiplier. Like any savvy businessman, he’s thinking ahead. “I’m not going to be able to make videos on YouTube forever,” he says. “I need to plan for the future.”
The 10 Top-Earning YouTube Stars
In January 2018, the 23-year-old elder Paul brother was kicked off YouTube’s Google Preferred program, which gives favorable ad rates to popular channels, after he filmed a video in Japan that showed an apparent suicide hanging from a tree. He apologized. His income from videos (pratfalls, pranks) and brand deals took a hit, but loyal fans kept his hefty merchandise business afloat.
Scandal hasn’t stopped Felix Kjellberg, the Swedish gamer who is the most followed YouTuber (72.5 million followers). Despite a backlash last year after a rash of anti-Semitic videos, advertisers have returned, shelling out up to $450,000 for a sponsored video.
Foulmouthed, energetic Seán McLoughlin is the most popular YouTuber in Ireland thanks to his colorful video-game commentary. A few bad words haven’t kept him from going mainstream: He did a series for Disney and is developing exclusive content for live-streaming platform Twitch.
Witty Canadian gamer Evan Fong plays mainstream titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. On the side he’s launching a hip-hop career, but music (so far) isn’t proving nearly as lucrative as the subtle art of being a couch potato in demand.
Hawaii-native Markiplier is on his PS4 nearly all day everyday—but he’s not bumming around. The gamer toured North America, signed seven-figures worth of brand deals and, with No. 8 Jacksepticeye, recently launched Cloak, a high-end athleisure line for gamers.
The makeup artist, famous since the Myspace era, has reinvented himself as a beauty mogul, cofounding Jeffree Star Cosmetics, which sells an estimated $100 million–plus of eye shadow, lipstick and highlighters annually.
Last year’s top earner at $16.5 million—Daniel Middleton, a British gamer who specializes in Minecraft—has been playing on-camera for six years, amassing a following of 20.7 million, who shell out for his tour and merchandise, which includes backpacks, baseball caps and hoodies.
This five-man sports crew (Coby and Cory Cotton, Garrett Hilbert, Cody Jones and Tyler Toney) specializes in feats of dexterity and intricate trick shots— say, hurling Ping-Pong balls that trigger domino-falls of Oreos, which garnered 175 million views).
The boisterous younger brother of disgraced Logan (No. 10) earned a career-best income from his thriving merchandise business. He attracted more than 3.5 billion views of his rap songs and goofy pranks over our scoring period.
Ryan’s just like every other 7-year-old: He loves Legos, trains, cars—and his 17 million followers. His latest mini-mogul move: a line of collectibles and more, now selling at Walmart.