Big-budget Jimmy Donaldson has overtaken PewDiePie to become the most subscribed person on the platform
YouTube’s short 17-year history is one of human civilisation played on fast-forward. The first videos uploaded to the website were shabby, amateur productions from enthusiasts with cameras, made on a shoestring budget. Today, the most popular videos have eye-watering budgets more akin to TV shows.
Few people demonstrate YouTube’s shift better than Jimmy Donaldson, better known to his 112 million subscribers as MrBeast. This week Donaldson, 24 and born in Wichita, Kansas, became YouTube’s king, surpassing Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg as the most subscribed-to individual on the platform.
Donaldson’s YouTube viewers come to him for madcap moments. YouTube is a platform of extremes, but Donaldson pushes the envelope in a different way to the shock-jock style of his peers Jake and Logan Paul, or the dangerous stunts of others desperately seeking fame.
If most YouTubers are creating scrappy, independent cinema, MrBeast is producing the 21st-century equivalent of massive-cast, massive-set musicals from Hollywood’s golden age. He even has a 60,000 sq foot studio from which he plans and shoots his YouTube content.
Among his biggest hits are a viral video where he recreated the sets from the Netflix series Squid Game at a cost of $3.5m (£2.9m), then invited 456 people to compete in challenges to win $456,000 in prize money. He unabashedly splashes the cash on his videos, offering a $1m prize for a game of hide and seek in another clip. He reportedly spends up to $10,000 on the design of each of his video thumbnails, the small squares designed to lure viewers in.
“He’s passionate, analytical and creative with his content, he invests heavily in it, and all for towards the goal of viewer enjoyment,” says Ryan Lamont, head of creative at Born Bred Talent, a talent management and creative agency, who is a longtime manager of digital creators.
Like many YouTubers, Donaldson started off posting videos in his bedroom, unbeknown to his parents. He joined YouTube in 2012, and has grown his audience since then, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood celebrities and a dating fellow digital creator, Thea Booysen.
But YouTube is just one part of the MrBeast brand. Donaldson, who didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, boasts 16 million followers on Twitter, where his bio reads “I want to make the world a better place before I die,” and 21 million followers on Instagram.
In a world where digital creators are now more akin to business tycoons, MrBeast isn’t just top of the subscriber league table. He’s one of the nascent industry’s sharpest business minds. Posters of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are on the walls of his office. He’s rich: Forbes estimates he earned $54m last year. He also runs a successful fast food franchise, MrBeast Burger, which operates from “ghost kitchens” in existing restaurants.
What earns Donaldson those riches and fame, however, separates him from the rest of the starry-eyed group of creators on YouTube. He reinvests much of his earnings into new videos, siphoning off a section of that income to charity.
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In 2020, he started a philanthropic organisation that has since donated 2 million meals to needy people in North Carolina. He launched a campaign, Team Trees, in 2019, to plant 20m trees in the United States. So far, 24m have been put into the ground.
It’s a step-change from the man Donaldson has supplanted as the face of YouTube. PewDiePie has been buffeted by racism, antisemitism and exploitation scandals. Yet MrBeast has his own troubled past, with a history of homophobic comments as a teenager. He has also been subject to complaints about being a hard taskmaster to employees – much like Musk, whose picture hangs in his office.
For the YouTube community, MrBeast’s good work outweighs those more negative issues. “It’s great that someone who so deeply cares about the craft and his audience is now an ambassador of sorts for YouTube and the wider creator economy,” says Lamont. “He’s charitable, likable, commendable – all good traits for someone with legions of fans who aspire to emulate him.”