YouTube creator Freddie Wong talks season 2 of ‘VGHS,’ and how to scare Hollywood

video game high schoolLast year Freddie Wong and Matt Arnold contributed to the ongoing experiment to see if the Internet can replace broadcast TV. For years Wong has been one of the most prolific YouTube original content creators, releasing hundreds of videos on his own channel, many of which specifically relate to video games. He created a following for himself in the millions, and so when he and Arnold had an idea to try something a bit bigger they reached out to those fans for help. 

Freddie Wong
Freddie Wong

Wong  and Arnold went to Kickstarter (along with series co-creators Will Campos and Brian Firenzi) and asked for $75,000 to help create an original web series called Video Game High School. Fans responded eagerly, and the project ended up raising $273,725. They used that money to create a 9-episode original show, with each episode ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. The story was set in a world where eSports have grown into a national passtime. When a young gamer named BrianD unwittingly defeats “The Law,” the best and most popular gamer around, BrianD is accepted into Video Game High School. Each episode aired on the website “Rocket Jump,” then a week later appeared on YouTube. The show resonated with fans, and it went on to average around 4 million views per episode on YouTube alone. 

“We’re trying to turn around what web series can be,” Wong told us. “I see web video as the next thing. I see web as television when cinema was around, as cinema when theater was around. It’s the new form of entertainment, and nobody’s taking it seriously.” Obviously Wong and co. aim to changed that.

“… the machine of Hollywood, is about getting video in front of people’s eyeballs … the internet lets you sidestep that.”

Following the success of season one, Wong and company returned to Kickstarter to help fund season two, seeking $6336,010 – the exact amount it cost to produce season one. They ended up raising over $808,000, and began production soon after the campaign ended. 

With season two debuting this week, Digital Trends trekked out to YouTube’s new production space in Playa Vista, CA where Wong has been working out of for about two months now. 

In this space YouTube holds workshops, seminars and other programs that users ranging from beginners to those with hundreds of thousands of followers are welcome to attend. Content creators can even apply to use the facilities—including video equipment, sound stages, and green screens—for free. Wong, however, is doing a full-on residency, saving money on location costs and funneling it right back into production. Wong and his production channel Rocket Jump have been there for eight weeks shooting and editing the second season of the show, spilling out into the hallways and lobbies, occasionally with as many as 150 extras on hand. The entire space, or at least a significant portion of it, looked like the inside of Video Game High School itself.

VGHS party

For fans of the show, the story will continue where the first season left off. In season 2, Jenny Matrix’s mom (played by Lost‘s Cynthia Watros) joins the cast as a coach, Ki becomes the floor RA, Jenny and Brian wind up on the varsity FPS team, and Ted discovers if he has what it takes to be a true drifter. Meanwhile, The Law is more or less neutered by cheating allegations, and there’s a new villain named Shane Pizza. If none of that makes any sense to you, the first season is – and will remain – available to view at any time.

The season also introduces elements from other facets of the video game world, including a real-time strategy crowd (“Think, like, Wall Street … meets American Psycho,” said Wong), and a Skyrim-like fantasy game that the characters play in their down time. In the first episode alone Stan Lee, Cliff Bleszinski, and Chris Hardwick have cameos. Much of the “action” is shot in 48 frames per second, and scored with a full orchestra, not to mention each episode’s increased run time of  30- to 40-minutes. According to Wong, these are firsts for a web series. Everything has been expanded and improved.

Youtube

The first season focused on first-person shooters “out of necessity,” Arnold said, both because of its emphasis on Brian’s story and because of the episodes’ short lengths. Now that they’ve got more breathing room in each episode they want to show a wider breadth of gaming culture. That means showing more genres, tabletop games, Pokemon parodies, and even a game created by Ki, who in the show is a game developer herself. “She makes High School Video Game: The Video Game High School Video Game,” Wong said. “One of the character’s plays through it, like, in a different character’s shoes. It’s very strange,” Arnold added. The game will even be available as a real life flash game by the time the third episode comes out.

“I see web video as the next thing. I see web as television when cinema was around, as cinema when theater was around.”

Before finding success on the Internet, Arnold worked at Disney Interactive Studios while Wong was at 20th Century Fox. Wong went on to use that experience to create online videos, gaining much of his current fame making funny one-off videos like “Future First Person Shooter.” They see the web as “freedom” for creators like themselves. “All of Hollywood, the machine of Hollywood, is about getting video in front of people’s eyeballs,” Wong said. “But the internet lets you sidestep that.”

Netflix helped to further legitimize web content this year by earning 14 Emmy nominations for its original (and semi-original) shows House of Cards, Arrested Development, Hemlock Grove, and Orange is the New Black and it has more on the way. “I’ll tell you what 14 Emmy nominations for Netflix is,” Wong said. “That’s traditional media getting scared.”

Video Game HS party

“If this system can’t support this many people buying shirts and being like ‘This is the best show I’ve ever seen,’ then something’s wrong with this system,” he said of Arrested Development‘s return on Netflix in May.

“People follow good content,” Arnold said, and it doesn’t matter whether that content is on Netflix, AMC, YouTube, or HBO. He even compared the user experience of watching Video Game High School to HBO Go users watching Game of Thrones; queue up the video, press full screen, and it’s the same.

“I’ll tell you what 14 Emmy nominations for Netflix is, that’s traditional media getting scared.”

But one key difference is how those two platforms monetize those views, and YouTube is not going to suddenly start charging subscription fees. “The challenge of monetizing what we do is monetizing what we do,” Wong joked. For season 2 of Video Game High School, Wong and company earned nearly four time more on Kickstarter than the previous campaign, and Dodge provided the cars for the drift-racing scenes. “Let’s be honest: advertising only goes so far,” he said. “Advertising revenue online can only support so much. And unless you’re a Korean man doing a dance like a horse, you can’t really do so hot with just advertising.”

“But you can subsist with a good, honest, direct connection with your audience, and that manifests itself in things such as Kickstarter,” he continued. “So we’re in this sort of brave new world of we’re not quite sure.”

The first episode of Video Game High School has 8.2 million views on YouTube and Wong himself has 6 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. But he said he doesn’t think about mainstream success. “The only thing we’re thinking about as far as mainstream appeal is tell a good story, shoot it well, do good action, do the fundamentals of good filmmaking,” he said. “And mainstream appeal we think will come with that. We never are in the mindset where like, ‘Hey, we have to make this so that it’s as popular as possible, whatever that is,’ because, I mean, that’s not an interesting way to make art.”

Season 2 of Video Game High School premiered on YouTube July 25. Check it out below. 

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