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Rooster Teeth cut its teeth in 2003 with Red Vs. Blue, a funny machinima show that used red and blue Master Chief characters from the Halo games. The creators added funny voices and dialogue to the game characters and turned them into animated short videos.
Eighteen years later, Warner Media’s Rooster Teeth is still making episodes of Red vs. Blue. But it has also expanded beyond that, starting in 2005, to entertainment podcasts. And in 2021, the company is launching a half-dozen new podcasts that it hopes will light up the internet with humor and insight.
The lineup features millennial- and GenZ-focused shows like Annual Pass, which scopes out the latest in theme parks hosted by Rooster Teeth’s Geoff Ramsey and Jack Pattillo; and How Ya Been?, which serves up more comedy from Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart. (For another great podcast, you should check out Jeff Grubb and Mike Minotti’s GamesBeat Decides show.)
Rooster Teeth started podcasting with video more than 15 years ago, and it launched audio-only podcasts in earnest in 2020. The podcasts saw a 20% increase in listeners in 2020, no doubt helped by the pandemic, when people were starved for some kind of human contact. The Roost Podcast Network has added 22 new partnerships, and it is trying to be a fan-driven, community-built entertainment company.
New podcasts like The Real Canon aim to be at the forefront of “nerd media” and “nerd culture.” The Roost Podcast Network has more than 280 million incremental views and 10 million audio monthly downloads across its network. And Rooster Teeth has more than 45 million subscribers to its YouTube network, 1.2 million unique monthly visitors across its apps, and more than 4 million registered community members.
I spoke about Rooster Teeth and the podcasts with Rooster Teeth host/producer Trevor Collins and Luis Medina, senior vice president and general manager of the Let’s Play network at Rooster Teeth.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I wanted to get a feel for Rooster Teeth in general. How long have you both been there?
Luis Medina: I’ve been with the company for a little over five years. Five years in November. I started in late 2015, early 2016.
Trevor Collins: I’ve been at the company for a little over six years. Started in November of 2014.
GamesBeat: What was it like when you first got there, compared to today?
Collins: Smaller, for sure. Where to start? It’s definitely different. We were a smaller company. Headcount and physically. We used to have morning meetings where we could see everyone in the company every Monday, and now we’ve expanded our production slate. Which is cool, and that obviously necessitates a lot more office space in more buildings. We’re more spread out than we used to be. But just as tight-knit as ever.
GamesBeat: Are you working remotely at this point, though?
Collins: Yes, we’re coming up on just about a year working from home, minus any essential employees.
Medina: We strategically reopened the studio for production, using COVID guidelines. We’ve done that both in Austin and Los Angeles. But the majority of our back office folks, meetings, all hands, stuff that would be unsafe to do in person, we do that perfectly fine remotely.
GamesBeat: I’m very familiar with Rooster Teeth’s early history, Red vs. Blue, and things like that. Could you bring me up to speed? How has it changed now?
Medina: The three pillars of the company from the beginning were comedy, gaming, and animation. They continue to be a lot of our core focus. At the beginning that meant Red vs. Blue, a scripted comedy that used a video game to produce essentially a puppeteered animated series. From that single kernel we’ve expanded into a company with a footprint over 45 million subscribers across different social platforms — YouTube, Twitch, Facebook. We also have our own website, roosterteeth.com, which is available on iOS and Android and all the set-top box apps.
In its simplest terms, the company has transitioned from a show, 18 years ago, into brand and a studio that produces entertainment for an online audience that loves those three things — comedy, gaming, and animation. That can be anything from our robust slate of podcasts and our podcast network to gameplay content, on demand and on YouTube or live on our website and apps. We have a program called Rooster Teeth Live that runs every day, with 50-55 hours of live content every week. We have a robust animation studio where more than 100 folks produce multiple shows, including RWBY, which is our flagship 3D animated show, and Gen:Lock, which is our follow-up 3D animated show, where we’ve been working with HBO Max on the second season.
Collins: It’s the same thesis but a broader footprint.
Medina: We have these complementary, parallel production studios that develop different types of content. It’s all part of the ecosystem.
GamesBeat: Trevor, what’s your view of how the company has changed?
Collins: I used to be a fan. I used to watch all the content as an audience member. Now I work at the company. My perspective is a little different. As a fan it was always focused on Red vs. Blue, and then I watched as the company expanded into the comedy realm, into live action sketch comedy with RT Shorts. Then they started to enter the podcasting space. They had Drunk Tank. That was they always had going on. Drunk Tank turned into RT Podcast, which we maintain to this day. Way over 500 weekly episodes now.
It went from this tight-knit, smaller, more focused team where everybody worked on the few projects that were there, like Red vs. Blue, and then it expanded as these departments started to grow and materialize. That’s where the gaming department started to come out with gaming and comedy, with Achievement Hunter, and then Red vs. Blue paved the way for RWBY, which opened up the door for Gen:Lock. It opened up the animation studio portion of the business. It’s been awesome to watch the company go from a handful of big hitters to now this broad slate that really taps into a lot of different pieces of pop culture in a lot of different genres.
Medina: Achievement Hunter is our flagship gaming brand within Rooster Teeth. Roughly 12 years ago, coming up on 13 this summer, some of the original founders, Geoff Ramsey and his colleague Jack, decided they wanted to do more — at the beginning it was the inklings of the Let’s Play revolution. That’s when it started to pick up. Geoff was interested in it, and he started to produce a show called Achievement Hunter and brought along Jack to produce it with him. That show became a slate of shows. It became an ensemble cast as they hired on more people to produce content with it. It became gameplay content and live streams, everything that you see in the gaming entertainment space on YouTube or Twitch.
Now, 13 years later, it has its own channels, its own brand. It has a fairly robust ensemble cast of creators who work out of Austin and produce content together. They do quite a few podcasts together as well. Gaming became the entry point and our way of incubating new talent, folks like Trevor. As they grew and developed as talent, we expanded on that footprint and built different shows around them.
Collins: It was a funny happenstance that built out of the technology and what they were doing with Red vs. Blue. Breaking the game to make a fun show. Using that technology and that ideology, they were able to make games within games, make guides and stuff like that, and that’s where it got started. It came out of the Red vs. Blue mindset.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that the company has been around so long that it’s crossed the different transitions. Gamers maybe used to only care about playing games, but they came to care about spectating games, talking about games on podcasts. There’s so much media around gaming now, as opposed to just inside gaming itself.
Collins: Gaming is kind of our shared — in the office as well as the audience, we have that shared passion for what video games have to offer as far as storytelling. The games are the medium we use to create comedy and have this witty banter and these unique interactions that our personalities are able to have. That’s Achievement Hunter’s forte. Having these passion projects and strong personalities that — yes, they can play games, and the audience member is that fifth person on the couch. If four people are playing a game together, the audience is a part of that. They get to relate to us and watch along.
We’ve moved on from that now to focus more on the personalities of the talent and their passion projects. What are the topics that they’re interested in? That set us up well for how we entered the podcasting space. That was our recipe for jumping into these new territories, whether it was fast food or talking about baseball cards or unsolved mysteries on the internet. They’re all out of the wheelhouse of gaming, but very much in tune with our personalities and our interests. That’s where those podcasts got their start.
GamesBeat: Was there a point where you started to believe in podcasts, that they could be so broadly accepted?
Medina: That started with the Rooster Teeth podcast 13 years ago, which was a natural outgrowth of particularly the founders of the company, but also a lot of the other folks who worked there wanting to talk with each other outside of the shows they were producing. It’s very organic. But over time, when we talk about podcasts, we generally use the word “broadcast,” because we’re not necessarily limited to certain podcast setups. We have our podcast studio in Austin, which is a multi-camera production studio that produces essentially talk shows, which we do in video for our site and for YouTube, as well as audio platforms. That differentiator, the video podcasts being a focus for us, is what helped us stand out early in that space. It’s a differentiator in terms of monetization as well, through our podcast network sales efforts.
Collins: There was a moment where — I think the first moment we knew we wanted to take this step, we were all in a room together with a whiteboard up, and we started [noting] all of these topics and podcast genres that we wanted to tap into. We had Off Topic, our flagship podcast for the Achievement Hunter brand, much like the Rooster Teeth podcast for the broader company. That’s all about our lives, what’s going on in our lives, video games, new, just anything. There isn’t any specific topic. But all the excitement was coming out when we talked about these genres and things we never had an avenue to talk about.
Medina: From that initial investment in production, we started to add on other podcasts that we felt like were relevant at the time. The Achievement Hunter folks wanted to do their own spin on it, so they did the Off Topic podcast. As we started to get into the last couple of years, with some of the shows running for many years, there were a lot of topics we hadn’t hit. We talked about people’s lives and lifestyles and gaming, stuff that was core to us, but a lot of the creators at our company have different passions that we thought would be great to express through podcasting, which at that point, in the last three years or so, has expanded in terms of genre and focus. It was a good time for us to try this out. There was a lot of interest internally.
That’s where a lot of fun new titles came from, where we’re taking the personalities that folks know. They probably know them in one way, as gamers and online creators. But they’re able to express themselves in shows like Red Web, which Trevor hosts and conceived of.
Collins: Red Web is all about — if you look at Venn diagram, you want to have a bit of familiarity. It’s all about unsolved mysteries and true crime, which is a step in a new direction, but it maintains a foothold back in internet culture, because a lot of our stronger mysteries all come from the internet. We figured there was a niche, an appetite for internet-centric mysteries, because there are quite a few that are very intriguing. We’ve used that as a launch pad to talk about things like Cryptids — Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, things of that nature — and extending into true crime, looking at mysteries as a whole. That’s been interesting, to step into a new arena and watch the audience resonate with that new format.
Medina: Our hypothesis was that — everyone at the company, we’re gamers, but we have a lot of different interests. We know our audience reflects our creators as well. We were right, judging by the response we’ve had around shows like Red Web, or Face Jam, another show we produced recently which is essentially a fast food review show, comedy show. Our audience, and the gaming audience in general, are omnivorous. They’re interested in lots of things. We know that they love science fiction and fantasy. They’re watching TV shows. They’re consuming content in different genres. We’re happy to jump into some new topics.
GamesBeat: How have you dealt with changing technology? I’ve come to like going on Clubhouse and hanging out in this game industry cocktail hour room. I don’t know whether this is something we’ll all be doing one of these days. Maybe Twitter or Facebook will have something through audio as well. But how do you evaluate things like that, that are possibly new platforms?
Medina: We’re thinking about that social audio space right now. When we move into a new platform, like the audio slate we just described, the question we ask ourselves is, “Do we have something to say that should be said in this form?” Rather than necessarily chasing trends in that way. In the case of the audio slate, it was a point where we realized we had a lot to say, a lot to produce, and we thought we could do it well. In the case of Clubhouse or other apps like that, that’s the question right now. Can we do this our way, in a way that will resonate with our community? That’s when we’ll take the leap.
GamesBeat: How do you look at competition these days, at rising above the noise of everything on YouTube and other platforms?
Medina: We always do things our own way. We’re a bit unique. I’ll give an example. We mentioned that we ramped up our live streaming content over the last year. Part of that was a response to working from home, having set ourselves up to be able to produce remotely. It gave us the opportunity to do things live and switch up how we’re doing production. We ramped up our live streaming from about 10 hours a week to around 50 hours a week, which was a big shift.
As we were doing that, obviously Twitch and YouTube Live are big platforms, lots of gamers there. The question for us is, how do we do things our own way? We have a great broadcast team. We have a great ensemble cast. We’re able to do things to produce our content in a way that few others are in the space. Live switching, multi-camera setups, virtual broadcast desks. We had a great show we put on for a while Keeping the Lights On, which was a late night talk show with a completely virtual set — green screen guests, green screen hosts. That level of sophistication comes out of the production capabilities we’ve built over the last 18 years.
It goes back to what I was saying before. How do we do things our way and make sure that our community feels uniquely Rooster Teeth? Sometimes that’s things like production value, but sometimes it’s just our own particular spin that conveys our personality.
Collins: I can speak to more of the in-the-weeds details. There is a challenge, as the market grows, as the industry gets noisier as it were. Maintaining authenticity is one of the fortes of Rooster Teeth. We’re always trying to test and try new things and experiment with what’s familiar, but also what’s new, while maintaining our unique voice. There might be a lot of people doing something similar, whether it’s podcast, gaming, comedy, but will they have our voice? No. Will they do it the way we do it? Very unlikely.
When it comes to Achievement Hunter, it comes down to the personalities that we have, and fostering new talent, raising their voices, and continuing to look at the unique perspectives each member brings to the team. Looking at how they want to tackle–for instance, Face Jam, that food show. No one’s going to review a McDonald’s pizza or something silly like that the way our own Michael Jones or Jordan Cwierz would. That’s how we can stay competitive in a growing market. It’s that unique voice, tackling expected genres and expected formats in new ways, keeping things fresh.
I always like to think that as long as a project comes from a place of passion, there will be an inherent connection with the audience. The audience is there because they feel connected to the content and the team. If it comes from that place, the team will be passionate about producing that product, and the audience will enjoy it, because there’s a level of authenticity there. That’s very important to us when we go to the drawing board and develop new shows.
Medina: The live stream space and the audio podcast space have also been great low-cost incubators for us, allowing newer talent to cut their teeth and try new things and experiment. That’s been refreshing. It doesn’t have the pressure of the finite amount of real estate on a YouTube channel or another platform like that. That’s been exciting for us as well, to use these new platforms and opportunities to let our creators go wild and try new things. We’re in a unique place where we develop creators internally. A lot of folks joined us and built their careers as online creators in-house.
Collins: That’s always going to be a piece of our DNA. Going back to being a fan and first stumbling across Red vs. Blue, watching for many years, and then joining the team, there’s still that startup mentality, that bootstrap mentality. You don’t have to spend big budgets to make something happen just because you’re a big studio.
I’m happy that we have a big studio and a lot of opportunities to do things, but I still love that we have these platforms like RT TV to pilot ideas and see how the audience resonates with it, having that live feedback right there. We have the comments as well. We can ask the audience and tap them on social. How do you feel about this? How do you like it? We get that immediate feedback loop. Okay this is working out. That’s when we had the whiteboard moment, talking about podcasts. That was the first piece of the recipe. Then the audience feedback, once we piloted each of these productions, these podcasts, that’s when we knew we had something else. That’s historically how we’ve continued to grow.
We have a lot of different avenues with which we can access and talk to and interact with the audience. Whether it’s RTX as a live event, or Achievement Hunter Live, the traveling show we did on stage through many cities across the world, or RT TV’s live feed, or our social. There’s a lot of different ways. That’s one of the unique elements–in fact, I would maybe consider that our fourth pillar, that community. It’s one of the unique values that this company has thrived on. It’s one reason why the company has grown in key areas from the community. Who knows this company better than the people that love it? That’s where I come from.
The interesting thing is that–when you talk about something like HBO Max, there’s a lot of products there and they’re all fantastic, but people are fans of shows there. We’re not just an umbrella wrapper on a slate of shows. We’re a distinct community, a distinct set of creators that interact with that community in that feedback loop of communication, all the way up to that feedback loop where many people within the company came from that community. That’s still what makes Rooster Teeth tick, and it’s a huge part of our longevity. We’ve been making videos since before you could stream them on YouTube. It’s pretty rare for a company like ours.
GamesBeat: Did you manage to do all right in Austin while the snow bogged everything down?
Collins: It certainly got in the way. It was very unfortunate. Most of the employees of the company were impacted to various levels. Electricity and water and gas — there was a lot of fallout.
Medina: The pandemic didn’t stop us. We’d transitioned to working from home. We kept rolling and bringing content. But no power, that’ll do it.
Collins: We get ahead. We have this broad content slate. We have a very genuine connection with the audience. They’re very understanding. It goes back to that authenticity. It’s one of those moments where the audience gets it. When we come back the next week, the audience is there to support us. We’re excited to be back. We’re off to the races again. It’s a bit of a hiccup, but we’re no strangers at this point to quick pivots in the face of the unexpected.
GamesBeat: What do you think of new competition, like Venn and G4 coming online? And what do you think about traditional television as part of the entertainment diet these days?
Medina: It’s interesting. We’re doing our own thing. Venn and G4 are interesting as nascent studios — or at least I call G4 nascent, since this is a new incarnation. There are lots of things that feel similar to what we’re doing. Multi-camera broadcasts and more lifestyle content. Where we feel good is that over the last two decades, nearly, we’ve developed a strong and loyal community that’s the core of everything we do. They’re our evangelists. We feel strongly about our position in that way. The more content out there like our own, in a way, the better. It just continues to grow the gaming space in a different way, beyond one webcam in one bedroom into more sophisticated production and types of content. It increases that marketplace.
TV is interesting to us as a component. It’s no longer an end goal, if that makes sense. It’s now a part of a larger ecosystem for a brand to consider. What can linear TV, or alternatively what can streaming through the streaming apps, do for our brand in terms of our production company? We’ve mentioned HBO Max with our next season of Gen:Lock. We also produced, with Hasbro, a Transformers series through our animation team for Netflix. We’ve developed unscripted specials for the Discovery Channel. A few years ago we did a show called Immersion for Shark Week, where we brought a video game sensibility to Shark Week. All of that stuff feels to us like exciting opportunities. It expands our footprint. It exposes our brand to new audiences. But it’s not necessarily the end zone for us.
I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. There are so many other types of entertainment that folks are balancing that the choice between two or three gaming entertainment brands isn’t going to break the bank in terms of their attention. They have their new Xbox or their new PlayStation. They have games and movies and TV shows. When things open back up they’ll be back in the theaters. I don’t necessarily see it as an either-or.
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