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Surviving in the Storm Circle: why Ali-A flipped from COD to Fortnite

I’m in my office writing up another news post about Fortnite when I’m suddenly distracted by a high-pitched shout. “Absolutely melted him,” my seven year old screams from his bedroom, celebrating a kill in Fortnite. He has been watching his favourite YouTuber, Ali-A, again. I don’t mind at all.

Just as Fortnite’s cartoon aesthetics, daft dance emotes, and lack of gore make it non-threatening to parents, I know my boy is safe watching this content creator’s videos - even if my child does say the word “melted” approximately 5000% more than he did before. Thanks for that.

Ali-A, real name Alastair Aiken, had a normal upbringing in Woking, Surrey, during a time before YouTubers introduced children to new ways to celebrate a virtual headshot.

“I started playing games because friends were heavily into them,” Aiken tells me. “It started with stuff like Pokemon, I had a lot of games on my Game Boy, then I got a GameCube - I’ve always been a massive Nintendo fan.”

By the time Aiken got a Wii U, he already had an interest in capturing gameplay and showing it off. This was around ten years ago, the dawn of YouTube - a time when the platform’s potential for sharing video game footage wasn’t fully apparent. There wasn’t an easy way to grab the footage back then, either - there was no such thing as an Elgato.

Instead, Aiken got his laptop and angled its camera at his television, crudely recording his gameplay footage before uploading it onto forums where like-minded players did the same. It was just a hobby.

“You couldn’t earn money,” Aiken recalls. “Back then, publishers saw their games as their property, so you couldn’t easily monetise the games you were playing, where game developers will now pay you to give their games exposure.

“I just enjoyed it. It connected me to people around the world and was something not many people were doing - I thought it was cool and different. I self-taught myself photoshop, I self-taught myself editing, and just stuck with it.”

It was years before it generated a penny. Aiken was just having fun, playing games like Mario Kart: Double Dash, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and Smash Bros for fun, capturing footage, and never expecting anything to come of it.

“For me, gaming was very much a social thing,” Aiken explains. “We would meet up every Saturday and play games together. I really enjoyed online gaming - that’s where I’ve focused all my content. It started off with Call of Duty, there’s been Mario Kart, Pokemon GO - playing with people around the world is the aspect of gaming that has drawn me in.”

It was this focus on competitive gaming that finally saw Aiken’s career shoot into the stratosphere. He jumped in with both feet around the launch of Modern Warfare 2, uploading full matches to YouTube and providing enthusiastic commentary over the top. He did the same with each yearly COD release that followed. By 2015, he was placed in the Guinness World Records as the YouTuber with the largest dedicated Call of Duty channel in the world, in terms of subscribers and view count.

For years, that’s all his channel was about: Activision’s FPS series. Another channel, More Ali-A, allowed him to experiment with other games without diluting his main channel’s identity. More Ali-A became a place where he could share his passion for Nintendo games, away from his hardcore COD fans who perhaps might feel alienated by cutesy karting games.

“I figured if I wanted to play games like Mario Kart and Pokemon GO, it didn’t make sense to merge them onto one channel,” Aiken says. “There are channels out there that mix in a lot of games, but that revolves around the person being the core interest point for their videos. I’m sure there are people out who love watching my videos just for me, but I wanted to make sure my channel is centred around at least a theme.”

That theme, it turns out, is shooting. Recently, Aiken switched all of his attention to Fortnite - Call of Duty has taken a backseat. It was clear after Infinite Warfare’s launch in 2016 that interest in Call of Duty was on a downward trend, which Aiken saw reflected in his own numbers, so he experimented with other shooters to figure out where audience tastes were shifting, dipping his toes into Rainbow Six: Siege and trying his luck with older Call of Duty games.

“Then I tried this Fortnite game,” Aiken remembers. “It didn’t do amazing at first, but you are never going to jump straight into a game and it do amazing straight away. Your audience need to decide if they like the game - it’s an adjustment process. Some of the videos did okay, and I started to do one every week or so, then they just started doing really well. They would get more views in the first few hours than a COD video would do in a day.

“So I started investing more time in it, I started to get better at it, then I started to shift all my focus over to the game, because it was doing so well, because I was enjoying it, and because the audience was enjoying it so much.”

These days, Aiken puts out at least one Fortnite video every day. He will sit and play the game, chatting over the action, as long as it takes for him to record an entertaining victory royale. Only once he has an entertaining win will he upload the video. Sometimes he gets lucky and can upload his first game of the day, and sometimes the process takes him all day. Winning in Fortnite isn’t easy anyway, but when you are trying to rack up kills in the double digits to make it entertaining for your audience, it’s like switching on Hard Mode.

The move to Fortnite and his aggressive playstyle - thanks to years of COD-honed twitch skills - have helped Aiken gain an even bigger following. At the start of this year, he reached the milestone of 10 million subscribers, and he’s edging close to 13 million at the time of writing. Of course, not everyone is happy about him leaving COD behind.

“There will always be some fans who are hardcore into one game and they only want to see me play COD,” Aiken admits. “I still get those messages every now and then, but it’s my channel at the end of the day. I can play what I want. I’ve never seen myself as a single game player.”

Aiken isn’t into video game monogamy, then. It makes sense - you have to move with the times in this industry. You only have to look at games such as LawBreakers to see what happens when people misjudge current trends and audience tastes.

“When I started to transition over to Fortnite, to me it was just a reflection of how my gaming time was changing,” Aiken explains. “I still play COD, I still talk about Black Ops 4, and I still have Call of Duty videos planned. A lot of people who did follow me for COD had stopped watching my videos, maybe because they stopped playing COD, they came back with Fortnite. Although I made a transition to Fortnite, so did my audience.”

One thing that has remained consistent throughout all of this is Aiken’s presenting style. He has always stayed away from the emerging trend of hyper, cut-up, highlight reel gameplay videos, instead opting for publishing full matches unedited. And whether he is playing an 18-rated game or something more wholesome like Fortnite, he doesn’t swear.

“No swearing. Never. I’ve never done that,” Aiken says. “I know that a kid could stumble across one of my videos. If it’s a young kid and their parents are watching, it reflects badly on me. I often get parents message me to say that they know their kids can watch my videos and they will be fine. I’ve always stuck to that and I always will.

“A lot is just me playing games, but I always try to have a positive vibe. If it makes a kid smile and they enjoy my content, hopefully I’ve brightened up their day a little bit.”

This aspect of Aiken’s videos is something I appreciate. His enthusiastic and emotive presenting style might not be to everyone’s taste, but it doesn’t have to be. A cursory glance at the comments under his videos, replies on Twitter, and even his dedicated subreddit prove that not everyone likes him. I personally think these people are missing the point.

These days, kids don’t watch much television. They grow up tapping touchscreens, pawing through online content, watching fan-made cartoons, toy unboxings, surprise egg videos, and their favourite YouTubers. In a way, YouTubers have become the new Blue Peter presenters - they are a new wave of children’s entertainers, and it is refreshing to talk to one who is aware of the responsibility that comes with such a career.

“Outside of videos you’ve got a lot of things to think about, from social media channels to just being me in public,” Aiken says. “If I go to the shops or walk our dog, almost every time I go out the house someone comes up to me and says hello, which is amazing. I always have a little chat to them, and I try to just come across as I do in my videos. You definitely have to be aware.

“You have to realise that I am 24, a lot of my audience is a little bit younger, so I do have to be careful what I do and say online. But most of the time I don’t really think about it too much - I’m so used to being careful and just having an online presence. I haven’t - fingers crossed and touch wood - done anything stupid, and hopefully won’t either.”

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