By: Adam Perkinson
Minecraft is one of the best selling video games of all time.
Actually, as of May 2019, it is *the* best selling videogame of all time. Across its multiple-platform releases, starting with PC in 2009 and stretching to include modern-day consoles, Mojang’s Minecraft has sold over 176 million titles, due in large part to the exponential boom it had between 2011 and 2015. Between June 2011 and June 2015, the PC version alone sold over 17 million copies. And with the ensuing releases on Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and even on mobile devices, it should be no surprise to see it at the top. On that same note, however, it hasn’t always been a rose garden for the game.
Markus Persson, better known as “Notch”, developed the earliest version of the game in early 2009. He continued to update it in its alpha stages until he formed his own company, Mojang, in September 2010 after which he employed a small team of developers. At this point, Minecraft was just getting on its feet, with only around 4 million Google searches at the time. However, at the same time a year later, searches increased tenfold. Minecraft saw the full PC release in November 2011 and reached 1 million sales within 2 months. Ports to the Xbox 360 and PS3 were released in 2012 and 2014 respectively, which further skyrocketed sales. According to Mojang, they made $240 million in 2012 alone; Notch reported that he personally made $101 million, bringing Minecraft’s total profits to $341 million.
Minecraft wasn’t only making its creators rich – it was also becoming a cultural phenomenon. At its peak in July 2013, Minecraft was being searched for over 100 million times worldwide. YouTubers like SkyDoesMinecraft and Captain Sparklez were amassing millions of subscribers who were hungry for their Minecraft Let’s Plays. Multiplayer also became very popular, sparking entire websites dedicated for people to advertise and find other servers to play on. There was also a convention that traveled around the world each year, appropriately dubbed Minecon, where thousands of players met the developers, learned about upcoming updates, and influential people within the community. There was, quite simply, a fire that was spreading. But as 2013 came to a close, there were signs that this fire was running out of fuel.
July 2013. Minecraft was king. 100 million different people search for “Minecraft” on Google. Merchandise was being produced; a port to Sony’s Playstation 3 was announced; Minecraft was already solidified in the collective pop culture mind of Generation Z, but there didn’t appear to be any sign that its growth was slowing down…
By August, things began to slow down, although only just at first. There was a slight dip in searches, but it was nothing major. There’s only so much information you could find about a game with no objective, right? By Halloween, however, there was a much more drastic drop in interest with a decrease in around 30 million searches.
Along with the decreasing search numbers, Minecraft was also changing from a cultural phenomenon to a collection of sweaty, stinky, annoying little kids that became the subject of many a cringe/awkward moments compilation. These kids and compilations became what people thought of when they heard someone mention Minecraft. I remember Minecraft becoming almost taboo to talk about in school for fear of ridicule during the transition between 5th and 6th grade, which would have been right when it was starting its decline in late 2013.
In mid-2014, rumors began swirling around that Persson was going to sell Mojang and the entirety of Minecraft to technology and gaming industry giant Microsoft. By November, Mojang became a part of Microsoft Studios following a $2.5 billion transaction, and Markus Persson, the man responsible for creating it all, was gone. Despite this, the acquisition did nothing to stop the leak of people leaving the Minecraft boat. Attendance levels at Minecon were beginning to drop to levels where there were no longer physical conventions, but rather what they called “interactive live streams”. The relevance of Minecraft was diminishing, and the fire that once burned bright was becoming a slow smolder. It became another game that came and went, and with the eventual rise of the battle royale genre in 2017 and the almost literal explosion that was Fortnite, Minecraft continued its fade into obscurity.
The world seemed bleak for Mojang. Was it destined to become another studio killed by Microsoft because their best-known game was dying? Could Minecraft be saved? And even if it could, who would want to?
In early 2012, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games movie was released to international acclaim. It also sparked another gamemode for multiplayer servers, aptly named “Minecraft Hunger Games”. Fast forward 6 years to 2018; Epic Games’ Fortnite exploded onto the scene much like Minecraft did just a few years previous. The battle royale genre was the new fire. And to no surprise, Minecraft was still not referenced much in popular culture.
However, sometime in the fall of 2018, people began to reminisce. They started memes about how Fortnite copied PUBG…and how they both copied Minecraft. Suddenly, a game that was destined for abandonware sites was being talked about again. Kids who grew up playing it began thinking about playing it again, myself included. And soon enough, people were playing it again. By December, there was a small increase in search numbers, but it was nothing to get excited over. (It should also be noted that by this time, Minecraft Youtubers were mostly irrelevant. They either stopped uploading altogether (looking at you, SkyDoesMinecraft) or they moved on to other games. This was undoubtedly due to the decrease in interest in the game). And soon enough, Minecraft’s active player count surpassed Fortnite’s.
And then in May 2019, Minecraft turned 10, further fueling the nostalgia. Slowly but surely, the game was making a return. However, the return was still nothing close to what it would be until perhaps one of the single most influential Youtubers of all time stepped in.
The tenth anniversary of the release of Minecraft brought an onslaught of memes, especially the ones that made fun of Fortnite for copying the Minecraft hunger game minigames. PewDiePie (aka Felix Kjellberg), having played Minecraft on his channel back when the game was still in its alpha stages, noticed the memes, and after hundreds of tweets begging him to play it, he uploaded the first video in his Minecraft Let’s Play in June 2019.
Immediately, interest in the game exploded again. Overall searches had been creeping back up following the tenth anniversary, but they nearly doubled following PewDiePie’s video. He meant for it to be a one-off joke, but there was overwhelming support for him to make an entire series out of it. Minecraft certainly didn’t need PewDiePie, however; the game was already averaging 91 million active players at the time of his upload. However, while the game was statistically popular, it wasn’t culturally popular in that it wasn’t being discussed nor was it enjoying the massive online success it was back in 2012 for example. A term first coined by analysts in 2014 was still applicable – “The PewDiePie Effect”. Whenever he uploads a video of him playing a game, sales of the game drastically increase. And while sales of Minecraft were not drastically affected, it instead put it back in the spotlight. The question is now not will Minecraft stick around – that’s obvious at this point – but rather, how long will it stay at the top? And when it does fall, will our kids be the ones who revive it, or will we be the weird parents in 10 years who still play video games from their childhood?