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Rooster Teeth’s Bernie Burns on pioneering online-only video

TechCrunch TechCrunch 6/07/2016 Felicia Williams

With more than 4.5 billion views and 8.5 million subscribers on YouTube, plus their own video platform, there is no arguing that Rooster Teeth has paved their way as one of the premier online entertainment content brands. Starting the company in the spare bedroom of Bernie Burns’ house 14 years ago — before YouTube, free video hosting or web encoding — Burns had a lot of ideas of what Rooster Teeth could be, but no way to know that video would change the way it did. This weekend Rooster Teeth, known as the creators of Red vs. Blue and other popular web series, held their annual RTX conference in Austin. Game developers, publishers and exhibitors came from near and far wanting to connect with the Rooster Teeth audience. The event featured demos of new products, debuted new RT content and showcased playthroughs of games yet to be seen by the public. Think of it as SXSW meets Comic Con, but with never-before-seen games streaming everywhere.

The inaugural RTX kicked off in 2011 with roughly 200 people and has since grown to more than 60,000, including special guests like Oculus creator Palmer Luckey and popular online video creators like Frederator Studios. The Rooster Teeth team says they plan to continue to expand the RTX brand internationally with RTX Sydney in February 2017. TechCrunch swung by RTX to see what all the fuss was about. While there, we had some time to catch up with Rooster Teeth co-founder, Bernie Burns, to talk about the event, growth and the humble roots of the Rooster Teeth brand.

TechCrunch: Can you talk about the overlap between the Rooster Teeth fans and gamer community?

Our first production was Red vs. Blue, which was built using one of the most popular games of all time (Microsoft’s Halo series) and is now the longest-running web series in the history of the internet.
 Bernie Burns: Rooster Teeth has always had a big following in the gamer community and we are lifelong gamers ourselves. Our first production was Red vs. Blue, which was built using one of the most popular games of all time (Microsoft’s Halo series) and is now the longest-running web series in the history of the internet. When Geoff Ramsey and Jack Pattillo started Achievement Hunter we expanded heavily into let’s play style gaming videos, and have since expanded with a massive roster of gaming talent and multiple channels dedicated just to gaming videos.

TechCrunch: Any news from the event that folks should know about?

Bernie: We announced new content, including new seasons of some of our most popular series, including Immersion, Million Dollars, But… and RWBY, the addition of two episodes to the current season of our new animated series Camp Camp, a new series from our popular Funhaus team and we officially greenlit a new animation and pop culture podcast called Fan Service. It was an eventful weekend.

TechCrunch: Media has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. What technology has made the biggest impact on your company?

Flash Video made platform sites like YouTube possible as well, and helped kick-start the online video revolution.
 Bernie: When Adobe introduced the Flash Video codec and player. It dramatically reduced file sizes which greatly reduced our hosting costs. Plus, it meant that you could watch video in a web browser. Previous to that, we had to make movie files available for download which could only be watched in external players. Flash Video made platform sites like YouTube possible as well, and helped kick-start the online video revolution.

TechCrunch: What moment did you realize that Rooster Teeth was a business?

Bernie: We started about three years before YouTube existed, so we had to host all the videos on our own servers at a co-location facility. When we got so many hits on our first few videos and we estimated our bandwidth bill was going to be about $12,000 a month, we knew that we had to establish a business model ASAP.

TechCrunch: As an independent media company, do you or have you ever considered yourself a media startup?

Bernie: Rooster Teeth essentially started its life in the bedroom of someone’s apartment, so we definitely have startup roots. We still have an ambitious and risk-taking startup mentality, we just now have more resources to do the things we’ve always wanted to do.

TechCrunch: How big is the company now?

Bernie: The company has around 220 employees, which is about double what we had this time last year, with growth coming to all areas of the company, including animation, live action production, broadcast production and in the production of features and series such as Day 5 and Crunch Time. We recently announced that paid subscribers to our FIRST SVOD platform is at 135K subs, with expectations to exceed 200K by end of year.

Rooster Teeth essentially started its life in the bedroom of someone’s apartment, so we definitely have startup roots.

TechCrunch: When you started adding in new original programming, how do you know what people would want to see?

Bernie: Rooster Teeth has always listened to its community, and has grown and been around for so long because we take their feedback to heart. Creatively we try to stay true to ourselves, and make content that we know we would want to see, while also considering feedback from our audience.

TechCrunch: Rooster Teeth has often gone against the grain when it comes to distribution and sponsors.That must be working OK for you, considering the recent launch of FIRST, which allows fans to subscribe for premium content and early access?

Bernie: Rooster Teeth are definitely pioneers in the world of subscription online video. When we started the company, we asked our fans for help so we could continue making Red vs. Blue and they answered in a really big way. This was our Sponsorship program, and it has been a major reason why Rooster Teeth has grown.

TechCrunch: Does having such a loyal following make doing things your own way a lot easier?

Bernie: We’re very fortunate to have this great community of fans, and it has definitely allowed us to take some risks and try new things.

TechCrunch: What has the reaction been within the community so far?

In 14 years of working in online video, I have learned that the internet demands progress, but the internet hates change.

Bernie: In 14 years of working in online video, I have learned that the internet demands progress, but the internet hates change. It’s our job to make sure the changes are actually progress. So far our fans have been pretty supportive. We saw a great response at RTX to our new Double Gold membership level, and we’re still seeing great response from fans who are signing up to watch our new series Day 5.

TechCrunch: Fans love the brand. At it’s core, what is it that you think they are drawn to, connect to?

Bernie: At Rooster Teeth we make content that we want to watch. We do not make videos simply because we think there is an audience for them. We make it for ourselves and have faith that there are enough people out there like us that will want to see it as well. This gives us a genuine, authentic voice that our viewers trust. For us, it means we have a massive global audience that is really like a huge group of friends.

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