How The Sidemen built a huge Gen-Z audience and turned them into customers

How The Sidemen built a huge Gen-Z audience and turned them into customers

  • Media & Entertainment

24th July 2023

 

The Sidemen epitomize the nichification of culture. Instantly recognisable to Gen-Z audiences, their long-form YouTube videos outstrip the reach and viewing figures of just about every TV show in their native UK. And yet, the group could likely pass unnoticed were they to materialize in a crowd of people even just slightly older than their target audience. 

So who are they?

Today the biggest YouTube group in the UK, The Sidemen were initially streamers who banded together to create content around Grand Theft Auto V. The name stemmed from a humorous acknowledgement that some members of the group were trading on the reputations of others better established in the gamer-YouTuber sphere (sideman in UK slang means a kind of hanger-on).

Streaming video games remains part of their oeuvre. But so too does an only-just-unsuccessful attempt at a Christmas No.1; a sellout football match at a London stadium; and globetrotting content that calls on considerably larger budgets.

 

The collective has evolved from bedroom streamers into bona fide celebrities, thanks to a heady combination of schoolboy humour, eclectic content, and vlogger-style parasocial relationships ― in which viewers regard the members as they might real-world friends. 

To explore the nature of the Sidemen’s relationship with Gen-Z audiences, and how they’ve increasingly leveraged this relationship into commercial ventures, we analyzed over half a million conversational data points from sources including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, News and TV.

These commercial ventures range from live events, to clothing, fast food and vodka brands. The most famous member, KSI, transmuted his fame as a FIFA streamer into music, boxing and the foundation of energy drink Prime.

While none of the others have achieved the same level of individual success, collectively the group (known interchangeably by their birth names and gamer tags) has followed the same path from streaming to real world events and business tie-ins. 

Who are the Sidemen?

While KSI's boxing career and part-ownership of Prime ensure that he has a far greater presence in the US; the desperately ill-advised use of a racial slur as part of a shocking ‘joke’ has also ensured notoriety beyond his usual audiences. 

In general, The Sidemen’s content balances a more modern approach to masculinity (the group incorporates different class and racial backgrounds, and are openly supportive of each other’s mental health), with offensive, ‘canceleable’ humor, invested –mostly– with enough irony to make it clear that these are not genuine positions.

This type of juvenile humor is, of course, familiar from classrooms and locker rooms across the world, and has been an essential component in the formation of a devoted, predominantly male, Gen Z fandom.

Who's talking about the Sidemen online?

A look at the communities driving the conversation reveals not one, but two main fandom groups. Indicative of the hyper-engaged fans the group generates, both Sunday Sidefans and Sidemen Superfans are defined by their engagement with the collective.  The main disparity is that, while the former follow the members and their output, the latter also follow their staff, partners and collaborators. This community focuses on the whole ecosystem, and so is the most openly parasocial, in addition to being the most gender diverse.

The other communities reflect the interest groups from which the original Sidemen fandom was formed, including sports fans and gamers. These groups have also grown increasingly international over time, with the FIFA Gaming Community, for instance, now incorporating fans from the US, Portugal and Ireland. 

So what are these fans talking about? We’ve already charted how continued online conversation around the Sidemen can redirect attention to their businesses, which include Sidemen Clothing, Sides (a chain of fried chicken shops), and XIX vodka. But how does this compare to their main content types, and other forays into entertainment?

We can broadly split each of these activities between three categories. First, those that exist entirely digitally and are more representative of the group's earliest output. That includes all gaming content (including their FIFA, GTA and Among Us play-alongs), as well as Sidemen Sundays ― a hour long show that drops each Sunday, and can take the form of anything from travelogue to retro game show. 

Then there are the ‘hybrid’ activities that incorporate both a YouTube element, and either real-world events or frontiers far beyond YouTube . Football challenges, for instance, formed a key part of the group’s earliest video content, while their recent Charity Football matches sell out professional football stadiums ― a clear case of transmuting online fame into a real-world setting. 

Finally, there are ventures entirely commercial, such as clothing, food and vodka brands. While there is some criticism of their commercialization (especially when something is perceived to be bad quality), their fanbase is broadly supportive of their ventures.

Gen Z have grown up in a world where commercialization and branding are ubiquitous. So they may be more accepting of this and not view them as negatively as older generations.

The flip-side of this is that, as the group (and influencer culture in general) become increasingly commercialized, fans can feel more entitled to good content, as they have not just invested time in this group, but also likely invested money as well.

We can see how some of these different categories  ―digital, hybrid and commercial― map onto the audience segments we’ve already identified.

Naturally, this move towards commercialisation doesn’t just turn fans into consumers, but also fans into ex-fans. The Sidemen already have to contend with a degree of churn, as long-term viewers feel like they’ve ‘aged out’ out of the content. Some of these fans simply chose to engage with older content, out of nostalgia. 

 

 

The loyalty of the Sidemen fanbase can bring with it its own challenges. Fans can become hypercritical of content, while others can skew towards defensiveness, in conversations that often turn toxic. Overhyped videos can underwhelm, with fans benchmarking expectations against videos which vary wildly in scale and budget. 

Original fans can act as gatekeepers ― often through inside jokes and shared references incomprehensible to anyone outside the fandom, but also through occasionally aggressively shutting down newcomers or female voices. 

Beyond these heated inflection points, what forms does the Sidemen conversation take online?

Admiration plays a huge part in this conversation, and is key to the group’s ability to leverage their profiles. Having matured from teenage streamers into multi-millionaires with families, audiences see the group almost as they might a childhood friend who has gone to achieve massive material success. 

The sense of familiarity remains (exemplified by the number of parasocial references), and audiences feel proud rather than alienated by the group’s riches. Buying a Sidemen hoodie or bottle of vodka therefore feels less like being taken advantage of, and more like sharing in and being associated with some of the group’s successes.

Sidemen Superfans exhibit predictably parasocial behavior, but so too do Twitch Gamers, who are likely to see themselves as fellow gamer-creatives. This can lead to them both producing and sharing user generated content.

 

Football Fanatics, meanwhile, over-index for criticism ―driven by the controversy around KSI’s use of the racial slur. Their willingness to criticise may derive from their status as more ‘casual’ fans, less inclined to defend the errors made by a member. At the same time, the narrative of stratospherically successful young men getting carried away in the midst of their success is a dynamic familiar from professional football, and therefore something the community is primed to call out. 

The Sidemen are only the latest embodiment of nichification ― a product of global cultural exchange, the rise of social & streaming platforms, and the collapse of cultural institutions that have historically served younger audiences. Notions such as A-lister and B-lister are already antiquated. Better to forge a strong relationship with a smaller group than a diluted, more generalized fame.

 


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