Rooster Teeth Levels Up
Gaming video pioneers go big with a feature film and an expanding convention
It's the biggest Austin media event that nobody in Austin knows about, from the biggest online content producer in town. This weekend, Rooster Teeth will sell out the Austin Convention Center with its fifth annual RTX gathering, as fans from around the world gather for the latest scoop on shows like Red vs. Blue and X-Ray and Vav. Founder Burnie Burns explained, "The RTX phenomenon is what it's like to make online content as a whole." Even with 8.25 million YouTube subscribers and 4 billion views, it's hard to grasp how big the phenomenon is. But, he said, "when you see 30,000 people crammed into one convention center, then you get it."
So what is Rooster Teeth anyway? Founded in 2003 in Austin, Rooster Teeth co-founder and RTX co-director Gus Sorola describes it as a YouTube channel mixed with Facebook, with its own news division and animation studio. Meanwhile co-director Barbara Dunkelman compares it to an online broadcaster like Hulu, only it's all original material. She said, "We have this network of shows that are all across the board; we have gaming, we have animation, we have something for everybody, and then there's a community surrounding that."
As for RTX, Sorola called it "the grand cult meeting, where you gather your biggest fans and tell them what you're doing, and they go out and evangelize the cult for you throughout the world." Originally conceived in 2011 as a small meet-up for 200 fans, a bug in their online store meant they sold 650 tickets in the first minute. The next year, Sorola told convention center management that he wanted to book one or two halls "and then in five years, I want to fill the convention center. They went, 'First of all, you're crazy.' Everybody that talks to us says that. But I said, 'No, I really think we can do it.'"
Sorola was wrong. It only took four years for the event to get so big that it's spread into the Hilton Austin and the JW Marriott. That's meant a massive learning curve. Dunkelman said, "Every event, you learn something that you didn't do right that you can fix for next year, so every year has been a huge learning event." However, she added, "being on panels, or just seeing big crowds of people cheering or laughing or just having fun, you can't really ask for more than that."
It can be a schizophrenic experience for the team. Since Burns, Dunkelman, and Sorola appear on multiple Rooster Teeth shows, they're not just running RTX: they're also panelists and performers. One minute, Sorola said, "you'll be in an environment where there's 30,000 people cheering for you, and it's a real rock star moment." The next, they're back in operations manager mode. He said, "People will be trying to talk to me and I'll have to say, 'Listen, I'm really sorry, I need to go run and deal with something.'"
This year will be the biggest RTX to date. For the first time ever, there's live music, with performances by the console-loving symphonic Video Game Orchestra and original Canadian nerd rockers Barenaked Ladies on Saturday night. Plus there will be multiple panels about Lazer Team, Rooster Teeth's first-ever feature film, whose crowdfunding campaign broke records on Indiegogo. Such growth is expanding attendance beyond Rooster Teeth loyalists. Sorola said, "It's people who are casually interested in games or online content, and we can teach them about what we're doing and show them other cool things that we may have in store."
It all means RTX is getting comparable in size to events like SXSW Interactive. So, last month the team expanded by 50% when they added a third co-director, Bethany Feinstein. Both Dunkelman and Sorola quickly admit she may be the most experienced event organizer on the team. At the same time, Feinstein said, "I'm getting a crash course on RTX, and I don't think there's any better way to learn."
But as big as the event gets, most Austinites will have no clue that it's happening. That's a byproduct of Rooster Teeth's history. Founded when streaming video and social media were in their infancy, the team took a DIY approach. Sorola said, "We weren't tied to someone else's platform. We were the platform." So while other sites rose and fell with Friendster and MySpace, Rooster Teeth has been a constant. The flip side is that RTX became an international phenomenon before Austin even knew it existed. Sorola said, "The fact that the show sells out leads to us not wanting to market the show, but if we don't market the show, people locally don't learn about it."
Now as Austin starts to embrace RTX, RTX embraces the rest of the world. 2016 sees its first overseas iteration, with RTX Australia scheduled for next January in Sydney. Burns said, "We're already traveling so much for other people's events, it only made sense to investigate having those events for ourselves." So while the mothership event will continue to grow in Austin, he called the antipodean expansion "a great indication of what's to come for RTX."
RTX 2015 runs Aug. 7-9 at the Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez. More info at www.rtxevent.com.