"Critical Role": Our New Mandatory Viewing? Changing Viewer Habits and Television's Future [OPINION]

Confession Time: despite the plethora of summer viewing options, how I've spent most of my time in front of my television over the past few weeks has been watching YouTube and Twitch. I've especially been interested in the resurgance of … Minecraft videos?!? I'm as surprised as anyone, really. But what has gotten most of my attention has been Critical Role, as well as its former home on the Geek and Sundry channel, especially Tabletop. An independent channel since earlier this year, Critical Role has made 2019 their breakout year.

Is Critical Role the New Mandatory Summer Viewing? Changing Viewer Habits and The Future of TV

Somehow, given all of the stress and intense heat of summer, nothing has been as calming as watching other people playing games. For the uninitiated, Critical Role is self-described by host/Dungeon Master Matt Mercer as "a bunch of voice actor nerds sitting around playing D&D." Tabletop is host Wil Wheaton playing various board games with a rotating crew of actors, comedians, and generally interesting people.

Why? What makes Critical Role and Tabletop the equivalent of the perfect cool beverage on a hot summer day? Give credit where credit is due to the actors themselves. You likely already know most of these folks– or at least their voices — if you have played video games or watched animated shows over the last few decades. They've won Emmys, BAFTAs, and been all over some of your favorite franchises: Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Liam O'Brien, Laura Bailey, Sam Riegel, and Matt Mercer all bring their A-game as performers. Part of the magic is these are people who are all incredibly familiar with the "rules" of improv (Always say "Yes, and…") and they understand that they are all essentially creating a long-form improvised story.

Is Critical Role the New Mandatory Summer Viewing? Changing Viewer Habits and The Future of TV

This is what most makes this mandatory summer viewing for me, because it is the literal antithesis of everything that plagues our modern society. That sounds like hyperbole, but it isn't. Let me explain…

You know what sucks about modern life? Fights on social media. Politics. Division based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, urban/rural, etc, etc, etc. Most things in our life are telling us to be mad at one another. Even in geeky circles, discussions invariably gravitate towards division: Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, how you pronounce "gif," and even if pineapple belongs on pizza [Ed. Note: It does]. And really? The discussions among supposed "fans" – whether you're talking about Star Wars or self-proclaimed progressives – are even worse.

We are divided. You know why? Division is easy. Make people feel insecure and make them think they're under attack, and suddenly we all organize into armed camps. You know why division and insecurity are so common? Because people who are afraid or insecure are easy to lead – and easier to sell stuff to. Entire industries from clothing to cosmetics are based on making you feel bad about yourself and then selling you the "cure."

Tabletop gaming – and especially cooperative role-playing games – are the opposite of that (they may make you want to buy more dice, however). I have no idea what the cast of Critical Role thinks about The Last Jedi except that they were excited to see it. I don't know who they are voting for to be president. I bet they have disagreements on lots of things, like all friends do.

But they can come together for several hours every week and build something. Together, they build a magical world and an adventure and story that half a million people watch or listen to in podcast form every week. In an increasingly divided media landscape, these are numbers that rival numerous popular shows on cable and even some network shows.

As I binge episodes on YouTube, I've been even more excited to find out that there's soon going to be an animated series based on their older adventures. Thanks to fans backing a hugely successful Kickstarter, we should get 10 episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina in late 2020.

Is Critical Role the New Mandatory Summer Viewing? Changing Viewer Habits and The Future of TV

This is hugely exciting, as not everyone wants to sit through dice-rolling and counting up damage. A new animated format will allow these characters and their epic stories to be shared with an even wider audience.

Which brings me to my next question, why did this need to be a Kickstarter and not backed by a major streaming platform? Netflix is going to give us three more seasons of Big Mouth, but didn't want Vox Machina?

Perhaps the biggest thing my withdrawal into watching less television and more YouTube and Twitch has made me consider is how quickly things are changing. Even those on the bleeding edge at Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and all of the new streaming outlets coming soon are shifting how we're currently watching TV, but they're going to be blindsided by what the next truly big thing is.

And that's going to be – at least in large part – Twitch and YouTube. Already, we're seeing more and more users watching media on their phones and tablets, and they're largely tuning in to content on streaming platforms. While Netflix is currently the biggest recipient of their eye time, YouTube and Twitch aren't far behind – with users making Fortnite and Minecraft among the top searched terms on those sites. They play online, they watch online, they live online.

As these users grow up, become teens, and then young adults, Gen Z's viewing habits are going to change things in the same way Millennials and Gen X made Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu the successes they are.

It's interesting the Jeffrey Katzenberg-helmed Quibi streaming platform is looking to possibly fill in this gap, with its "quick bites" (from which Qui-Bi takes its name) being optimized for people to watch on their phones. But given their choices of programming announced so far, they seem just as intent on getting the 18-45 market and less so on attracting 13-17 year olds to their service.

Might I make a suggestion to Quibi that they look to Twitch and YouTube for what people are already consuming in small doses, like MatPat's GameTheory and FilmTheory channels, SMOSH, or Good Mythical Morning as well as the previously-mentioned Geek and Sundry.

Why? Their overwhelming positivity. The fact that they seem to want to do some good in this world rather than cashing in on never-ending cynicism and division. For instance, this video from Game Theory that still makes me happy every time I watch it:

This brings me back to Critical Role. I can't speak for every other fan, but it's a balm for my weary soul. It's the entertainment equivalent of that well-deserved cocktail after a hard day's work. It helps me face another day, as I ask myself, along with millions of others, "Is It Thursday Yet?" Thanks, Critters.

About Andy Wilson

A mild mannered digital strategist working for an environmental nonprofit in Austin, TX roaming the interwebs fighting his nemeses President Luthor and the Roxxon Corporation by day, and by night consuming all manner of media. You can find him either on his couch or at the nearest Alamo Drafthouse catching the latest. Don't follow him on Twitter @CitizenAndy.

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