Becoming a Teen YouTuber in the Times of COVID

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'Most people played Fortnite on their computers or consoles like the PS4 or Xbox, but I played on my phone,' said Jimmy Luong during an interview with KQED's Brian Watt. 'I was a mobile gamer and I happened to be really good. So I had my own thing. I stood out.' (Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images)

This article is adapted from an interview between KQED’s Brian Watt and San Francisco high school student Jimmy Luong. It was produced as part of KQED’s Youth Takeover Week.

Many high school students in the Bay Area have been learning online for over a year. Jimmy Luong, a junior at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, used the time indoors to revive a passion from his younger days. He's making videos about video games on YouTube.

Luong, 17, spent several hours a day running a YouTube channel in ninth grade. At the time, the video game Fortnite was all the rage among young people. Luong said he had a niche that gave him a great idea for a YouTube series.

“See, most people played Fortnite on their computers or consoles like the PS4 or Xbox, but I played on my phone,” he said during an interview with KQED's Brian Watt. “I was a mobile gamer and I happened to be really good. So I had my own thing. I stood out.”

Fortnite, a Battle Royale game that has swept the video game world since its release in 2017, garnered more than 350 million registered players as of May 2020, during the early months of the pandemic. In a typical game, about 100 people play in a video game “lobby,” and the last one standing wins.

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Luong found a group of followers: people who both wanted to be good at playing Fortnite on their phones and who wanted to excel at it.

“The way I played the game, I liked to get as many kills as I could while also landing that victory,” he said. “I've tended to get about 20 to 30 kills out of 100. So that's a big percentage of the lobby. That's what most of my viewers came to watch.”

But staying up past midnight for over 11 months to edit and post YouTube videos proved to be too much time for one single hobby. So Luong decided to stop and focus on school and off-screen hobbies.

Then the  pandemic hit. Luong found himself again in front of screens — like most Americans in lockdown — this time for hours and hours at a time without alternative activities. He decided to give his video game channel another shot, but this time with a newer game in the Call of Duty franchise.

“This time around, I don't feel as ... guilty of gaming for so long, because I do it anyways I'm not forced to go outside because, well — I can't,” he said. “Since I'm already just gaming, I might as well just record it and edit and upload.”

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According to a 2019 poll, YouTuber or vlogger was the most popular dream career among U.S. kids surveyed. Luong, whose channel reached 15,000 subscribers at its peak, aspired toward that career goal.

“The reason I think my channel really blew up was because I was super dedicated. I wanted this to be my job,” he said.

Luong quickly realized he could easily monetize his channel. But to do that, he would need to provide bank information that he didn’t have and that his parents refused to provide.

Lately, he’s considering other career options.

“I really want to get into movie acting. I think I like working in the entertainment industry. That's why I like YouTube so much,” he said.