More than 1,000 people came to see Brian Awadis.
They queued outside the Hollywood headquarters of its parent company, FaZe Clan, in a line that snaked around the block: a gaggle of impatient preteens, streetwear-clad high schoolers, and beleaguered parents slowly making their way down Melrose Avenue.
They waited many hours to confront the vlogger, who regularly entertains audiences as large as the population of Sri Lanka.
“I would literally like to meet every single person,” Awadis, standing on a stage inside the warehouse-like office, told fans who already had it. “My team tells me it’s impossible.”
Those outside Awadis’ orbit might be puzzled as to how it can draw such large crowds. With only a handful of IMDb credits – all as himself – he’s hardly your standard celebrity; after a short stint in Los Angeles, 26-year-old San Diegan returned south to be closer to home.
Yet on the internet, or at least in some corners of it, it’s kind of a big deal. Twenty-two million people follow him on YouTube, his favorite platform, where he posts top-notch pranks and generously funded stunts. Others continue to keep up with her life on TikTok (9.6 million), Instagram (6.6 million), and Twitter (2.6 million). Under the guidance of FaZe Rug, he’s turned all of that online power into a personalized energy drink, a short-lived podcast, and most recently, a signature “Rugfather” DoorDash sandwich.
It was this sandwich association which brought him and his legions of fans in droves to the Hollywood meetup.
“I love him,” said Ethan Comingore, 15, of San Bernardino. “I watch it day and night.”
There is a lot of money in all of this, both from fans who loyally wait hours on the sidewalk in hopes of banging their fist on their favorite YouTube star, and from brands who, as with DoorDash, want access to the sizable soapboxes Awadis and other big-name social media personalities have fun.
Join FaZe Clan, the vast web content and lifestyle brand that staged the event this summer. It is among many companies trying to capitalize on the huge demand. This summer, the company has gone public in a reverse merger worth $725 million, with mixed results.
That number surpassed a previous projection of $1 billion, and the company’s stock price has plummeted ever since. After FaZe Clan debuted at around $13 a share, but in a broader context downturn in the technology sectorthe price fell sharply, closing Friday at $2.44.
“Going public has given us a balance sheet we’ve never had before…to really invest in our current business [and] building the future,” said CEO Lee Trink.
Sitting somewhere at the crossroads of a management agency, record label, and artist collective, FaZe is largely built around influencers, streamers, and web personalities with ties to the gaming world. The company also fields esports teams and makes money lining up endorsement deals with brands.
FaZe regularly makes forays into hip-hop, professional sports and fitness, and has reflected on adventures in gambling and crypto. While it’s still heavy on players, Lil Yachty added, LeBron James Jr. and Snoop Dogg as affiliates. The latter wore a FaZe branded chain during his Super Bowl halftime show earlier this year.
It’s all part of a company-wide shift from gamer to youth culture – a larger, if less defined market – that has been percolating since the early days of FaZe.
FaZe started in 2010 when a group of teenagers started posting shots of “Call of Duty” on YouTube. From there it grew, making a name for itself among video game fans and branching out into esports teams, “content house” influencers, and other ventures. Today it has about 100 employees.
Awadis was recruited for his gaming skills, but has branched out into lifestyle vlogging and other personality-based content, as have some of his peers.
The result has been a company that defies pigeonholing. In a 2021 presentation to investorsFaZe suggested combining MTV’s generational appeal, Disney’s cross-platform reach, Roc Nation’s celebrity prestige, and NBA fan loyalty.
The company grossed $14 million income in the third quarter, up 12% over the same period last year (about half from branded contracts). The company also reported a pre-tax loss of $12 million this quarter, which reflects costs from hiring and going public. That same loss was $4.1 million a quarter earlier.
It’s not the only company trying to turn likes and shares into a sustainable business model. In fact, with so much money splashing around in the creator economy, there’s plenty of financial incentive to turn individual influencers into larger business ventures.
Some have started their own retail brands. Others moved to “content houses” so that they can live and work together under a shared identity. Even more have connected for structured creative collaborations, such as a “Saturday Night Live”-esque TikTok comedy magazine. FaZe isn’t alone in trying to blend gamer culture with social influence, either: Los Angeles-based brand 100 Thieves has attempted something similar.
It’s an industry that relies heavily on the unique appeal of specific web personalities. This can make it profitable but also risky; if those personalities burn out, get erased, or slowly start to lose the fickle interest of the internet, much of the value and reach they had to offer goes with them.
“[FaZe Clan] they have a lot of influencers and creators, obviously, but Twitch, YouTube and TikTok are much bigger and none of them have the answer to how to monetize and scale,” said Michael Pachter, managing director for equity research at Wedbush Securities, the whose portfolio includes games and digital entertainment.
Disputes with influencers can also arise. Influencer Alissa Marie Violet Butler sued FaZe Clan last year the company’s stock said it was owed (the company has denied its complaints). That same year, FaZe REMOVED three members for their alleged promotion of a cryptocurrency “pump and dump” scheme; a fourth were suspended but later recalled. And in 2020, streaming personality Turner Tenney settled a contract dispute with the company after claiming they exploited him.
In a 2021 investor presentation, FaZe cited as a risk factor that “a small number of esports professionals, influencers, and content creators have historically accounted for a substantial portion of our revenue.”
A large part of FaZe’s address to new talent is its logistical support. It offers affiliate creators help disputing sponsorship deals and access to internal management, advertising, legal, merchandising and sales teams, and sees itself as an incubator for emerging creatives.
“Any business like this, if you want to be on the cutting edge of youth culture, you better have your people closest to the ground,” Trink said.
Among those new entries is Gabriel Gélinas, a Canadian streamer from Quebec who was admitted to the roster earlier this year under the name FaZe Proze after winning a recruiting contest.
“FaZe has done a great job of trying to evolve and innovate,” said Gélinas, 24. “That’s why it seems to me that they are always looking for new people.”
Another recent addition to the list — Donald De La Haye, or FaZe Deestroying — said the firm has everything it could ask for in a partnership: “the infrastructure, the business mind, the capital, the knowledge.”
A former college football kicker, De La Haye was deemed unsuitable for the NCAA in 2017 after refusing to stop earning ad revenue from his YouTube channel. These days he makes videos on football and sports culture with the logistical support of FaZe.
“They definitely help take things off my plate,” said De La Haye, 25.
It’s not always clear how much of FaZe’s popularity comes from the overall brand versus the star power of individual members.
“I don’t really watch FaZe, I just watch FaZe Rug videos,” said Kevin Isais, 13, as he stood in line for the DoorDash meeting.
In fact, FaZe Clan’s corporate YouTube channel has less than 40% of followers than Awadis’ personal one.
Awadis is one of the most followed creators on the company’s roster, so he’s not necessarily representative, and FaZe still has more fans than him on Instagram and Twitter. However, he raises the question: who needs whom most?
“I’m like the CEO of my own company, but then I’m also a part of FaZe,” Awadis said. “So my stuff helps FaZe and vice versa.”
But keeping the larger institution stable can sometimes mean shifting its composite parts.
Yousef Abdelfattah, known online as FaZe Apex, was a member of the brand when they were just a few teenagers posting ‘Call of Duty’ photos online. But as FaZe grew, Abdelfattah began to handle some of his day-to-day managerial work.
“I’ve always done the kind of work — I don’t mean annoying, but the less exciting stuff,” she said. “In 2016-17, when the business was more mature and when we had an office, we had employees, I started balancing content creation with… decision making.”
These days, Abdelfattah spends much of his time mediating between the company’s management and talent, the whisper of the resident players, so to speak.
“Content creation is very challenging,” he said, “and that spark, I think, has gone out. … I was lucky that when I hit that wall, I was able to still be super invested in the company that I love.
The 26-year-old has also adopted a mentorship role among the recruits. One of the new teenage members calls him a “boomer”.
Internet culture changes rapidly, and 12-year-old FaZe is pretty much a legacy brand at this point. However, it keeps changing, even if that means evolving beyond the people and ideas it started with.
“It’s more of a group effort now,” Abdelfattah said. “All of us [early members] we’ve brought in people who we know understand the internet, understand this world, who can help us stay on track. … We are constantly trying to build a monster team of internet geniuses.