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Super Best Friends’ breakup could’ve destroyed their gaming community. Instead, it only grew stronger

Matthew Elizondo, a graphic designer from Arizona, was hanging out online on a random Wednesday in December 2018 when he heard a strange rumor from an acquaintance: that his favorite YouTube channel, Super Best Friends Play, was ending unexpectedly.

Though Elizondo, now 26, didn’t believe it at first, a quick visit to the channel’s subreddit confirmed that was the case. After almost a decade of making video game–themed productions together on the platform, the channel’s three “best friends” were going their separate ways due to personal differences.

The breakup announcement video

Elizondo had discovered the channel years ago in high school through a mutual friend, and though he didn’t keep up with the Best Friends’ content as thoroughly as some, he would often return to their videos while doing homework or simply trying to relax after a long day at college. The end of Super Best Friends Play “was like that feeling you get when you finish a great game or book, where there’s a moment of hollowness, like, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he says. “Even though they’re just people I watched on YouTube, there was some emotional displacement for sure.”

Like many fans of the Super Best Friends — also known as the Best Friends Zaibatsu, a joking reference to Japanese megacorporations like Mitsubishi — Elizondo turned to the channel’s then 50,000 fan–strong subreddit to express his feelings. The overwhelming response to the news in the community was one of shock. Indeed, several of the subreddit’s moderators initially thought that the video was a joke. Others wondered if the community would survive the schism. “We were definitely in panic mode for a week, and we ended up losing a couple mods at the end of it,” Deltascourge, one of the subreddit’s moderators, tells Input via Discord.

However, as each individual member of the group — Patrick Boivin, Matthew Kowalewski, and Woolie Madden — unveiled his solo content, an unexpected thing happened. The Super Best Friends Play community didn’t shrink at all. In fact, in the two years since the group split up, its subreddit and Discord channel have more members than ever. The subreddit now boasts about 80,000 members; the Discord channel is at about 3,000. And there are even more Super Best Friends memes.

Since the split, ribald humor about the breakup has been a staple of the community.

“The amount of traffic is the same as it always was, maybe even a little more,” says Boivin, who now streams full-time on Twitch. “Obviously, some of that is driven by the content that each of us is making, but it’s much more than you’d expect. The community is amazingly resilient.”

It’s a phenomenon that demonstrates the power of online personality, but also reflects a new reality that might surprise those who are outside of the bubble. In our increasingly online world — an existing trend super-accelerated by the ongoing pandemic — communities of a certain size eventually take on a mind of their own, even when separated from the original impetus for their creation.

The breakup itself remains a sensitive topic for both the community and the former Super Best Friends, all three of whom are in their thirties and from Canada. Boivin says that he has no desire to discuss the specifics of the group’s dissolution, while Madden declined to comment for this piece, saying that he prefers to focus on his current YouTube channel. (Kowalewski did not respond to an interview request.) However, the general reason for the end of the channel was outright stated by Madden in the group’s final video: Boivin and Kowalewski simply weren’t friends anymore, and it no longer made sense for the two of them to produce content together.

Flame wars erupted as fans struggled to “shitpost through the sadness.”

Within the community itself, the dissolution led to a period of transition. After the news broke, ironically, the subreddit and Discord surged with new users, and flame wars erupted as fans struggled to “shitpost through the sadness,” as one put it. Different factions quickly emerged, with some conspiracy-minded fans trawling through content for clues and theories regarding the breakup itself. “There was more than enough speculation to last a lifetime,” DoseOfDhillon, one of the subreddit’s moderators, tells Input. “Why they split, who was friends with who, who betrayed who, who followed who on Twitter, etc.”

Still, QueequegTheater, another moderator of the group’s subreddit, says he’s not surprised that the community stayed together. “The subreddit has always belonged to the viewers and fans of the Best Friends Play,” QueequegTheater writes in a Discord message. “That the community persisted afterwards is, in my opinion, due in equal parts to the community’s tight-knit nature, the guys continuing to make independent content, and what I would call a concerted effort on the moderation team’s part to keep everyone together.”

That concerted effort came in the form of a mandate: forget about the drama of the breakup and focus more on discussing the solo content of each member. In addition, several moderators point to Boivin and Madden’s subsequent joint podcast, Castle Super Beast, as one of the key reasons the community continued to thrive. Though Castle Super Beast has its own name, it serves as a spiritual successor to the group’s former podcast, the Super Best Friendscast.

“The subreddit is about the members of the group, but it’s always been separate from them,” moderator Grandmaster B-Funk says via Discord. “None of the former members are moderators; it’s completely community-run. So them breaking up still didn’t break up a strong community. I do think it wouldn’t be as popular if the former members had just disappeared off the edge of the internet, but I think if even one of them is still active on the internet, the community can survive.”

Boivin never expected to become a successful YouTuber. He was bagging groceries at a supermarket to help make ends meet in college when his acquaintance Matt Kowalewski asked him to come over and help him make a silly video about a children’s game called Kirby’s Epic Yarn.

The collaboration was unexpectedly successful, and a few months later, the content network Machinima offered the duo what Boivin describes as “a couple thousand dollars a month” to produce similar videos. What was then known as Two Best Friends Play would eventually become one of the era’s most popular Let’s Play channels — in which creators play through games, providing commentary along the way — on YouTube. Woolie Madden and Liam Allen-Miller joined the group years later, adding their own individual tastes to the mix. (Allen-Miller left the group in 2016 to focus on his solo career.)

Animated GIF of Super Best Friends Play, from left to right: Matthew Kowalewski, Woolie Madden, and Patrick BoivinResetEra

Unlike many YouTube gaming channels, the Super Best Friends didn’t focus on what Boivin terms “the new hotness.” Though they initially specialized in playthroughs of well-known horror titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the channel eventually became known for its increasingly eclectic game selections. While most big-name channels would cover hit shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, the Friends would play through obscure Japanese fare, such as the bizarre mech shooter Metal Wolf Chaos or the then lesser-known role-playing game series Persona.

“I had lunch with one of the managers at Machinima, and they told me, ‘Yeah, I just don’t get it. You guys don’t play anything popular, but people still watch it. So, I guess it works out.’ That was our whole thing,” Boivin says. “It made us stand out from other channels.”

Since they eschewed of-the-moment games for a more personality-driven approach that relied entirely on the specific tastes of its members, the channel experienced steady growth, ultimately topping out at around 700,000 subscribers.

Boivin has a reputation as a curmudgeonly critic, while Kowalewski was the id of the group. (Fan Elizondo describes him as “everyone’s inner 14-year-old.”) By contrast, Madden is viewed as a friendly people-pleaser, though he loves competition, especially fighting games. As Boivin recalls, each members’ distinct character led to many good-natured disagreements, especially on their podcast, which allowed fans to identify with the specific Friend who resembled them the most.

Boivin often found himself befuddled or overwhelmed by the popularity of the group.

Boivin still finds himself haunted by stories that he told during the Zaibatsu days — stories that he barely remembers telling. People often bring up a time that he convinced a clerk to sell him a copy of a game ahead of its release date as a demonstration of his unscrupulous character. According to Boivin, this incident took place more than a decade ago, yet he still hears about it on a weekly basis.

“It’s like, look, that’s Season 1 Pat that you’re getting mad at,” he says, laughing. “I’ve heard variations of this story that have no basis in reality, from people forgetting or fudging the details. I guess when you tell something to the internet, it’s forever, but it’s still a little weird at times.”

A self-described “extreme introvert,” Boivin often found himself befuddled or overwhelmed by the popularity of the Zaibatsu, especially at conventions. However, he says he recalls the exact moment that he realized that the group commanded a significant community: a few days after the Super Best Friends began a playthrough of the then-obscure Yakuza 4, he went on Amazon and discovered that sales of the game had increased by “something like 700 percent.”

“It was a significant moment for me,” he says. “It was like, wow. That was a real cause-and-effect. We didn’t tell people to do that. We just gave the game a much bigger audience than it otherwise would have had.”

Members of the Super Best Friends Play community attribute its continued existence to its welcoming nature and the surprisingly diverse viewpoints contained within. (Though, as with many subreddits, the community appears to be overwhelmingly male.) Elizondo and several of the subreddit’s nine moderators point out that the Super Best Friends subreddit is in the top five most popular subreddits for a variety of cult Japanese video game franchises, including Devil May Cry, Yakuza, and Persona.

“There’s the sense that, hey, we’re all a bunch of weirdos, but these are my weirdos,” Elizondo says. “It’s like the people you went to high school with that you heard weird things about, but if you actually talked to them, you find out they’re into really cool, niche things. That’s what keeps us bonded together.”

The advent of COVID-19 has created both opportunities and difficulties for the subreddit and Discord, especially where moderation is concerned. According to staff, many casual users have begun spending more time in the community — presumably due to everyone having more time in their hands than usual.

While the situation has increased the footprint of these forums, it has also led to more off-topic discussions and flareups over minor disagreements. “People just seem to be on edge, and I can’t really blame them,” says the moderator with the handle Kal. “I have hopes that the sub will calm down once COVID is finally a memory, but until then, the sub is going to operate as a therapeutic outlet for people.”

“We accidentally made something that’s way bigger than any of us.”

Boivin has his own theory for why the fanbase continues to thrive. “Every community or group comes to a point where it becomes self-sustaining,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what brought you together — could be video games, could be football, could be a type of food. As we progressed as a channel, we slowly expanded our topic from horror video games to just general games to movies or anything else on the podcast. Once no specific media or content is the driving factor, it has a life of its own. Once you and your Madden buddies are bored hanging out in Discord and don’t talk about football once, it’s probably going to last forever.”

Though the Super Best Friends themselves didn’t last forever, the YouTube channel itself still remains, with thousands of hours of videos for fans to revisit or discover for the first time. Boivin himself calls the content that the group produced ultimately “ephemeral” and “transient,” but the niche nature of their output allows it to stand the test of time better than most gaming videos on YouTube. (Indeed, their videos still often show up highly on searches for certain games, particularly the Yakuza series.) Though the playthroughs themselves might eventually fade with time, the memes continue to flow on the subreddit, with no sign of abating.

“We accidentally made something that’s way bigger than any of us, and it doesn’t need any of us to continue to survive,” Boivin says. “If we all died in a plane crash tomorrow — well, we won’t, because nobody’s flying — the memes would just keep on coming. It’s a very weird feeling.”