2014: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
The week of December 28, 2014
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The 14 most important YouTubers of 2014

By Rae Votta

It’s hardly been business as usual for YouTube in 2014. As the video-sharing site enters its 10th year, it’s a far cry from its original incarnation. In fact, YouTube has faced a shakeup on all fronts, from what it means to be a YouTuber to where those creators fit into the broader entertainment landscape. 

In 2014, we had a community racked with allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, forcing many to take a stand to defend the safe spaces they’d been hoping to create. The scrutiny was not just confined to YouTube, however, because YouTube is now part and parcel of pop culture, thanks to the influx of money and interest from the mainstream entertainment establishment.

YouTube had been making money prior to this year, of course, but in 2014 the big checks started coming in the form of buyouts of multichannel networks. After DreamWorks Animation snapped up AwesomenessTV in 2013, Disney followed suit in 2014 with its acquisition of Maker Studios for $500 million. More mergers, partnerships, and dollars continued to flow throughout 2014, as Hollywood began to catch up with the potential profitability of YouTube stars.

Meanwhile, those stars continued their upward climb, inking their own deals that often brought their digital presences to wider audiences through TV, film, radio, and retail. There were many with powerful, impressive years in the YouTube space, but these 14 of 2014 were the standouts—the YouTubers a newbie should aspire to be, and the ones that are living the 2014 ideal of changing the face of entertainment.

YouTube has faced a shakeup on all fronts, from what it means to be a YouTuber to where those creators fit into the broader entertainment landscape.

One thing worth noting: No one who made our 2014 list joined the platform this year. As nice as it is that YouTube has a low barrier of entry, getting to the upper echelon now is pretty difficult to manage in 12 months. For all of 2014’s ambitions about nobodies becoming somebodies through the power of digital—Alex From Target notwithstanding—the line between creators and their fans may actually be sharper and more divisive in 2014 than ever before. The explosion of YouTube tours in 2014, from DigiTour’s expansion to Fullscreen’s new INTOUR experience, proves that fans are ready to spend money on their idols. But as things like VidCon boomed, they also more clearly showed the divide between the stars and the fans who made them.

If 2014 is the year Hollywood truly came calling to YouTube, perhaps there’s no turning back.

Still, at its core, YouTube is about the people who make the videos, and the fans who love them. Here are the YouTubers who are helping redefine the smallest screen for big entertainment value.

14) DevonSupertramp

If you want to see impossibly beautiful adventure videos, look no further than Devon Supertramp, a.k.a. Devon Graham. Graham’s first taste of video mischief came filming his snowboarding stunts as a kid, which translated to studying film at Brigham Young University. He left without the degree, however, to focus on the budding medium of YouTube.

His series of Parkour in Real Live videos—brand deals to promote the Assassin’s Creed line of video games—are perhaps collectively his most popular videos and a bright example of branding deals done right. That’s the Devon Supertramp way. He can pull off both his vision for a visually stunning and fun video shoot, like his Zorb soccer extravaganza for Champion, and still get across brand messaging in a way that doesn’t alienate his fanbase. That’s an essential skill for any aspiring YouTube superstar who wants to make a living with their craft.

13) Kingsley

Best known for his pop culture commentary and rants, Kingsley is a veritable YouTube force with more than 2.9 million subscribers. He’s one of YouTube’s most outspoken and hilarious personalities—a reputation he’s been cultivating since he started uploading videos in Missouri in 2010. Attention from places like Tosh.0 that year for his “Things I Hate” video launched him into stardom, and Kingsley hit the ground running.

Kingsley is in L.A. now, taking a break from college to focus on his YouTube career. So far it’s paid off, with Kingsley hosting a new show on CleverTV and launching a podcast, all while still managing his demanding schedule for his own channel.

12) Pentatonix

YouTube and music are intrinsically tied, so it’s no surprise that a singing group makes our list. This a cappella fivepiece rose to prominence as the winners of NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011, although they didn’t start their popular YouTube channel until 2012. Their massive appeal hinges on both the inventive way they use YouTube to showcase their style. 

With six releases under their belts—three during 2014 alone—Pentatonix snagged their first Grammy nomination this year. Their Daft Punk medley already earned them a Streamy in 2014—and over 100 million views on their channel.

They’re also a YouTube double-whammy. Two members, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi, also helm SuperFruit, a popular vlog channel. Pentatonix poised for an even more dominant 2015, when they’ll be part of Pitch Perfect 2, but not as themselves. They’ll all play part of a rival a cappella group to the Bellas. Aca-awesome.

11) Jenna Marbles

Video may have killed the radio star, but one of 2014’s biggest success stories is a YouTube star who made the jump to the radio. Jenna Marbles has been letting viewers in on her daily life on her massively successful YouTube channel since 2010.

Now Marbles hosts the YouTube 15, a weekly show on Sirius XM’s pop channel that highlights the best trending songs on the video platform. It’s a mix of well-known pop hits and quirky viral sensations that rarely get mainstream shine. As a host, Marbles feels no different than her YouTuber persona, but all her curse words are bleeped with a squeaky toy, a nod to her dog Mr. Marbles, who tapes each show with her. With 14 million subscribers on YouTube, she’s the most popular channel operated by a woman on the service, and she’s brought home plenty of accolades, including the Best First Person Series award at this year’s Streamys. Based on the success of her Sirius outing, the satellite radio network is now offering a YouTube-based EDM show as well. It’s a short hop, skip, and a jump away to an all-YouTube channel. 

10) Michelle Phan

If you need to know how to create a smokey eyelid, Michelle Phan is the woman for you. With her Bob Ross-style voiceover tutorials, this beauty vlogger has the trust of more than 7.2 million on YouTube, and she’s dipping her toe in the mainstream as well.

In 2013 Phan launched em, her own makeup line in conjunction with L’Oreal, which has had continued success in 2014. Phan kicked off 2014 with the reveal of her own Dr. Pepper advertisement, which celebrated the YouTuber as “one of a kind.” Her advertising presence didn’t end there, as she became one of the faces of YouTube’s own campaign to spotlight creators. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Phan in 2014. She’s become embroiled in a battle over music rights with Ultra Records, whose EDM recordings Phan has often used in videos. But a high-profile lawsuit is just how you know you’re at the top.

9) Smosh

When Variety reported this year that YouTubers had overtaken traditional celebrities in terms of influence on teenagers, Smosh was crowned teen royalty. For unaware parents, Smosh is a duo of 26-year-old comedians, Ian Andrew Hecox and Anthony Padilla. Their spate of parodies, from films to video games, are devoured by their 19 million fans each week. They also command nine other Smosh-related channels on YouTube, focused on specific topics like gaming and an entire channel devoted to versions of their videos with Spanish dubbing.

When Variety reported this year that YouTubers had overtaken traditional celebrities in terms of influence on teenagers, Smosh was crowned teen royalty.

The duo’s next step in teenage world domination? They announced a film in 2014. Directed by Alex Winter and written by Eric Falconer, Smosh won’t stray far from their YouTube roots in a  jump to the big screen. The movie will star Jenna Marbles, Grace Helbig, Harley Morenstein, and Shane Dawson, among other YouTube celebrities.

8) Hannah Hart

Hannah Hart has been getting drunk and cooking for the entertainment of others on YouTube since 2009, and the world loves her for it. She was part of Camp Takota, a film with fellow vloggers Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart (no relation), that fans began ferociously downloading in February. 

She’s often known as one third of YouTube’s “Holy Trinity” with Helbig and Mamrie Hart—the trio launched #NoFilter, a national live comedy tour, this year—but in 2014 Hannah also stood out on her own as she launched herself beyond her YouTube channel. Her book My Drunk Kitchen, a mashup of a self-help tome and a cooking guide, hit the bestseller list. She’s also locked in tons of high-profile collaborations on her channel, from Sarah Silverman to Mary-Louise Parker, and has continued her work for the LGBTQ community, further fueling the flames of love for “Hartosexuals” everywhere.

7) The Fine Bros.

If a precocious child reacts to a piece of archaic ’90s technology and the Fine Bros. aren’t there to film it, did it really happen? Their React series of videos, in which different demographics react to various pop culture or nostalgic events and elements, tends to be instant viral gold when each installment is released. Benny and Rafi Fine are by no means newbies to the video scene. They’ve been making content since they were kids and put their first video online in 2004, well before YouTube. In 2012, the duo even snagged a Daytime Emmy in 2012 for best viral series.

If a precocious child reacts to a piece of archaic ’90s technology and the Fine Bros. aren’t there to film it, did it really happen?

Their YouTube domination shows no signs of stopping, only expanding. YouTube stars have launched from their ranks, like AwesomenessTV star Lia Marie Johnson, and they’ve been able to spin off React into its own channel in 2014 with new programming. Their newest venture is a feature film focused on high school life and teen angst, while their TV show for Nickelodeon launched this month.

6) PewDiePie

This Swedish gamer is YouTube’s reigning subscriber champ, with 32 million followers, but few outside the YouTube ecosystem even know Felix Kjellberg by name. The 25-year-old began making Let’s Play-style videos in 2010, and in three short years, has honed the most-subscribed-to channel on the platform.

Kjellberg faced some bumps and controversy in 2014, like when he turned off comments on his videos, which caused some viewership to slip this fall, or when rumors surfaced that he wanted to part ways with Maker Studios when his contract expired. Still, PewDiePie remains on top and has received one of the biggest mainstream honors of any YouTuber. Kjellberg recently appeared in a South Park episode that featured a storyline all about his ilk of vloggers. It’s hard to imagine a bigger nerd honor.

5) Zoe Sugg

The Brits of YouTube are a powerful collective force, but Zoella, real name Zoe Sugg, is their queen bee. The 24-year-old beauty vlogger commands 6.6 million subscribers who are hooked on her hauls, fashion advice, and personal banter.

Her most recent venture, a coming-of-age novel Girl Online, made history with 78,000 copies sold, the most for a debut novelist. However, her publishing house was forced to admit that Sugg had help on the book after online chatter ramped up about a freelance writer thanked in the style most ghostwriters receive on celebrity books. Sugg owned up to the help on her social media and has moved on. It’s only a small blemish on an otherwise striking year for Sugg. She launched a beauty line, has been featured in British Vogue, and won a plethora of awards, including a both a Teen Choice Award and a Kids’ Choice Award.

4) Laci Green

When you think of feminism on YouTube, you think Laci Green. The vlogger has been a sex educator on the platform since 2008, most recently with her series Sex+, which has over 1.1 million subscribers. She’s spoken out about the harassment women in the YouTube space receive, both in online comments and in real life at events.

Laci Green is leading the charge for a safer and sex-smarter world right from YouTube.

When scandals broke out in 2014 surrounding popular male YouTubers allegedly abusing fellow female creators and fans, Green was an organizing beacon for discussion, disclosure, and decisions for the next steps in the community. Her open letter to Sam Pepper, which was cosigned by several other prominent YouTubers, helped garner more mainstream attention for the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by the popular pranks vlogger. Now Green has secured her own digital MTV series in 2014, Braless, on their YouTube channel by the same name. She’s leading the charge for a safer and sex-smarter world right from YouTube. 

3) The Vlogbrothers 

John and Hank Green are every YouTuber’s cool uncle. The video-crafting duo began by trading vlogs to keep in touch, hence the moniker Vlogbrothers, and have continued their experiment for seven straight years. But they’ve expanded from there—and extensively. 

The Vlogbrothers are perhaps the most effective example of YouTube creators who’ve leapt into mainstream without losing their roots.

For Hank Green’s part, he’s the mastermind behind VidCon (the definitive annual YouTuber conference, which saw its attendance grow to 18,000 in 2014), as well as a producer behind YouTube staples like SciShow (which is now promoted on the side of buses) and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which won multiple Streamys in 2014). You may know John Green as the young-adult author of choice for today’s discerning teens. The Fault In Our Stars, his exploration of cancer and coming-of-age, exploded both onto the shelves and on the screen as a bestseller and international blockbuster, respectively. He hasn’t let that slow down his YouTube presence, helming episodes of CrashCourse, which inked a deal with PBS this year to get into classes and expand its education reach, as well as serving as the frontman for Mental Floss’s YouTube channel.

Together the duo has worked to decrease world suck as the leaders of Nerdfighteria, their loyal legion of fans and friends. Their annual Project for Awesome, a 48-hour livestream and Indiegogo fundraiser raised $869,291 in 2013, with 2014’s effort bringing in 1.2 million to support 12 different charities, 10 of which are voted on by the Nerdfighter community each year. They are perhaps the most effective example of YouTube creators who’ve leapt into mainstream without losing their roots. 

2) Bethany Mota

Bethany Mota was another YouTuber who got supported by the platform in 2014 as part of the ad campaign featuring key creators. Mota focuses on fashion and haul vlogging, as well as personal stories, and her bubbly attitude has earned her a legion of 7 million fans. She’s released clothing that quickly sells out through Aéropostale and won awards like the Streamys Fashion Channel award and the Teen Choice Award for Female Web Star. 

In 2014, she made a major leap to the mainstream as a participant on Dancing With the Stars, making her the YouTuber your mom is most likely to be able to ID without prompting. The show often deals in celebrities hoping to rehab their images or nostalgic performers, but for Mota, it was a chance to break out as an up-and-coming part of the pop culture landscape. She made it as far as the finals, but finished in fourth place with partner Derek Hough. Apart from her TV breakout, Mota also crossed over to music, releasing her first single, “Need You Right Now,” with fellow digital star Mike Tompkins. She’s gone well past triple-threat at this point, and there’s no telling how much more she’ll add to her already impressive résumé.

1) Tyler Oakley

Tyler Oakley’s fangirl army is 5.8 million strong, and they’ll follow the witty vlogger pretty much anywhere. So in 2014 he took his show on the road, augmenting his digital presence with his own solo sleepover-themed tour, visiting nine cities, primarily on the East Coast, with plans to expand.

If 2014 is the year Hollywood truly came calling to YouTube, perhaps there’s no turning back.

He’s been at the forefront of YouTube culture since he started making videos in his dorm room in 2007. Oakley coined #TeamInternet, the rallying cry for YouTubers who are increasing their presences into more mainstream spaces, from winning Teen Choice Awards to climbing to the top of the bestseller lists. He himself has amassed almost every accolade possible for a YouTuber, appeared in printed media as diverse as Tiger Beat and The New Yorker, and hosted a spate of red carpets. His annual Auguest series of vlogs has him paired with a who’s-who of YouTubers and, this year, Glee star Darren Criss. He’s talked policy with President Obama and played Q&A with Michelle. He’s also released a hugely popular podcast, Psychobabble, that battles the likes of Serial and This American Life for the top of the iTunes charts.

But Oakley’s not been using all his newfound fame for his own gain. In 2014, he asked fans to donate to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, in his honor. They cracked a $500,000 in donations. That’s about all the proof anyone needs of Oakley’s influence. 

Photos via YouTube | Collage by Max Fleishman