From July 1-3, digital media company Rooster Teeth’s “RTX” convention, the 10th of its kind, kicked off in downtown Austin to connect creators and fans of its gaming, podcasting, and animation series.
In a wonderfully nerdy environment, niche communities geeked out over new partnership announcements, game demos, merch drops, episode releases, and one-on-one celebrity encounters with their favorite creators. On the flip side, creators got to put faces to names, feed off audience energy, and connect with co-collaborators IRL.
Backstage at RTX, we spoke with two OG Rooster Teeth creators: co-founder and producer Gustavo Sorola, who has been with the company since its inception almost 20 years ago and Chris Demarais, who has been a head writer and content producer at Rooster Teeth for over 11 years.
The duo shared their thoughts on evolution and growth of the Rooster Teeth wheelhouse, what creators get out of RTX, the benefits for creators joining a media company like Rooster Teeth, Sorola and Demarais’ podcast Black Box Down, monetization woes, premium subscription products, and more.
Rooster Teeth is a digital media company known for podcasting, gaming, streaming, and animation. It was originally founded by a group of four friends in a spare bedroom in Austin, Texas, in 2003. Today, 19 years later, Rooster Teeth has grown to a titanic scale. It’s now a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment, bringing in millions of eyes and ears to a multitude of cult-favorite shows.
Some of Rooster Teeth’s most notorious series include its gaming division Achievement Hunter, the long-running fictional Halo “machinima” universe Red vs. Blue, and the anime-style fantastical story series RWBY. Rooster Teeth’s podcasting network, The Roost, hosts shows from well-known creators—like Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart, Anthony Padilla, and Phillip DeFranco—and builds out original shows from its own roster of talent, including Barbara Dunkelman, Ify Nwadiwe, Kelsey Impicciche, and Fiona Nova.
Black Box Down, a true crime podcast about major aviation accidents, was launched by Rooster Teeth during the pandemic. The roughly 2-year-old podcast was created entirely remotely and audio-only by Sorola and Demarais. At Rooster Teeth’s first RTX convention after a two-year hiatus, the co-creators were finally able to see the faces of fans of their show after launching it in isolation.
“You can be on a screen name and not see people in real life. People can leave comments, but they don’t always even have faces. I love events like these, because you get to see people in real life,” Demarais told Passionfruit in an interview at RTX over the weekend.
“I’m like an energy vampire. We just did this Black Box Down panel, and there were almost 200 people in it, and it felt great, right?” Sorola also told Passionfruit in an interview. “If you look at the download numbers for this podcast, it’s a stadium’s worth of people every week, but you don’t get that feedback because it’s just numbers on a screen. … It’s really revitalizing and makes me feel good about the project hearing that direct feedback from people.”
Sorola said the Rooster Teeth folks always wanted to make an internet-based convention to connect with others in the content creation industry and meet up with fans. Now, 10 conventions later and about 20 years into Rooster Teeth’s existence, its ecosystem has grown substantially. From web series, to podcasts, to live actions, to movies, to live events, the brand has grown to fill all kinds of entertainment needs.
“It’s been just like a hydra, heads keep popping up on the business, new ways to entertain people,” Sorola said.
Demarais said that ever since he joined Rooster Teeth, over 11 years ago, he’s seen how Rooster Teeth is particularly impactful in carving out niche communities—whether it be in cosplay, gaming, or something as specific as aviation disasters.
“I think that’s the most exciting thing about it—hearing how you can have a positive impact on people by doing sometimes silly podcasts about [Dungeons & Dragons] or podcasts about plane crashes. It can be anything,” Demarais said.
Demarais said one primary benefit of joining Rooster Teeth was being a part of a collaborative environment and connecting with a larger network of co-creators.
“When you are doing things by yourself or solo, you can get in a little echo chamber where you don’t get to collaborate with different people. It’s just harder to. But whenever you go to work and you’re surrounded by other people who are making content, it’s just that energy of just being around people. It makes you better,” Demarais said.
Sorola agreed, thinking back on his worries in the early days of Rooster Teeth—when it was just a few guys crafting stories alone in a spare bedroom.
“We’d read a script and be like, ‘Is this funny? I don’t know; it’s funny to us.’ There was no one to bounce ideas off of and help you punch things up,” Sorola described.
Sorola also said he thinks a huge value brought to creators joining Rooster Teeth is offloading work to free up room for greater creativity.
“There is an appeal to being a lone creator. But the downside to that is you have to shoulder a lot of work. This is all stuff that we experienced in our growing pains. I’m not even going to mention it all—having to not only manage your social media presence, maybe a store, a streaming schedule, filming the content. We have a lot of operations and production people who can lift that burden so that a creator can focus on the creativity side of things,” Sorola said.
In the wake of ever-shifting platforms with varying degrees of monetization potential, Demarais also said he appreciates Rooster Teeth for never being reliant on a single platform and having a strong centralized website, saying creators sometimes struggle to stay afloat independently.
“There are so many people who so much of their revenue or their audience was from YouTube and then like, the ‘adpocalypse’ happened,” Demarais said.
The “adpocalypse” is a term first coined in 2016 when a number of companies pulled out from advertising on YouTube, after learning their brands were being put next to extremist content on the platform. YouTube soon added content rules and restrictions for videos with ads to appease advertisers, leading many creators with more adult content or covering stigmatized topics to be demonetized.
“All of a sudden they lost all of their revenue. Or all of a sudden the algorithm changes. Being able to adapt and change [to platforms] is challenging for sure,” Demarais said.
Continuing the discussion on why creators might join a group like Rooster Teeth, Sorola also brought up how creators commonly struggle with managing multiple platforms with specific requirements, like vertical versus horizontal videos, run-time, and new features.
“What am I making, where is it going, and how am I gonna manage that process? That alone is monstrous to try to grapple with,” Sorola said. “Lots of times you feel pressure because as these platforms roll out these features, they’re going to feature you if you start using these new features. And then if you don’t start to use them, they start to shove you to the side a little bit in favor of people who do.”
When discussing changes to the social media landscape he would like to participate in, Sorola said he has recently been playing with the idea of premium subscription products. He and Demarais are testing paid subscriptions to provide listeners with ad-free episodes, early access, and exclusive content specifically for Black Box Down. This subscription would be completely separate from Rooster Teeth’s general network subscription, First.
“Black Box Down has been so successful and has an audience so unique from the outside, regular Rooster Teeth audience that we’re starting to experiment with alternative monetization efforts like this to see, what is the audience comfort for these kinds of things? Are people willing to spend a couple of extra dollars to support an individual show as opposed to a wider ranging subscription?” Sorola questioned.
Demarais was also excited about paid memberships for Black Box Down.
“That is one of the coolest things about the internet and content—people supporting creators that they like. And that’s the best thing about something like Black Box Down. There’s people who like the show and want to help support us, and that means everything,” Demarais shared.
“When we first started making Red vs. Blue, this was back in 2003, there was no monetization available on the internet at the time. We just put a PayPal button on our website and just said, ‘If you like it and want to send us a couple dollars, you can,’” Sorola described. “People were so willing to give money and support it that we’re here 19 years later. We’re having this event at the convention center. And we’re still making new projects.”