Phil "Philza" Watson has the most-watched Minecraft channel on Twitch, according to Twitchmetrics, with more than 200,000 followers and streams routinely pulling in thousands of viewers. Ignoring megastar variety streamers who dabble in Minecraft, that seemingly makes him the most popular Minecraft streamer in the world, at this exact moment in time. Which is pretty crazy, because three months ago, his streams averaged just 5-10 viewers. On a very good day, he might have had 20 people hanging out in chat as he happily played through a world he'd been building for five years. Then in late April Philza got killed by a spider and a baby zombie, and it changed his whole life.
"Honestly, I made more money in a month than I would make in like two years at my old retail job," Philza tells me this week, his hand covering his mouth like he still can't quite believe what he's saying.
After years of happily streaming to a dozen people, he's suddenly and unexpectedly making a living playing Minecraft.
That death, which I talked to Philza about back in May, was an embarrassing end to a five-year Minecraft Hardcore permadeath run. But the clip went viral, getting Philza sudden attention from Minecraft fans, Twitch viewers, and even the BBC. Harnessing the spotlight, he did a 24-hour livestream, starting a new Minecraft Hardcore world and aiming to get 100 subscribers on Twitch. He pulled in nearly 350 subs and broke down crying at the end of the stream, utterly overwhelmed. "Thank you all so much. It means the world to me," he choked out between sobs.
This was something more than a fleeting 15 minutes of fame. His viewership snowballed, pushing him up and up among the popular Minecraft streamers, so more new viewers started to check out his channel. He's fun to watch, affable and prone to sudden bubbly laughter, still full of bright-eyed enthusiasm for a game he's been playing for a third of his life. While he gained fans, other streamers started hosting him or mentioning his permadeath run. YouTubers made videos about him. People stuck around. They subscribed. And subscribed.
"I'm on 6,945 currently," Philza says. "That number can fluctuate, but it's a huge step from where it was at the end of that [24 hour] livestream. At that moment, I still didn't know how far it was going to go."
As his stream gained popularity through May and early June Philza kept working his retail job, waking up at 6 am to catch the bus, then coming home after a long day to stream or edit videos for YouTube. His streams were pulling in thousands of viewers, but it wasn't until he got the first deposit from Twitch that it all felt real.
"As soon as the first payments came in, I was like, okay, I'm an idiot if I don't [quit my job]," he says. "My manager even understood fully what was going on. He didn't really understand why people would give me money to play a videogame, but he understood the position I was in. It was do or die. You take the leap or you don't."
He took the leap, and it turns out the first major change to his life since becoming Twitch famous is being able to sleep in and have a nice breakfast, after more than a decade of working retail. Philza didn't even want to spend the money, at first, saying he's way too frugal. Most of it goes straight to savings or into pizza.
After Minecraft crashed on-stream while he was gliding through the air, though, potentially ending his current Hardcore run, he decided it was time to upgrade his streaming setup, which includes a years-old PC and a secondary monitor that wasn't even 1080p. New monitors and a beefy graphics card came to about £1800, which he says is "the most I've spent on… anything, ever."
Throughout the last three months of madness and life-changing attention, Philza in the UK and his fiancée in California have been waiting for a letter from US Homeland Security clearing him to come to the states to get married. It just arrived this week, months earlier than expected, and he's visibly excited and relieved they're able to take that step without worrying about every hidden cost.
"Being in the position I am now, it's a huge weight off my shoulders," he says. "Previously it was like: Are we going to have enough money for the forms? Are we going to have enough money for the solicitors? Will I have enough money to get to London? Will I be able to get the time off? How am I going to afford the plane ticket for me and my mother to get to America? Now it's just: What's the date?"
Philza is still trying to wrap his head around being able to live in the US now, or anywhere in the world, really, where he can keep his streaming schedule the same—so far even after blowing up he's stuck to a rigorous MWF 7 pm UK start. Meanwhile, his start continues to rise: On July 26 he was featured in the official Minecraft series Meet a Minecrafter, which already has about 700,000 views.
When I last watched Philza stream in early May, just as he was beginning to blow up, he had 205 people watching, something that had been unimaginable for him weeks before. "Now, since the viewers have gone up so much, there's usually just a couple hundred people just chilling before I go live," he says. "There's people just waiting for me to hit start. Just having a chat. It's insane to see the support."
And sure enough, a full hour before he starts his Friday stream, 400 followers are in the chat, watching the time tick down.
"Here 40 mins early! Show yourselves Philza fans!"
"hey, i missed the stream on wednesday can anyone fill me in on what happened?"
"I'm from youtube.. First time gonna watch him live.. so hyped"