Most days, 31-year-old Offaly man Sean McLoughlin makes videos, puts them on YouTube and millions watch them. He’s a millionaire many times over. If you’re under 30 you’ll probably know him as Jacksepticeye and will have seen his videos in which he, most typically, rants excitably and humorously while playing computer games. If you’re over 30 you may have seen him in Ryan Reynolds’s recent gaming-themed film, Free Guy. I’ve met McLoughlin once before, at a YouTube event in 2015, when he had about three million subscribers. He could barely believe it then. Now that he has 28 million subscribers, he still seems endearingly nonplussed.
He talks to me over Zoom from the room in the house in Brighton where he creates his videos, next door to the room where his partner, fellow YouTuber Evelien "Gab" Smolders, films hers. He left Ireland, he says, when fans began turning up at his door. "At 8am one morning I answered the door in a shirt and a pair of shorts thinking it was a delivery. It was two kids and their mam, with a big banner. It made me very scared, because I was like, 'God, even at my own home now, nothing is private'. That made me think, okay, I'm obviously sharing too much about myself. I make sure that my home now is, to quote Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, my own private domicile."
I just want to sit here and yell and swear at video games. I just want to make people laugh
McLoughlin didn't even have the internet until he was 17. He grew up in Cloghan in Offaly. His father worked for the ESB. His mother did "everything under the sun" before becoming a carer for his grandmother. As a child he wanted to be an astronomer, "but I realised you need to be very smart at maths and calculating orbits. I was like 'I just like looking at stars!'"
He was a little aimless as a youngster. He played drums and studied music production but struggled with that and dropped out. Later he studied hotel management in Athlone “because I thought, ‘That’s an easy course’.” He laughs. “It turns out no college course is easy.”
Are there courses for what he does? “Oh, absolutely. There has to be. Wherever there’s a job that anybody can earn money off there’s somebody else teaching you how to do it.”
What does he think he’d be doing if his Jacksepticeye videos hadn’t taken off? “I’d probably be in gaming somehow. I’d either be voice acting or I’d be doing – probably not programming because I’m not smart enough for that – but maybe something on the artistic side of it.”
Why does he think he’s not smart enough for programming when he’s obviously smart enough to build an incredibly successful YouTube business? “That’s pure happenstance at this point. I get by on my charm and my wit but definitely not my intelligence.”
He started creating content for the platform in 2012. In 2013, Felix Kjellberg aka PewDiePie, then the biggest YouTuber in the world, recommended his channel (McLoughlin's delighted video response is still online) and soon it was growing exponentially. McLoughlin worked very hard. He hit a million subscribers in August 2014; by 2015 he had three million and grew another six million the following year. He had no masterplan. He quotes US comedian Bo Burnham about how the video sharing platform was the internet's solution for people who wanted to perform. It was, 'Yeah, perform for everybody all the time. There's no limit, no boundaries. There's no ceiling to it. Just go out there and share yourself with the world. It's up to you to learn how much is too much'."
In 2017, he began to seriously consider that question. It was a difficult time to be on YouTube. Advertisers were fleeing due to child protection concerns with the platform (YouTubers call this the “adpocalypse”). Some content creators were also getting in trouble. McLoughlin’s friend, Kjellberg, made a video in which he paid two Indian men to hold up an anti-Semitic sign. It was horribly offensive on many levels.
McLoughlin posted a video in which he explained, sounding pained, that though Kjellberg was his friend, he didn’t approve of all the videos he posted. “I just hate conflict,” he says now. “I don’t handle it very well. That was the first time that I was ever really intellectually challenged. So I kind of fell apart and crumbled under the pressure of it.”
What would he have done differently? “I think it wasn’t my conversation to have,” he says. “Felix was my friend in private and I should have just talked to him in private. It’s okay to not give your opinion on absolutely everything publicly. I think that’s a big thing people are learning now: just keep your mouth shut if you don’t really have that much to say that hasn’t been said already.”
In retrospect, he can see that the culture was changing. It was the end of a wilder era on social media where people were creating hard-edged content without considering people’s feelings. McLoughlin had never made that kind of material in the first place. “I had met so many people when I went out to conventions, so many different races and genders and ethnicities and sexual orientations that it was hard to make it all about myself. I was definitely more sensitive to the wider aspect of what I was doing. I wasn’t the boat rocking type. I still respect a lot of the people on YouTube who pushed the boundaries a little bit but if it’s at other people’s expense, that wasn’t really what I was into. I just want to sit here and yell and swear at video games... I just want to make people laugh.”
He was also beginning to feel like a parody of himself. “You do what you do and then people [say], ‘Well, he’s loud, he swears, he has an accent and he’s energetic’. And then I’m like, ‘Okay, those are my four pillars’. At some point, I kind of became a caricature and it was me playing Jacksepticeye rather than just being myself. That’s where the burnout happens.”
Burnout is a huge issue for YouTubers. Without relentless output their numbers dip. Unlike film or television stars, online content creators like McLoughlin talk about “audience retention” and “SEO”. It’s built into the platform. The YouTube Studio app measures everything a creator uploads against their previous content. If a video doesn’t perform well, the platform sends creators messages like: “Regular viewers are choosing to watch this video less often than usual, contributing to 31 per cent fewer views.”
“The algorithm is so intense,” he says. “Even today, if I upload stuff, and it doesn’t do well, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh man, I let people down; I let myself down’. But you do have to take that mentality away from it.”
In 2017 he started taking breaks from YouTube. He took more time out in 2021 after his father died. “I thought: Well, what am I doing? My dad didn’t get to see much of the world when he was younger and he was always just working himself to the bone for us. So do I want to do that and just work myself into the ground over and over again?”
Meeting people with disabilities and people who are struggling made me feel like I can do so much more with what I have than just constantly talking about myself
I ask if he ever considers moving into "mainstream television" but even as I say it, I realise it makes no sense. There is no "mainstream" nowadays. McLoughlin agrees. "There's just a stream," he says and laughs. "I think a lot of the reasons why YouTube is popular these days is because it's not TV. You can't go underneath Netflix and read what everybody's saying about it. People always seek out community, wherever they can. I think YouTube's strongest point is that sense of coming together and watching something together."
Making television or film with big teams of people and lots of red tape, doesn’t appeal to him. “If I have a project that I think is fun, like Free Guy, I’ll jump in and play around in that but it’s not something I’m actively seeking. It’s not something that I would ever do above what I’m doing now.”
He has other sources of income. He has a coffee brand, Top of the Mornin’ Coffee (he loves coffee; Top of the Mornin’ is his catchphrase) and a streetwear brand, Cloak, with fellow Youtuber Markiplier. YouTube is still his main platform, but he sometimes posts content on TikTok and livestreams on Twitch. He finds the latter more stressful than YouTube because it’s live and unedited. “It takes that shine off of you; ‘This is just me, I’m not as amazing as you thought I was’.” He laughs. “Most of us aren’t.”
Social media experts talk about “parasocial relationships” and how young people see YouTubers less as entertainers and more like cool friends they have actual relationships with. Strangers often tell McLoughlin their life story, how he made them feel less alone or how he “saved” their lives. He appreciates the sentiment, but it makes him uncomfortable. “I think, ‘Well, I’m a good distraction. But I absolutely did not save your life’.”
So, a few years ago he decided it was important to talk honestly on the platform about mental health, influenced by his older brother who had spoken openly in the past about his own issues. “He was so in touch with his emotions and able to articulate what his thoughts were. It really inspired me to do the same.”
He also began doing regular content streams to raise money for charities he supported. “The generation of YouTubers before me were notorious for being a bit egotistical, not all of them of course, but there were people who got money and kind of went off the rails. I grew up in a small town and I had nothing growing up and I was unemployed for a while living in a log cabin with crappy internet. And then going to conventions and meeting people with disabilities and people who are struggling made me feel like I can do so much more with what I have than just constantly talking about myself.”
He and Smolders are still approached by strangers, but the focus isn’t as intense as it once was because they keep most of their lives private. That’s partly because they’re not that interesting, McLoughlin says. “It’s not like we do drugs and alcohol and party with celebrities. We sit down and we watch TV shows. And sometimes I’ll tweet something stupid, a dumb joke. That’s my life.”
I've always promoted going to actual therapy and not divulging everything to your audience
In the algorithm-driven world of YouTube he thinks it’s very tempting for people to base their happiness on fluctuating viewing figures. Some creators, he says, are openly falling apart on the platform, using their audience as a form of therapy. He won’t be drawn on whether YouTube itself has a responsibility to look after these people, but he knows that the solution involves having a private life outside the platform. “I’ve always promoted going to actual therapy and not divulging everything to your audience,” he says. “Keep some stuff for yourself. Be a person outside of your numbers and make sure that you’re happy and content. There’s some joke in there about content not making you content.”
He laughs. “You’re the journalist. You can make a fun joke out of that.”