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Elite Video Gamers Cash in by Sharing Tips on YouTube

Eric Hirshberg, president and chief executive officer of Activision Publishing, talking about Call of Duty: Ghosts

Photograph by Ted S. Warren/AP Images

Eric Hirshberg, president and chief executive officer of Activision Publishing, talking about Call of Duty: Ghosts

(Corrects the video game release timing in the first sentence)

This week, Trevor Martin will travel from his home in Champagne, Ill., to Santa Monica, Calif., on the dime of video-game maker Activision Blizzard (ACTI), which is holding an event on Wednesday to promote the fall release of Call of Duty: Ghosts, the latest iteration of its popular Call of Duty franchise. Martin, 20, will stay in a nice hotel, catch up with old friends, and maybe demo the new game. Getting paid to play hot new releases is a dream for plenty of gamers. For Martin, who dropped out of community college after one semester, it’s how he makes a living.

Martin—or TmarTn, as he’s known on YouTube (GOOG)—is a video-game commentator. He records video of himself playing games while he narrates his strategy, delivering tips on how to play better. Then he publishes the clips on YouTube. Between ad sales and sponsorships from video game companies, he expects to make more than $250,000 this year.

Video-game riches—last year’s version of Call of Duty topped $1 billion in sales in 15 days—have trickled down to a tiny sliver of YouTube publishers such as Martin, whose social media audience includes more than 1.1 million YouTube subscribers, about 230,000 Twitter followers, and 60,000 Facebook (FB)[ticker symbol="FB"]Facebook[/ticker] fans. He’s also well-versed in how the mechanics of online advertising work, and he knows how to position himself: “A lot of people like to watch me play video games,” he says.

It’s not just industry giants that are seeking to capitalize on the commentator phenomenon. KontrolFreek, an Atlanta-based company that expects to sell about $5 million in accessories for video-game controllers this year, sponsors a small group of commentators, including Martin. “We probably get 30 to 50 requests a week from commentators who’d like to be associated with us,” says KontrolFreek Chief Executive Officer Ashish Mistry.

To turn that pool of gamers into marketing muscle, Mistry launched a contest to find the “next great commentator” in July. Contestants post submissions to YouTube, creating videos that are tagged with the company’s name. It’s part of a strategy that helps “KontrolFreek” turn up more than 200,000 search results on YouTube. Mistry says about 30 percent of his company’s sales come via the video sharing site, and notes that at a recent dinner with KontrolFreek’s top sales partners, he realized most of them were “19-year-olds in basketball shorts and Rolexes.”

Few commentators will ever make much money at it, even if they excel at promoting their video-game prowess. Martin recognizes that the opportunity may be fleeting, so he is investing in real estate. ”Even a year from now, I couldn’t tell you what this industry is going to be like,” he says.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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