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How a ‘Halo’ parody became one of the web’s most enduring series
Rooster Teeth celebrates 15 seasons of ‘Red vs. Blue.’
We’re at a secret location somewhere in Austin, Texas. There are rows of computers spanning a giant room, and tables full of gourmet sandwiches. Suddenly a buzzer goes off. Whoever is washing their clothes can put them in the dryer now.
This is the nerve center of Rooster Teeth, the Austin-based gaming and entertainment company. Over the last 15 years, Rooster Teeth has become a global brand and online trendsetter. This month its first original series, the Halo-assisted Red vs. Blue, celebrates season 15 with new showrunner Joe Nicolosi.
Sorry, we don’t have time to spend hours explaining the Xbox-generated series’ canon plotlines, but if you are interested in learning what you’ve missed over the last decade or so, take a look back at the series narrated by the voice of God himself, Morgan Freeman.
Inside the nerve center, Rooster Teeth co-founder Burnie Burns sits with Nicolosi and head writer of animation Miles Luna. They all have one thing in common.
“One secret about Rooster Teeth is that everyone who has served as director of RvB has come from the University of Texas student-run television station, TSTV,” Burns says, leaning into the table.
TSTV is an FCC-licensed channel run totally by students. Knowing this may seem like it sums up the beginning of Rooster Teeth and RvB pretty well, but the history is a bit more epic.
Early and First
In April 2003, Burns uploaded the first episode of RvB to his server.
The episode had 3,000 viewers, and by the fourth episode they were at a million viewers a week. Burns realized the internet was the easiest way to get their content seen by everyone—and this was before YouTube came into existence.
The series was a hit, but there was a huge cost associated with its success. They had to pay for everyone to download each episode, and weren’t making any money. They were just hoping not to get sued by Microsoft.
“I looked at the internet at the time and the currency of the internet at the time was T-shirts,” Burns says. “That’s how people were making money. Homestar Runner and shows like that were supporting themselves on T-shirts. So we introduced a line of T-shirts.”
Over the years that become the Rooster Teeth merch model. It has since expanded its products and now has action figures, dolls, and even onesies. The second thing Burns observed was a particular behavior of people watching RvB.
“The first thing that anyone does in any comment section is they write the word ‘first,’” he says. “They see that blank space and they write ‘first.’”
Originally, this sort of commentary was annoying, but over time he realized something.
“They want to be early,” he says. “They want to be first.”
This realization led to Rooster Teeth’s subscription service, rebranded last year as FIRST. Fans can pay a subscription fee and watch episodes before they’re released to the public. This cut back on the cost of downloads and the company saw profit for the first time.
When YouTube started in 2005, Rooster Teeth was already two years into RvB. Not only was it defining business models and internet terminology, it also pushed the envelope on a whole new genre of entertainment: machinima, a method of making animated film using software designed for playing video and computer games. The series first used original animation in season 8 and it was the first time RvB used custom animation in addition to machinima.
The series finally stepped way outside the box in season 14, when Rooster Teeth released an anthology featuring completely original animated episodes, a stop-motion Lego satire, and, of course, a meta season finale that takes RvB troops out of the game and into real life. It feels like a throwback to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, which show us what happens when larger-than-life characters exist in our world.
Old and New
Though season 14 may have been the most creative yet, they probably won’t be straying too far from the series canon.
“We like to throw in some animation here and there, but the core of the show is still done with a bunch of Xboxes, a bunch of battery packs, and a lot of cables,” explains Luna, director of RvB seasons 10-14.
“Anybody can do what we do,” he says modestly.
The appeal of the early videos definitely wasn’t that they were smart and visually masterful. They were crude and confined to a small, familiar space. The first episodes took place in the versus arena in multiplayer mode. The dialogue is muddled to sound like they are speaking out of their helmets, and reminiscent of conversations in Pulp Fiction, like when Vincent and Jules are talking about the difference between McDonald’s in the United States and Europe, or the original Trainspotting when Renton and Sick Boy wax philosophical about life and the Academy Awards before shooting a dog in the arse.
But the show has changed in some subtle ways. It’s grown into itself, with the help of some unforgettable characters who showed up late in the series, like Agent Carolina.
Jen Brown, who plays Agent Carolina, knew how popular Red vs. Blue was and that two of her friends watched it, but even as a gamer she wasn’t totally familiar with it. Agent Carolina has garnered a lot of support from the gaming community and especially female gamers and women in the military.
“I get a lot of beautiful letters from people,” she says. “People write me a lot, especially about season 10 because that was my season.”
She had no idea her role was going to become such a huge phenomenon.
“It’s insane and I mean that in a good way,” she says.
Because of Rooster Teeth’s success, it became more plausible for them to take the show to new heights, and that includes showrunner Nicolosi, writer and director of the Season 14 episode “The Brick Gulch Chronicles.”
“I am excited that season 15 will be very satisfying for old fans and also bring new things into the Red vs. Blueniverse that haven’t been seen before,” he says.
The way Nicolosi explains his new sworn duty is much like when a comic book writer takes over a popular comic like X-Men or Deadpool. There must be respect for the past as well as new ideas. His predecessor Luna is more blunt: “It’s like getting to drive the car that everyone in the world loves and being told, ‘Here’s the keys—now don’t crash it.’”