The Rise and Fall of Rooster Teeth – This Week in Anime

Lucas and Nick reflect on Rooster Teeth‘s legacy, from RWBY to gen:LOCK to Red vs. Blue following Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to dissolve the production company.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.

RWBY: Ice Queendom is streaming on Crunchyroll.


Lucas! First off, welcome to the team. I’m excited to work with you on one of these finally. Second, I have a quick question for you:


Thanks so much, Nick! I’m glad to be doing one of these with you, too!
To answer your question, that’s one of life’s great mysteries, isn’t it? Why ARE we here? Are we the product of some cosmic coincidence, or…is there a God? Watching everything? Y’know, with a plan for us and stuff? I don’t know, man. But it keeps me up at night

What? No, I meant why are we here in this column talking about a video game parody? We’re This Week in Anime, after all.
What was all that stuff about God?

Oh…uh, yeah…
Warner Bros. Discovery, in all their divine or demonic wisdom, decided this past week to shut down Rooster Teeth, a company that’s more or less foundational to modern internet culture, the current digital media landscape, and fandom. Since the anime fan community is pretty wrapped up in those things, we’re within our lane to discuss the company and its imminent closure.

Also, if anyone’s getting pedantic about it, Rooster Teeth is also responsible for at least one bona fide anime and two shows that an out-of-touch parent might confuse for anime.

Aw man, today we will settle the age-old question wracking the anime fandom, “Is Camp Camp anime!?”

No, but I spot at least three anime fans in that picture.
More importantly, I have to imagine there’s at least a decent overlap between anime fans and fans of Rooster Teeth‘s output across two decades. My high school anime club friends could quote half of Red vs. Blue back in the day.

Haha, this is where I shamefully admit that I didn’t know what Rooster Teeth was until my freshman year of college when I watched the entire first season of RWBY in one go because a girl I liked was into it.

TBF that’s less cringe than watching RWBY entirely of your own volition.

Were those first couple of shorts cool in the way that AMVs can occasionally go way harder than they have any right to? Yes.

But also, at its best, the first season of the show looked like this (not pictured, background character silhouettes standing in the foreground):

And the writing was…well, there’s a whole bunch of YouTube videos about why the writing in this show is a (sophomoric/racist/misogynistic) disappointment.

RWBY is an…interesting beast, I’ll say. Its most compelling part is its place in the larger story of Rooster Teeth. For readers younger than the company, Rooster Teeth started as some guys making game review videos while they got drunk together. The company’s original name was Drunk Gamers, and they changed it to Rooster Teeth because nobody would send review copies to a company with “Drunk” in its name. How they got from that to a full-fledged production company under one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world is as fascinating as it is depressing.

The most compelling part of RWBY to me is how a figurine of a secondary villain from the show is used in the movie Doctor Sleep (the pseudo-sequel to The Shining that whips) to highlight the leading actress’ biracial identity and how the loneliness she feels because of that is a core theme of the film.

That is probably the weirdest deep cut I’ve ever seen. You’re already bringing something special to this column.

It was weird when I saw it in theaters and struggled for five minutes after the screening to explain the significance of the figurine to my dad, the biggest Stephen King fan I know.

But I digress; Rooster Teeth is the genesis of the promise that a bunch of pals can turn making dumb stuff on the internet into a career…and now the company they built is about to die! That sucks! But also, Rooster Teeth had some pretty problematic people under their banner over the years and hadn’t been profitable for a while, so…I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel!

I think it’s fair to feel sad. Rooster Teeth had its issues as a company, partly stemming from its origin as a group of amateurs who stumbled into success through the power of burgeoning internet video content. Yet that was also what made their products feel special and approachable. They were fans of Halo and video games in general, and seeing them turn that into a career before “YouTuber” and “Influencer” were even terms was practically aspirational for their audience.

Absolutely! For a stretch in the late aughts and early 10s, everything in the nerd/gamer/otaku space was only a degree or two of separation from Rooster Teeth. I have buddies who were big into Funhaus and Achievement Hunter, and I realized while researching for this column that Screw Attack, the company that makes the Death Battle animated shorts, was merged into Rooster Teeth a while ago.
They had the reputation of a fan company that got elevated into the spotlight and were very keen on maintaining that image. They typically recruited creators for their company by finding YouTube content they liked and reaching out. This was how they got then-indie animator Monty Oum on board to create original, non-game engine sequences for Red vs. Blue. Even when they were by all rights a professional company with major partnerships in the entertainment industry, many fans – myself included – still thought of Rooster Teeth as “just fans”. To bring it back around to RWBY‘s place in this whole story, is how they got away with releasing a professionally produced animated series that looked like this:

Without getting roasted alive on social media.
When the promotional artwork you put out for a show is in a completely different art style than the show, maybe you should change how the show looks.

They did that a few years later, though I wouldn’t say the show has ever looked nearly as good as it should considering how much was behind it. Yet I remember how it was back in 2013, with people defending the series as a “fan work” being made by folks who just loved anime and wanted to make their own. People were willing to give RWBY a lot of leeway specifically because it was an internet series made by Rooster Teeth rather than a “real” animation company.

RWBY is being evaluated as the best player on a slow-pitch softball team, but placed in contention with major league heavy hitters. That’s frustrating for reviewers or even people passionate about anime as a medium and want the most prominent series in this space to be the best it could offer.

Not to mention that the attitude of treating a company like “just a bunch of fans” is how a toxic work environment can fester, which Rooster Teeth has been accused of.

It was the breaking point between RT’s origin and what it eventually became. Later on, when producing multiple animated series, they hired professional voice actors, screenwriters, etc. The kind of actions any company owned by AT&T would do. But RWBY was saddled with largely untrained actors who worked for Rooster Teeth already since that was how they handled most of Red vs. Blue. That resulted in predictably amateur performances, to the point where the show getting a Japanese dub with actual professionals was revelatory.

Right, but also RWBY is still somehow the most popular and successful of their original productions. I don’t think gen:LOCK is remembered as much more than a Michael B. Jordan vehicle, and I didn’t even know they made a second Lazer Team movie! It’s probably because it seems to be locked behind a YouTube Premium subscription.

Remember when Google was trying to make YouTube Premium a thing? I never found out how that was different from YouTube Red, and with YouTube TV being the new hotness, I probably never will.
gen:LOCK is certainly more professional than early RWBY, at least. It also represents the shift that went down at Rooster Teeth between 2013 and 2019. In 2013, their main focus was still Red vs. Blue, and they were a relatively small company. You could craft a complete list of their staff based on who they brought in on their Drunk Tank podcast (later renamed Rooster Teeth Podcast for the same reasons as above). By the time gen:LOCK came out, they had an entire animation studio and the connections to hire A-list actors. Any semblance of a “fan” company was long gone.

This is one of those instances where the story behind the show is more interesting than what is, generously, a 5/10 mecha series.

It’s easy to write off Rooster Teeth‘s closure as a consequence of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s disrespect for art, but especially his eagerness to stop supporting more niche media, but there’s more to it than that.

The back half of the 2010s saw many internet creators and the companies they founded try to go into the mainstream and jump to television or other mediums. While some, like College Humor alum Adam Conover, have been successful, a lot of them fizzled out. I have to wonder, if Rooster Teeth just kept on being a more niche internet media company instead of getting acquired and taking on these bigger and more expensive projects, would they survive longer?

It’s hard to say, though they almost certainly wouldn’t have seen the success they did with their productions. Without the connections of their corporate overlords looking for international appeal, would RWBY have gotten big enough to get multiple manga adaptations and side stories? Or characters in a Blazblue game? Or a full-on anime produced by SHAFT?

You make a good point and it’s helping my feelings click into place. Maybe I can’t gel creatively with the idea of a “fan company.”

It frames their work as an attempt to be acknowledged by the broader animation industry rather than material inherently in contention with that other work. It’s fantastic that there’s a SHAFT adaptation of RWBY, but if I made an anime and another studio came along to make an “actual anime” version of that series, I’d feel weird about that! It might not be a brag is all I’m saying.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say how the creators feel about it. Monty Oum, its creative lead, passed away after Volume 2. Somehow, it wasn’t the most depressing behind-the-scenes info on a Rooster Teeth production.

His passing was tragic and unexpected.

I was barely familiar with him or his work, but I remember the waves of support and public grieving.

It was a shock, and a big part of that was how connected Oum and the rest of Rooster Teeth were to their community. They had dedicated forums and comment sections and would reply to fans there. Whether or not RWBY originally counted as a “fan” project, it was one fueled by Oum’s passion, and that earned a lot of goodwill when it was at its roughest.

As you can imagine, as Rooster Teeth got more prominent and more professional, that goodwill slowly faded, culminating in an outpouring of support against the company when it came out that gen:LOCK season 1 was allegedly produced under horrible conditions and abusive management that forced animators to ruin their health and live at the studio office to meet deadlines. Maybe it was an anime, after all.

It makes me wonder how fraught the production of the rest of their series was. What dark secrets lie underneath the surface of RWBY Chibi?

Hard to know, but the presence of that blithe corporate mismanagement makes it clear that the casual “just friends making funny videos together” culture was dead. It solidified that whatever Rooster Teeth used to be was completely over. It’s where most people I know lost any lingering emotional investment they had with the brand and either moved to more insular fandoms for RWBY and RvB or just tossed them out altogether.

Yadda yadda, die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. For as much as independent creators liked to frame themselves as “disruptors” or “counter-culture” during the early days of making a livable amount of money as an internet content creator, many of them were looking to start up, sell out, and bro down. Rooster Teeth is probably the biggest example of that today.

I don’t know if that’s fair. To me, it’s more that indie internet creators inevitably hit a wall when it comes to growing their reach and resources. The internet opened a lot of avenues, but there is undeniable calcification at the top echelons of entertainment that you can’t overcome. Combine that with a lot of these folks not being all that business-minded, and I can see why it would seem reasonable to, for lack of a better word, sell out. It’s essentially a much larger version of the early YouTube phenomenon of signing with “YouTube networks” that would allegedly help them make ad revenue but skimmed money off thousands of channels and did nothing.

You’re right. I might be a bit cynical, but I’ve never been in a situation where my resistance to avarice has been tested. And we’ll never know how long Rooster Teeth would have made it if they didn’t hitch themselves to larger companies. Maybe I’m just mad that the promise of the internet being a place where you can make it as an independent creator seems to be less and less true over the years.

To be fair, living well as a corporate creator is also getting less and less true! Everyone’s dreams are being crushed equally under the boots of myopic executives who view all art and entertainment as spreadsheets that need to be balanced!

Haha! So true! (The stage of capitalism brain rot seeps further into my grey matter)

On a potentially more optimistic note, do you think any other studio/distributor/company is going to pick up the rights to RWBY or Rooster Teeth‘s other IP? RWBY has had a massive presence at every anime/entertainment convention I’ve attended. Its absence will be felt if no one picks it up for some final season.

It’s possible, but honestly, if I were a RWBY fan, I would rather it end inconclusively instead of being picked up by a new company to be milked for money. As always, I suggest following creators rather than brands or IPs, so if the folks behind any Rooster Teeth product you like wind up somewhere else, support them. They’re the reason you liked it in the first place.

That’s good advice to follow broadly. It’s too bad the digital media and entertainment industries are shrinking in ways that make it difficult for Rooster Teeth folks, or anyone affected by the layoffs that have defined this year so far, to wind up anywhere else…

But who knows? Maybe a couple of them will start their own breakout indie company/outlet. It’s not one-to-one, but the presence and apparent success of worker-owned outlets like Defector and Aftermath have inspired me.

I hope that’s the case. Even when I’m not personally interested in what they’re making, healthy creator-owned studios make any industry a more vibrant and creative place. If there’s anything to be learned from the legacy of Rooster Teeth, it’s that something can succeed and grow in ways you’d never imagine, and I hope that means we can see both online and traditional media bounce back from the screw-ups of corporate ghouls. So we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, you know where to find us:

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