A nine-year-old is still number one, but the runner-up is a newcomer who came armed with a forklift, an exploding Toyota and the most expensive firecracker ever made. And he’s just getting started.
The Fourth of July this past summer was a muted occasion across most of the country. But not on YouTube, where Jimmy Donaldson, the digital celebrity known as MrBeast, released a special holiday episode containing a $600,000 fireworks show. The show’s highlights included lighting 100 or so rockets bound to a mannequin, blowing up a Toyota and detonating the world’s most-expensive firework, a 400-pound, $160,000 device moveable only via forklift. The aerial display even forced MrBeast and his crew to consult the FAA, lest it interfere with overhead air traffic.
The 11-minute episode has since been viewed nearly 60 million times, and it’s pretty representative of what has shot Donaldson to No. 2 on our annual list of the Top-Earning YouTubers. Funny stunts have been a YouTube mainstay for years. But none have really been on the same scale as Donaldson’s or filmed with such top-notch production quality. He’s also become famous for videos of giving away massive amounts of money, like the moment this spring when he dispensed $200,000 to several people who’d lost their jobs during the pandemic. It’s been seen 23 million times.
“The ideas are going to continue to get crazier, and he’s going to continue to spend large amounts of money to up the production quality,” promises Reed Duscher, Donaldson’s manager. (MrBeast may love the digital spotlight, but he’s pretty shy—and wouldn’t comment for this story.) “I mean, he just tweeted out today that he has all these good ideas that cost $10 million. And he’s not wrong. He does.”
He may soon get a chance to spend that kind of money: Business on YouTube is booming. Donaldson and the other highest-paid YouTubers secured an estimated $211 million in total earnings from June 1, 2019 to June 1, 2020, a 30% jump from the previous year. Unlike other parts of the media world suffering through a pandemic-induced downturn, YouTube has been a major draw for people stuck at home, sitting out lockdown boredom.
The major stars continue to cater to the young—or at least those with a youthful sense of humor. According to research firm Statista, 77% of U.S. internet users ages 15-25 tune into YouTube. The top earner was nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, who clambered atop first place for the third year in a row. He’s famous for so-called unboxing videos, in which he takes toys out of their packages and reviews them. The little guy now has a line of branded merchandise—toys, backpacks, toothpaste, more—at Target, Amazon and Walmart that did $200 million in sales last year, and a Nickelodeon series called Ryan’s Mystery Playdate. There’s fellow child star Nastya (No. 7), the only female with the numbers to make the earnings-based list, and newcomer to the list Blippi (No. 8), a 32-year-old with a popular children’s educational channel where he sings about aquatic animals and visits children’s museums. Attracting a slightly older audience are make-up mogul Jeffree Star (No. 10) and comedian David Dobrick (No. 9), the list’s third newcomer.
Nearly all YouTubers earn the majority of their income from ad revenue generated from their YouTube videos, a number that is boosted when videos are family friendly, in English and longer than eight minutes. And while those ad rates did dip at the beginning of Covid-19, they quickly rebounded. Plus the YouTubers have gotten plenty of money from big brands such as Bass shops and Kroger, which each sponsored specific videos for Dude Perfect (No. 3) and Rhett and Link (No. 4), respectively.
All of these 21st century celebrities have branched out into the lucrative world of branded merchandise, too. Top creators like Dobrik, Donaldson and Markiplier (No. 5) can easily do $500,000 or more in monthly sales of tee-shirts, sweats and beanies—all perfect work-from-home wear. “In March, April, when people were stuck at home, there was more consumption of content and that collided with an e-commerce wave,” says Nikita Kopotun, the cofounder of Juniper, a custom merchandise shop for influencers.
In a commercial sense, times could not be better for these stars. But little Ryan sums it up for kids and grown-ups alike when he says: “I just can’t wait until we can go back outside.”
The Highest-Paid YouTube Stars Of 2020
#10 | Jeffree Star
Earnings: $15 million
Total Views (from June 2019 to June 2020): 600 million
Total Subscribers: 16.9 million
The beauty star has been caught up in a year-plus-long feud with fellow YouTuber and make-up mogul James Charles, who nearly made this list. The controversy and his self-described past racist behavior has caused some business ramifications, including the decision by retailer Morphe to stop selling his line. Regardless, he still clocked more than half a billion views in our time period. Even more lucrative than his YouTube channel, though, is his makeup line, which he sells direct-to-consumer. One of his most recent collections, Blood Money, features $52 eyeshadows and $18 lip balms, and his popular Conspiracy Collection, launched last year, reportedly sold 1 million eyeshadow palettes in 30 minutes.
#9 | David Dobrik
Earnings: $15.5 million
Views: 2.7 billion
Subscribers: 18 million
Over the past few years, Dobrik, 24, has done just about anything to make his audience laugh. He has driven a convertible through a car wash, shaved someone’s entire body and even once surprised his best friend by marrying his mom. (She was in on the joke—they divorced, amicably, after a month.) Lately, Dobrik has concentrated on porting his funny schtick over to TikTok. He’s been a hit there, too, accumulating 24.7 million followers. Brands dig Dobrik’s humor, and he’s won corporate sponsorships from SeatGeek, Bumble, EA and others. His devoted audience has led to a thriving apparel business (shirts, hoodies, shorts, pants), much of it sold under an amusingly self-aware brand name, Clickbait.
#8 | Blippi (Stevin John)
Earnings: $17 million
Views: 8.2 billion
Subscribers: 27.4 million
The only adult creating kids content on the list, the 32 year old launched his channel in 2014. He stars as Blippi, the brightly dressed, child-like character who educates through videos like “Blippi Visits the Aquarium” and “Learn Colors with Blippi.” Like Kaji, he has rolled out a full-scale merchandise line at big box retailers—child-size versions of his iconic orange glasses and blue-and-orange beret are top sellers—and offers his videos through Hulu and Amazon.
#7 | Nastya (Anastasia Radzinskaya)
Earnings: $18.5 million
Views: 39 billion
Subscribers: 190.6 million
The six-year-old Russian YouTuber goes by “Nastya” on her channel, which features the her and her father playing with legos, doing household chores and explaining viruses. The videos are colorful, expressive and don’t feature much advanced language, making them perfect for her global audience of tots. Since her debut on the list last year, Nastya has branched out: She’s become a popular kid on TikTok with 3 million followers and will launch her licensing program next year.
#6 | Preston Arsement
Earnings: $19 million
Views: 3.3 billion
Subscribers: 33.4 million
The pixelated world of Minecraft continues to be a goldmine for Arsement, 26. He rose to YouTube stardom off his videos exploring the animated cosmos and has since branched out to several other gaming-focused YouTube channels. On one, he plays Roblox. Another is called TBNRFrags—the acronym standing for “the best never rest,” the last word gaming slang for slaying an opponent. TBNRFrags features his exploits on the violence-filled military shooter Call of Duty. Arsement operates several lucrative Minecraft servers, where users pay to access Minecraft worlds he’s created and for in-game items; he runs another YouTube channel, PrestonCosmic, devoted to his time playing on his servers.
#5 | Markiplier (Mark Fischbach)
Earnings: $19.5 million
Views: 3.1 billion
Subscribers: 27.8 million
Markiplier has been at it on YouTube for eight years, posting ultra-popular breakdowns of video games. They’ve drawn in nearly 28 million subscribers, eager to pour over his new videos and vast archive—like, say, his 31-part series examining 2013’s Cry of Fear. Over the past year, Markiplier, 31, decided to change things up, and in addition to his existing YouTube channel, he and fellow gamer Ethan Nestor (aka CrankGameplays) founded a new channel, Unus Annus. On it, they featured funny, stunt-y vlogs. One time they tried on a bunch of Grinch costumes. In another, they had themselves pepper sprayed. Uniting the content was one central premise: They’d post a video every day for a year—then nuke the channel entirely, erasing all of its content, a comment about the fickle lifespan of internet popularity. Unus Annus was indeed popular, bringing in 4.5 million subscribers and nearly 1 billion views. When the time came to pull the plug last month, more than 1.5 million people tuned into a livestream as the duo bid goodbye, about roughly the same number who might ordinarily watch a primetime Sunday night baseball game on TV.
#4 | Rhett and Link
Earnings: $20 million
Views: 1.9 billion
Subscribers: 41.8 million
They’re some of YouTube’s longest-standing stars, having started “Good Mythical Morning,” their good-natured, nerdy talk show, back in 2012. Rhett (aka 43-year-old Rhett James McLaughlin) and Link (42-year-old Charles Lincoln III) have recently added something else to their Mythical Entertainment Co.: In February 2019, they paid $10 million to acquire SMOSH, a sketch comedy YouTube channel. With that purchase, Mythical Entertainment, which now has 100 employees, did almost 2 billion views on YouTube in the past year, bringing in some $11 million in estimated revenue from YouTube’s ad-share program. “Good Mythical Morning” also has a thriving fan club with monthly dues ranging from $10 to $20 for access to exclusive content.
#3 | Dude Perfect
Earnings: $23 million
Views: 2.77 billion
Subscribers: 57.5 million
These five bros (Coby Cotton, Cory Cotton, Garret Hilbert, Cody Jones and Tyler Toney) have more fun playing with lightsabers, Nerf Guns and paintballs than most adults do. Their popular stunts have led to a national tour that grossed about $6 million and an accompanying documentary, Backstage Pass. In March, when the coronavirus first hit and professional sports were at a standstill, the group took to their YouTube channel to host the Quarantine Classic, competing against each other in three-point basketball shootouts and roller-chair hockey. The series of videos raised about $160,000 for the Red Cross and Feeding America.
#2 | Mr. Beast (Jimmy Donaldson)
Earnings: $24 million
Views: 3 billion
Subscribers: 47.8 million
Donaldson is YouTube’s biggest new star, good enough for almost 50 million subscribers—his ultimate goal: doubling that—and 3 billion views over the last year. His videos are a mix of stunts and humor: In the last 12 months, the dude has frozen himself in ice, gone around a Ferris wheel 1,000 times and constructed the largest Lego tower ever. Donaldson’s YouTube channel helps him market his merchandise line—he and the cast in his videos all don it—and is popular among brands such as Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Honey, the coupon app.
#1 | Ryan Kaji
Earnings: $29.5 million
Views: 12.2 billion
Subscribers: 41.7 million
The nine-year-old star is flying high—literally. This November he became the first YouTuber featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a float based on his superhero alter ego. It was a marketing ploy as much as it was a thrilling moment for the kids who tune into Kaji’s videos of DIY science experiments, family storytime and reviews of new toys. That’s just the start: The bulk of his business comes from licensing deals for more than 5,000 Ryan’s World products—everything from bedroom decor and action figures to masks and walkie talkies.
METHODOLOGY: All earnings estimates are from June 1, 2019, through June 1, 2020. Figures are pretax; fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted. Earnings estimates are based on data from Captiv8, SocialBlade and Pollstar as well as interviews with industry insiders. For the list’s purposes, Forbes defines a YouTube Star as someone whose primary form of digital and media revenue comes from YouTube.
By Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff & Abram Brown, Forbes Staff