Rooster Teeth Was Too Good For the Internet — Until It Wasn’t

A eulogy for the imperfect studio behind Red vs. Blue.

Red vs Blue
Rooster Teeth

On April 1, 2003, two space marines dared to ask a question loaded with infinite meaning: “Why are we here?”

For two decades, Rooster Teeth dared to find out. But on March 6, 2024, the Austin, Texas-based studio known for original shows like Red vs. Blue, RWBY, gen:LOCK, and the gaming-oriented lifestyle brand Achievement Hunter, formally announced an end of operations.

In a statement released on its Facebook and Instagram pages, Rooster Teeth cited “challenges facing digital media” including “fundamental shifts in consumer behavior and monetization across platforms, advertising, and patronage.” It is the latest casualty of widespread layoffs that have ravaged similar industries, from newsrooms to video game studios. It also probably didn’t help that the studio is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which has spent the last few years tightening its belt under ruthlessly frugal CEO David Zaslav.

A Variety story detailed that the studio was “unprofitable,” and that its closure will leave 150 full-time employees and “dozens” of contractors out of work. Such dire straits at the company have been alluded to by its own figureheads. Creative director Barbara Dunkelman said in a March 7 Twitter/X post that “things weren’t doing as well as they needed to [be] doing.”

This unceremonious end, one month shy of its 21st anniversary (and after a polarizing redesign) belies Rooster Teeth’s deserved legacy as an industry innovator and online media success story.

Rooster Teeth’s second hit was the anime series RWBY.

Rooster Teeth

Rooster Teeth made its bones from, excuse the word, “content” tailored to gaming and animation fandoms. It was founded in a home garage by Burnie Burns, Matt Hullum, Geoff Ramsey, Jason Saldana, Gus Sarola, and Joel Heyman. Sheltered from Texas heat, the guys toyed with the Xbox hit Halo and made funny skits using its visual assets. In what would become the first episode of their flagship series Red vs. Blue, two marines (voiced by Sarola and Ramsey) stand on guard on a desolate gulch when, out of boredom, the character Simmons asks why they’re present. “It’s one of life’s great mysteries, isn’t it?” replies his comrade Grif.

Red vs. Blue wasn’t the first work of machinima, an art form that appropriates a video game’s contents for storytelling purposes. But Rooster Teeth popularized it when Red vs. Blue went viral on a pre-YouTube internet; the onslaught of visitor traffic even fried its servers. Rooster Teeth later matured, leveling up into real workspaces and creating more “content” that appealed almost exclusively to gamers and pop culture addicts like themselves.

In 2010, Monty Oum, who had independently gone viral with his own shorts on YouTube, joined the company. He initially worked on Red vs. Blue where he notably applied his signature hyperkinetic animation style to spice up the show’s famously rigid puppeteering. Soon, Oum oversaw the launch of his original creation RWBY (pronounced “ruby”), an action-fantasy series about four schoolgirls studying to become monster hunters. Oum shepherded RWBY until his passing in 2015. As Rooster Teeth ceases to exist, RWBY ends its recent ninth season as its last.

A moment from Red vs. Blue’s final episode, “The End.”

Rooster Teeth

Between and beyond Red vs. Blue and RWBY, Rooster Teeth became a larger entity with wide reach including independent films, a library of YouTube videos, a podcast network, countless livestreams, a streaming service, streetwear merch, and fan conventions with an average of 60,000-plus attendees. The secret sauce was that Rooster Teeth was, for the longest time, original and accessible. Its creators simply made what they wanted to make, not because algorithms demanded them. They were present at conventions, inviting their fans to say hello. As multimedia creators, they banked on their audience’s familiarity with them as both artists and people, which now seems prescient in the world of Twitch and TikTok.

In short: Rooster Teeth lived up to the promise of the internet as a space for creators to create, if only for a time. Whatever you think of the quality of their work – and in true honesty, much of what it made rarely outlived the ephemera – there was no denying it had appeal. In today’s algorithm-driven internet, it’s impossible to imagine Rooster Teeth existing now. Not even Rooster Teeth survived, based on its own plunge into YouTube sludge.

The end of Rooster Teeth is not a story about the heartless sacrifice of a pure thing. It’s about DIY success built on jagged growth, where professional maturity collided with personal immaturity. Arguably Rooster Teeth’s gravest sin was that it was made up of young adults figuring out, in public view, what a proper work environment looks like. Internal problems at the company are legendary; just see its Wikipedia page, with its accusations of toxic environments, sexual harassment, and racism. All the while Rooster Teeth strove for an ineffable level of mainstream legitimacy only to never crack it. It came close with gen:LOCK, its original sci-fi anime produced by and starring Michael B. Jordan. But even the Creed star mysteriously distanced himself from it, ignoring mention even in splashy magazine profiles. In the end, Rooster Teeth only had themselves.

The end of Rooster Teeth is also as much a warning about corporate consolidation and its dilution of a scrappy outfit with manageable scale like Rooster Teeth. The company was first under AT&T’s Otter Media, then a product of Warner Bros. Discovery (formerly WarnerMedia) in 2019 during the merging of AT&T and Warner. In a May 2021 piece on Bloomberg, AT&T looked to sell Rooster Teeth off to prioritize 5G development and boost HBO Max (now MAX). Culling Rooster Teeth, which was economically underperforming even then, according to Bloomberg's sources, was meant to save and raise money for AT&T. (AT&T divorced itself from Warner Bros. in 2022.) In the end, shuttering Rooster Teeth is doing just that, only now the cost is immeasurable.

If the internet is still the new frontier of humanity we’ve yet to fully comprehend, Rooster Teeth’s legacy should be that it was among the first to make it fun. Today, when YouTube is overrun by thumbnails making O-shaped faces, when Netflix is full of ghastly remakes, when everything is expensive and hardly anyone is trying, we can say with certainty and bittersweet fondness that Rooster Teeth tried. Maybe that’s why it was here. Someone had to try first.

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