The geek icon is inviting everyone to gather around for games and fun on International TableTop Day.
FORTUNE — Wil Wheaton is best known to sci-fi fans for his role as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He reaches his largest audience playing himself — and playing off his sci-fi roots — in the hit TV series, The Big Bang Theory. But millions of fans around the globe know Wheaton for something very different — TableTop. The YouTube series, which is part of Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry channel, has helped redefine what a niche audience is in today’s connected world. It even has helped create an International TableTop Day (April 5), when the world congregates to play classic multiplayer board and card games with friends around a table. Wheaton discusses the new entertainment landscape and explains how crowdfunding has forever changed the creative industry.
Where did the idea for this TableTop YouTube series come from?
Felicia and I have been friends forever, and when Geek & Sundry was getting started she called me and said she was going to pitch a slate of shows to YouTube (GOOG). She wanted to do a show together, and we started talking about games, but the idea of me reviewing games just didn’t appeal to me. So we talked and thought it’d be cool if we did something where we had our friends who are on TV come and play different games. The whole idea just came together like that, and the show was basically developed in about 90 seconds. We both got really excited about it, and I thought that we had an opportunity to create a show that would get people excited about gaming. Maybe a fan of one of the actors who comes to play watches and gets interested in tabletop games as a result. It’s also a show for gamers who have non-gaming people in their lives and could watch with their partners or their families or their friends and say, “This is why I get together with my groups once a week to play games.”
Why do you think there’s still an audience for these more traditional tabletop games despite all of today’s technology and multiplayer videogames?
There is a wonderful, timeless, communal experience that is a fundamental part of who we are as social animals, of getting together in the same place to do something together. The experience of sitting down at a table and playing a game is fundamentally different and fundamentally more social than playing online with people you don’t know. And then there’s the obvious advantage of when you sit down at a table with someone — it’s extraordinarily unlikely that they’re going to turn out to be some 12-year-old misogynist racist who screams at you the entire time you’re playing, which is what we tend to encounter online.
How have you seen the power of YouTube have a direct correlation on sales of tabletop games at retail and online?
That’s actually something that I wasn’t expecting, and it’s something that really took me by surprise. Maybe three episodes into the first season, we started getting emails and phone calls from game shop owners and publishers because they were not prepared for the explosion of sales that they had. They wanted to know if we could let them know a little bit in advance when an episode was going to air, so that they could stock up. They started talking about something called the “TableTop effect,” where a game is real popular with gamers, but it hasn’t really gone into the mainstream consciousness. And then it gets on TableTop and suddenly that game sells out. We have looked at sales figures from the big game distributors, and it’s pretty cool. People see our show and then you just watch the spike in the sales. And for a lot of games the only reason that spike trails off is because the game sells out and they have to take time to make another printing.
What effect has a more mainstream acceptance of tabletop gaming had in having more videogames and other licenses migrate to a tabletop version?
That is a response from the market to the way we play games. Gamers love the Halo universe; we love the Mass Effect universe. The publishers recognize that we love these videogame franchises, but we also love the experience of getting together to play tabletop games. It just reflects this growing acceptance by publishers and the industry that the overlap in the venn diagram of tabletop vendors and videogamers is actually pretty big.
How have you seen YouTube evolve as a real entertainment platform over the past few years?
I was really skeptical about all of that until my kids started not having brand loyalty to a network or even to a distribution platform. They just care about the product that they’re watching. They don’t care if it’s on YouTube or Vimeo or Hulu Plus or NBC. They just really like that personality or that show. The way that I’ve really seen YouTube grow and change over the years comes less from the YouTube content creators, who have always done really cool things, and it comes more from the larger maybe mainstream world that originally looked at YouTubers the same way journalists and writers tended to look at bloggers when we started doing that back in 2000, 2001.
I really love that we live in this era right now where a person can get excited and make something, and in a matter of hours or just a couple of days they can be broadcasting it on television. They can be on YouTube, and someone’s watching it on their TV through Apple TV or Roku or on their PlayStation or Xbox. YouTube has given rise to people I don’t think would have been given an opportunity to be on mainstream television 10 years ago, people like Hank and John Green, Hannah Hart, Grace Helbig, and Tyler Oakley. These are people who I love on YouTube, and I never ever would have seen any of them if I had to rely on TV the way it was when I grew up.
How have you seen technology like social networking, crowdfunding, and YouTube open up new opportunities for things like TableTop that were once considered niche?
When I was a kid, everybody was fighting for eyeballs on three networks. If you were watching something at 8:00 on Thursday on CBS, it was all you were watching. You couldn’t watch anything at any other time than that. VCRs sort of changed that, but the world that we live in now with the advent of time-shifting and on-demand programming means we’re not limited by what distribution is available. It makes it easier for people who are smaller creators to make something that turns out isn’t necessarily niche programming. Our episodes of TableTop are watched by a couple of million people around the world. That doesn’t hold up to something that’s broadcast on prime time television, but it’s still a couple of million people around the world. Maybe what we have defined as niche has actually changed because what we used to think of something as a niche program would attract maybe a few thousand people, and now it’s actually a few million.
Having worked on Tim Schaefer’s Broken Age, what has Kickstarter opened up for not just videogames, but tabletop games?
There have been some really fun games that came through Kickstarter like Cards Against Humanity and Boss Monster. We are living in a time of really great opportunities for people who have ideas and who are passionate about creating things. It’s really easy for people to share their ideas and get excited and make a thing and share it with other people who then get excited and share it with people. It becomes this growing network of things. I don’t think that crowdfunding is this perfect solution or the end to what we would think of as traditional funding, but it absolutely opens up opportunities for people who maybe don’t have a proven track record of making cool things. Instead of going to one big venture capitalist or investor, they can go directly to an audience that already loves the things that they make. I’ve always been a fan of disruptive technology, and what we’re seeing with crowdfunding companies like Indiegogo and Kickstarter is this sudden shift in the way creative people think about something. We don’t have to prove to one investor that our idea is viable. We can actually go to the audience and ask them, “Do you think this is viable? If so, then throw us a couple of bucks and we’ll make it for you.