Shane Hoffman stood in front of his class of about 40 students as he told them he was going to be an honored guest at Stillwater’s LexiCon.
He is greeted with laughter. Students know of his YouTube persona “Prof Hoff,” but aside from using his nightly broadcasts as a drinking game, it is a joke to them.
The reaction is a far cry from the people who tune into see Hoffman in his live streams and watch his uploads every single day. There, Hoffman has built a community of fans who view him as a hero of sorts as he communicates with them while playing the mobile game “Marvel Contest of Champions.”
Hoffman, 31, is a professor at Oklahoma State University who works in the Paul Miller Journalism and Broadcasting Building. Teaching is his true passion, but being Prof Hoff on YouTube is what changed his life.
A few years ago, Hoffman felt like he was at the lowest point in his life. Not only had he just broken off an engagement, but he had also had another breakup. When seeing a counselor, he was told to try something that he wouldn’t have been able to do if he had stayed in a relationship.
Hoffman thought of video games. Despite not playing them since when he was a kid on the Nintendo GameCube, he decided to try it out to fill the time. After seeing a commercial for MCOC featuring Spider-Man and Venom, some of his favorite comic book characters, he decided to download the game.
“For at least two years, I played it,” Hoffman said. “I didn’t do anything on YouTube, but playing was taking up a lot of time. Those mobile games, I felt like I was wasting a lot of time and couldn’t justify the time I was putting in. I was about to retire from the game.”
Before he hung up his trademark driving hat and deleted the game, he took a trip to Oregon to see his identical twin brother, Dillon. While talking, the game came up in conversation. Shane decided to show him what kind of roster he had built in the game and explain the hobby to him.
At the time, Hoffman had a lot of unopened crystals – which are kind of like a slot machine where the user taps to open it and hopefully will get a good character. Dillon told Shane to record himself opening it so he can look back in case he got anybody cool.
Hoffman thought, “Why not?”
While he was still relatively new to the mobile game scene, Hoffman had been a presence on YouTube for a while. For years, he had reviewed different kinds of Oreos and pizza products to little fanfare. He posted the videos every few months just for fun.
Mostly, his Facebook friends subscribed since they felt sorry for him and his journalism students watched for fun, but that was it.
So, when Hoffman uploaded this MCOC video, little did he know that a stream of himself opening crystals would open Pandora’s Box.
“It got more views than any of the latest pizza or Oreo videos,” Hoffman said. “Plus, there was someone from like Sweden who commented that they enjoyed it. ‘Why the hell would you watch this? How did you even find this?’ It was funny, though. It stuck with me and it was really easy. Oreos, you have to buy the Oreos and you have to test them. This, you just record your phone on a computer and mirror it, have an external mic or even an internal mic and it takes like 10 minutes to upload it. I was able to make those videos pretty quickly and because I had been playing the game for two years, I was pretty well versed.”
Hoffman had about 50 subscribers then, mostly from the food reviewing days. He started uploading the MCOC content and because there wasn’t much of a following yet, it allowed him to get pretty good at it.
“Even if no one watches, it is like starting out in Amarillo and ending up in New York. You want to make mistakes when no one is watching,” Hoffman said.
Now, Hoffman has more than 38,000 subscribers and 17 million views. He is the No. 1 MCOC streamer in North America.
“When I look at the audience analytics, we are talking about countries – 10,000 views from the Netherlands, 12,000 from Italy, 18,000 from Brazil, 37,000 from Australia, 90,000 from India and almost 100,000 from the United Kingdom,” Hoffman said. “I am getting 3,000 views in Bulgaria, Taiwan, Switzerland, South Korea. How cool is that? All these people from 100-plus countries watch my channel, yet my students don’t care, which is funny.”
Hoffman, who has a bachelors degree from the University of Missouri and a masters from OSU, loves the amount of fame that comes with being a YouTube star. He can go out to shop and no one knows him unless it is a student in one of his classes. Yet, when he is at his Stillwater homestead, in his back room that doubles as his set, he is a celebrity to a niche crowd. He compares it to being Tony Stark during the day and Iron Man at night.
Hoffman was surprised to see how it took off like it did, but it still surprises him every night to open up the chat and see everyone show up like an episode from “Cheers.” Everyone knows your name on Prof Hoff’s channel. There are several who show up every night, more than 300 days a year – Hoffman started doing live broadcasts in the summer of 2018.
“People always said, ‘That is really going to make you money.’ I always thought, ‘No it’s not.’ I will never forget when the super chat popped up, it is just like someone tipped you two bucks,” Hoffman said. “What is amazing is that people appreciate the entertainment, but also if you look up to someone on TV, never in human history can that person call your name through your TV, you can’t break the fourth wall.
“Now people are like, ‘Here is five bucks, can you give my girlfriend a shoutout, she doesn’t think you will?’ One of the really cool moments is I had a dad reach out to me and said, ‘My son just had his first A and B report card from school. Will you give him a shout out at the end of one of your videos?’ The dad filmed the son watching and the kid started jumping up and down crying. That wouldn’t happen if it weren’t 2019. It is like a community.”
Hoffman even has a viewer from Chicago, Illinois, Skype in every night whenever he opens new crystals. Coming up, he is going to California to be a guest of honor at a viewer’s wedding. The viewer had asked Hoffman to wait 17 seconds to open a crystal and Hoffman asked, ‘Why 17?’ The viewer said it was because that was how long it took him to propose to his now fiancée.
While it still baffles him, Hoffman said he thinks he understands why his channel has taken off the way that it has.
“I think the old thought was you had to be perfect on set,” Hoffman said. “You had to wear a suit, have great lighting and be like Walter Cronkite. Our generation identifies more with people who are just real and ‘keeping it 100.’ I am not afraid to criticize the company that makes the game. I am not afraid to call out people who are being shady. I am being honest and I grade most of the deals with like a letter grade and most aren’t good because I think they are ripping people off. I save them money and that is why some follow me. They also think I am funny and love my puns.”
Hoffman, a native of Ruidoso, New Mexico, has had an affinity for puns for years, with his Twitter handle @profhoffspuns acknowledging it.
However, even though he has a good personality with his students and has built a good rapport teaching in classes such as his popular Fundamentals of Audio and Video Production course, it took some work to be candid online.
“People crave authentic vulnerability and it is a skill you have to train yourself at because it is scary. People think social media is a way to put your best life out there, saying you have a new car and baby and whatever. That isn’t being vulnerable, it is bragging about the things you have,” Hoffman said.
He interacts with as many people as he can on his channel. He found out that a lot of people just needed that one person saying “Hi” to them to pull them out of dark places. As an advocate for mental health awareness, Hoffman loves to help people.
“I can’t tell you how many have told me that just by responding to their message or saying their name, I made their day. Someone cares enough,” Hoffman said. “I read all the time about these mass shooters and how they felt like there was no one who cared if they were dead and had nothing to live for and that is how they snapped. Just taking five seconds out of your day to respond to fan mail or a comment, that could inspire them. As someone who tries to be a Christian, it isn’t about Bible verse, it is about loving people.”
It is something Hoffman talks to his viewers about. Even though he is playing a game where he uses Marvel characters to fight one another “Mortal Kombat” style, the conversations range from sports, dating advice and even on current events like gun violence.
“You use the game as a way to get people to the channel, but then the community is a way to keep them,” Hoffman said.
The game has not only opened up a new world to Hoffman, but also another revenue stream as he went from making no money on his Oreo and pizza reviews to $20,000 last year and almost $30,000 this year alone with four months to go. It is almost not a side hustle as it is comparable salary to his OSU pay, where he hasn’t had a raise in his time at the school.
“I paid off my house and bought a car with cash, a new car in a 2017 Chevy Sonic,” Hoffman said. “I now have been able to give back to my subscribers by meeting them in person and saying thank you. I feel like I am retired at 31. I feel like I get to do life in reverse and travel in my 30s.”
He has been donated things for his set such as one viewer who hand carved a wooden Marvel sign for his backdrop that can change lighting. Another viewer, from nearby Chandler, has come up to help him work on his set and even watched “Avengers: Endgame” with him.
“People are always telling me, you don’t know these people, they could be serial killers,” Hoffman said. “Well, I am going to take my chances. It is worth it.”
At conventions, such as Stillwater’s LexiCon where Hoffman will be presenting on Sept. 14 at the Stillwater Public Library, Hoffman loves helping people learn how to make money on YouTube or even use it as an outlet to have fun.
He has already started teaching a summer class at OSU for that very purpose and carries it on everywhere he is invited to speak.
“There is no downside. As long as you enjoy doing it, there is no reason not to,” Hoffman said. “You can build a niche. The only bad thing about YouTube is the dislike button has done a lot of damage. If they didn’t have that, it would help a lot of people. It can be devastating when you have put an hour of work into a video and upload it and it is a 10-minute video and 20 seconds in, it has a dislike already. When you are starting out and have five likes and seven dislikes, it feels like you have just failed at life. It can be hampering.”
Hoffman has met some of those trolls in real life, and he said it is disturbing. But, he smiles throughout it and takes the good with the bad. He admits he might not be the best MCOC player in the world, but he helps people save money, has a good roster and he enjoys talking with people.
“I always hear, ‘You never want to meet your heroes and I always hated that because that means your hero is an a------,” Hoffman said. “I wanted to be the first person they meet whether it is at Lexicon or New York where they can say, ‘Wow, he is just like I thought he would be or even better.’ Because hopefully that person will go on to repay the favor for someone else and want to be like Prof Hoff was to me when I was like 10.”
If Dillon hadn’t told his brother to upload that video, Shane doesn’t know where he would be right now.
“I would be in a very dark place,” Hoffman said. “I would still be questioning whether I made the right decision to break off my engagement and I would be desperate to rush into a potentially unhealthy relationship, because I was codependent on having something besides my teaching job to give me purpose whereas this YouTube channel has filled all of those holes.”