"I've had a love for gaming since I was a little kid, but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that it would be a viable career," said Mari Takahashi as we chatted about her meteoric rise to fame on YouTube. The former ballerina turned gamer quickly gained a devoted following on the platform when she started writing, hosting, editing, and producing a weekly web series in 2010.
Today, she's one of the world's top gamers and the executive producer of Smosh Games where she writes, hosts, and produces content for the channel's 7.2 million subscribers. "My career trajectory, in my mind, had been to train in ballet, make ballet my career until my hips broke, and then teach ballet until I died," explained Takahashi. "That was all I had ever planned for my life, so it was exciting that another path organically opened up," she said. "To this day, it's still bittersweet. Dancing is in my blood, and it's truly a part of me, but I don't regret, for a single moment, making a career transition."
Ahead, we ask Takahashi about leaving ballet, breaking industry barriers, and being inspired to live an adventurous life.
On Leaving Ballet Behind
Takahashi was a full-time professional ballerina in the Bay Area when she stumbled upon an opportunity to create gaming content. "It only paid 50 bucks, but it was an opportunity to learn something new, and I jumped on that wagon without really understanding where it would take me." Although she quickly garnered a cult following, she wasn't sure if she could (or should) leave ballet behind.
The biggest challenge was in the decision to finally take the plunge and go all in on gaming, according to Takahashi. "On one hand, I had this full-fledged ballet career, something that I'd pursued since I was 2 1/2 years old, a career that I'd shed blood, sweat, and tears for. On the other hand, I had this exciting new path that had opened up."
Needless to say, it was not an easy choice. "I commuted from San Fransisco to Los Angeles every week for two and a half years to film videos, just to be safe and to ensure I wasn't destroying a career I'd spent almost three decades to build," she explained. "It wasn't until 2015 that I really had that aha moment, five years into working with the Smosh brand, that I finally made the move to L.A., retired from ballet, and took on YouTube as my full-time job."
On Breaking Barriers
When Takahashi came into the gaming industry, she saw her position as a woman and a minority as a huge advantage. "I came from the ballet industry where the number of female dancers grossly outweighs the number of men, and it takes a lot to stand out and be successful," she explained. "I saw the gaming industry as a powerful opportunity to not only corner the market as a minority but to also usher in the next generation of influencers and promote more diverse representation. In many ways, I flipped the script," she added.
"I think a huge misconception is that the gaming industry is scary, mean, and poisonous," explained Takahashi. "Those kinds of people exist, as in every industry, but there are also tremendously helpful, compassionate, and inclusive people as well," she added. In the gaming industry, "Pamela Horton is somebody who really opened my eyes as to how important it is to be inclusive and compassionate," said Takahashi. "Jessica Chobot is also somebody who has been a huge role model for me in demonstrating professionalism and versatility in the workplace."
On Dealing With Negativity
As the woman behind one of the most popular gaming channels on YouTube with over seven million subscribers and counting, Takahashi is used to dealing with a certain level of negativity in the comments section. "The process of going through comments takes a bit of emotional inoculation to get to a place where you can just read it and take it with a grain of salt," she explained.
In the beginning, the amount of negativity was staggering. "If you go back to the first video that I fully produced, edited, hosted, wrote, and put up on the internet, it has about 50% dislikes," she said. "For the first eight or nine months, the amount of hate was overwhelming, but it was a really awesome learning experience," she explained.
"I realized that the comments that affected me the most, the ones that hurt and stung the most, were the ones that were laced with a little bit of truth," she confessed. "In that sense, I was able to step back, call myself on my own bullshit, and take that jagged, hard-to-swallow pill," she added.
She's since made a point to surround herself with people she can turn to for honest feedback about the things she can improve on. "I do think that there is a huge difference between pure hate comments and constructive criticism," said Takahashi. "Sometimes it's really difficult to decipher between the two, but when you're able to look at it unemotionally, there are a lot of opportunities to grow."
On Being Inspired to Live an Adventurous Life
Although gamers often explore virtual realities, Takahashi demonstrates that this isn't always the case. "I've skydived, scuba-dived, ice-climbed, and mountaineered because I realized that I could be the avatars that I'd been portraying in games all my life," she explained. "I don't have to do just these things on a screen—I can actually buy myself a ticket to Iceland and go ice-climbing. I think being a gamer has led me to live an exciting, adventurous life," she added.
On What It Means to Be a Womaneer
"To me, being a Womaneer means taking responsibility into your own hands—taking your work into your own hands, molding and carving it into what you visualize it," explained Takahashi. "It means calling yourself on your bullshit, recognizing where you failed or messed up, realizing your strengths and your shortcomings, and getting things done, avoiding excuses, and holding yourself accountable," she added. "If you can do all that, nothing anyone else throws at you or says to you can sting because you'll know who you are."