Inside the YouTube journey of a competitive eating star

Inside the YouTube journey of a competitive eating star

Wearing a silicone swim cap and goggles, Matt “Megatoad” Stonie stares down his meal: more than 12,000 calories stretched out over a dining table, including several helpings of french toast, ham sandwiches and pasta with tomato sauce. It’s the contents of a diet belonging to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, and Stonie will eat every calorie of all three meals in one sitting. 

Stunts like this aren’t uncommon on YouTube, where personalities go to extreme measures to gain views and subscribers to their channel — ultimately, to turn a hobby into a source of income. For most people, these efforts end poorly.

But there’s something in Stonie’s approach that makes him captivating to watch. He approaches the meal, bite by bite, with strategy. He struggles — who wouldn’t when you’re eating roughly six days’ worth of food in one sitting? — but not for long.

He’s a professional

He finishes the meal in a little over 42 minutes, and shows off his swollen stomach — a pudgy food baby grafted onto his thin frame — before weakly stepping off camera.

“I felt like I was going to die,” Stonie told TNW.

On camera, he appears disappointed in his performance, but shouldn’t be — Stonie’s feat reiterates his skill and potential at competitive eating, and he’s rewarded by more than 6 million YouTube views, his highest to date.

When I spoke with Stonie on the phone, he’d just come off the biggest week of his professional eating career. The 2015 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held on American Independence Day, is the Superbowl of Major League Eating, the professional competitive eating circuit. It is where well-known professional eaters and novices alike show up to prove their mettle by eating as many hot dogs as possible in 20 minutes.

The contest was the site of the rise of Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese competitive eater who ate 51 hot dogs in 2001 — doubling the previous record of 25. He was finally unseated by American Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who blew past Kobayashi’s record by consuming 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes in 2007.

Stonie Burrito

For eight years, the event was dominated by Chestnut — who has in turn maintained the number one ranking among professional eaters all over the world. But by downing 62 hot dogs, including the buns, in 10 minutes flat, Stonie snatched the trophy and the top ranking.

“When I do these contests, it’s work for me. The past two months, I’ve been eating tons of hot dogs,” Stonie explained. “But I might cook up a few hot dogs in a few days just to celebrate a little bit.”

From hobby to sport

The 23-year old completed his first stunt in 2010, when he ate a five-pound, 18-inch “Burritozilla” at a Mexican restaurant in his hometown of San Jose. Realizing his knack for eating plenty of food at once, he began participating in professional challenges. He made his way back to that burrito earlier this year, where he completed the challenge on camera in two minutes.

As his skill and notoriety increased, so has his subscriber base. In the last few months, his subscriber base has shot up by more than 200,000 followers — thanks in part to his performance with those hot dogs. His total viewership is more than 100,000,000.

Stonie has had a YouTube channel for practically the length of his professional eating career. Most of the challenges he participates in are to feed the interest of his subscriber base of more than 730,000: hammering down a gigantic sundae composed of three gallon tubs of ice cream, inhaling one and a half family size boxes of Trix cereal and milk, or crushing eight McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwiches in 60 seconds.

Stonie FiletoFish

“I started getting a following, and realized that people were watching me,” Stonie explained. “I just started to make stuff at home and mess around, and it snowballed.”

His cameraman (and an occasional participant) is his brother, Morgan, who has become such a fixture on the channel that one fan put together a supercut of him laughing at Stonie’s difficulty through challenges.

“My brother had been the biggest help,” Stonie added. “He’s not just a cameraman who helps me, but he makes ridiculously funny and stupid comments that are just out there. He makes the videos entertaining.”

Sometimes Stonie comes up with ideas, and others are challenges by similarly gastronomically talented YouTubers. That Michael Phelps Challenge — Stonie’s most-watched video and one of his favorites — was inspired by the 30-minute run of Canadian competitive eater “Furious” Pete Czerwinski. His channel also links to others in the competitive eating scene, including the Women’s winner of Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, Miki Sudo.

Stonie Birthday Cake

Stonie said that these challenges are no more than fun — if downing nearly 20 pounds of Japanese curry is your idea of fun. In watching a large volume of Stonie’s videos, it really is like an athlete fooling around with their own skills — a skateboarder nailing a huge trick, or a basketball star filming a dunk challenge.

“All athletes are athletes. We work physically, but we’re also entertainers, you know?” Stonie explained. “When I think about my YouTube videos, I want to do what others want to see. Things that make people gasp.”

The human side of competitive eating

Sometimes Stonie’s videos show him in peak form, but other times they are a struggle. He says that the most difficult challenge was the “Giant Ass English Breakfast,” in which he cooked up more than 10,000 calories of the traditional meal: blood sausage, toast fried in butter, the works.

“As I was eating it, I was thinking ‘Oh man, I really really didn’t cook this very well,” Stonie said. “But I’m not going to give up just because my beans are a little cold.”

Stonie English Breakfast

Stonie doesn’t limit himself to on-camera stunts requested by his fans — he also films his own professional contests and attempts at World Records. Currently, he has the world record for eating the largest birthday cake in one sitting, ingesting more than five pounds of cake in nine minutes. But he said he doesn’t normally review these videos the way a professional athlete might study his tactics.

“It doesn’t fulfill the hardcore training that I do for contests,” Stonie explained. “If anything, it keeps my body in shape for contests. Like going out for a quick 20-minute jog.”

Stonie’s winning performance against Chestnut is available on his channel as well, and it’s no small feat. Stonie and Chestnut will be meeting beyond the realm of hot dogs, going toe-to-toe in other culinary arenas like wings, tacos, and gyoza.

But just because Stonie is at the top of his game doesn’t mean that he’s leaving behind YouTube, which has been by his side since before he rose to fame. He has continued to post his weekly videos, most recently eating 160 chicken fries from Burger King. He also posted a video thanking his followers for sticking around.

“I definitely feed off the feedback I get from people,” Stonie said. “They’re the ones that are watching.”

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