How a Pennsylvania kid mastered the claw and became a social media star

Tribune Content Agency

PITTSBURGH — The video is grainy and the production quality nonexistent, but it shows that back in 2009, Matt Magnone pulled off an incredible feat on an arcade claw machine at Kmart: He picked up five stuffed animals in one play.

Thirteen years later, winning big at kids’ games is Magnone’s job.

Better known to his online following as “Arcade Matt,” this 2005 Ambridge High School graduate has amassed 1.74 million subscribers on YouTube, 923,000 on Facebook and 119,000 on Instagram. He’s part-gamer, part-personality, part-videographer — a cocktail of talents that has plucked him from obscurity and made him famous. He credits CVS for getting him started.

“I was a cashier and, eventually, photo lab supervisor. It wasn’t a dream job, of course, and there were many days I hated it, but that job got me out of my shyness,” said Magnone, 35. “I used to be a real shy kid, but that forced me to get out there.”

He grew up in a sports-crazed city but wasn’t good at sports, he said. In fact, he wasn’t sure what he was good at, “just kind of one of those weird kids.”

But he had a couple passions. One was his father’s clunky video camera that hooked up to the TV and allowed a 4-year-old to see himself on screen. The other was arcades. When he got his first camcorder, he took it to the nearest claw game at the local bowling alley, Baden Bowl, and filmed himself winning a prize.

“I’d watch that over and over, that thrill of the capture,” Magnone said. “I was like, ‘You know what? This is cool.'”

That hobby became an obsession as he entered his teens. Magnone saved up $500 from his high school job, bought his own full-size claw machine on eBay, studied its inner works, tinkered with the settings and began practicing every day.

He got so good at it that he figured he’d make a video on how to master the game that has cost aspiring dads and kids countless coins trying to snag the perfect prize. While the video he uploaded didn’t go viral or anything — at least not by today’s standards — quite a few viewers told him they enjoyed it, put his pointers to good use and clawed their way to prizes.

“It grew slowly but surely,” Magnone said of his online audience. “But slow growth, I think, is better. You build those loyal fans. I have people who say they’ve been watching for five years, 10 years. It’s crazy.”

After earning some academic credits at Community College of Beaver County, Magnone was able to transfer those to Robert Morris University, where he majored in media arts with a focus on video and photography. His plan was to start looking for production opportunities in the robust Pittsburgh cinema world. He scored work as an extra in prominent films shot here such as “Adventureland,” “She’s Out of My League” and “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl.”

Meanwhile, his YouTube persona was growing.

By 2012, Magnone was working “full-time” on the site. Basically, the ad revenue his videos was generating was enough that he could make it his sole source of income.

He was an early adopter — he signed up for YouTube in early January 2006, less than a year after it launched — and has made enough to hire a full-time video editor last year. But Magnone doesn’t just do it for the money. He still loves the thrill of winning the big prize or hitting a jackpot. And he has discovered that he has made a difference in the life of at least one follower.

At one of his first meet-and-greets, Magnone was approached by a young woman who started crying when she saw him. She told him she had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts but finding his videos had saved her life. The two stayed in touch, and she’s now in her early 20s, working as an emergency medical technician.

“She was in the same boat as me, like, ‘I don’t know what I’m good at,'” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘I’ve been there. You’ll find it.’ I thought that was really inspiring, and now she’s doing great.”