Friday, May 24, 2024

One day this summer, the internet personality Adin Ross switched on his camera and started broadcasting himself live to thousands of fans, sipping a Yerba Mate drink and nodding along to Lil Uzi.

Mr. Ross soon cut the music and started talking, assuring his fans that he would livestream Jake Paul’s upcoming boxing match, even though it would violate copyright laws. “I’ll pay the fines,” he promised them.

Later, he streamed himself playing online slot machines and blackjack on a gambling site, Stake. Once, he streamed pornography. He has hosted Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist, and Andrew Tate, the online influencer known for his misogyny who faces human-trafficking charges.

As Mr. Ross streams, his viewers post a torrent of messages in his channel’s chat feature — some celebrating him, some abusing him with slurs.

Welcome to life on Kick, the Wild West of livestreaming — where seemingly any kind of content goes. Since it went live late last year, the upstart platform has made waves in the world of livestreaming, long dominated by Twitch, which is owned by Amazon. Today, Kick has 21 million accounts, nearly twice as many as just four months ago, and has carved out a niche for itself as the latest home for the fringes of young male viewers who spend a significant amount of time online.

Kick, an Australian company, has flourished thanks to an unusual business model. It offers eyebrow-raising multimillion dollar contracts to top streamers and takes just 5 percent of all streamers’ earnings, compared with a 50-50 split on Twitch, helping lure away both top Twitch stars and rank-and-file content creators who say they’ve seen a bump in earnings.

But the site itself is something of a loss leader for Stake, the online casino backed by the same ownership and frequently promoted on Kick. By offering them sizable endorsement deals with Stake, Kick has also attracted mainstream stars like the rapper Drake.

Until recently, Kick employed a laissez-faire approach to content moderation, which attracted controversial characters like Mr. Ross, who was banned from Twitch earlier this year. . Other streamers have filmed themselves committing apparent crimes, like trespassing and sexual assault.

To some streamers and viewers, Kick represents a welcome freedom from what they see as the draconian rules and corporate greed on Twitch, which is more closely moderated and in recent years has taken a greater cut of its streamers’ earnings. To others, Kick is allowing harmful views to thrive.

As it has grown, Kick has faced the same scrutiny as other fledgling social media sites, forcing it to get serious about what kind of content it does and does not allow. A further crackdown on pornography, for instance, was imposed after Mr. Ross’s stream this spring. Other features, like a report button, were added only recently, and critics have said the site remains lax about enforcing restrictions.

I think people are realizing the more controversial they are, the more shock factor involved in their content, the more viewers they get, and it can sometimes be a dangerous mix in that regard,” Ed Craven, the 28-year-old chief executive of Kick, said in an interview. “So we are very quickly having to adapt what we consider to be aboveboard and where we have to say ‘no.’”

The question is: Does Kick actually want to shed its irreverent image, or is it merely paying lip service to regulation in the face of public pressure?

Mr. Craven quickly rose in the Australian technology world as the co-founder of Easygo and other online gambling companies he started with Bijan Tehrani, whom he met while playing the online game RuneScape.

Stake, which Mr. Craven started in 2017 out of Curaçao, is one of the world’s largest crypto casinos — sites where people can use various cryptocurrencies to gamble on games like blackjack and slots. Last year, Stake’s success landed Mr. Craven near the top of The Australia Financial Review’s Young Rich List, which proclaimed him Australia’s “youngest ever self-made billionaire.” This year, the site estimated his wealth was $3.11 billion.

During a video interview in October, Mr. Craven wore AirPods and a dark T-shirt, his uniform of choice. He was part casual, relaxed broadcaster comfortable in front of a camera, part serious executive. Mr. Craven said he himself was an “avid livestreamer” who frequented, the early version of Twitch, when he was a teenager. He often donates money to Kick streamers — which makes up a not-insignificant amount of some streamers’ earnings — while watching their broadcasts the same way any other fan may.

“Pretty much everyone heavily involved with Kick has grown up with livestreaming,” he said. “It’s been a large part of our lives over the last decade or so.”

The idea for Kick originated, at least in part, from Stake’s promotional efforts.

In 2021, Stake began offering star Twitch streamers like Félix Lengyel, known as xQc, and Tyler Niknam, known as Trainwreck, contracts of more than $1 million per month to broadcast themselves gambling on its site — sometimes also providing the funds the streamers were gambling away — leading to a surge of interest in gambling content on Twitch. When Drake announced a partnership with Stake the following year and began routinely betting hundreds of thousands of dollars while streaming on a Twitch channel called StakeDrake, it only added to the mania.

Twitch’s advertisers didn’t like it. In response, last September, the company banned the streaming of online slots and other games on sites that were unlicensed in the United States or other countries that have consumer protections, a list that included It said in a statement that it did so to prevent “predatory behavior.” Twitch said gambling viewership on its site has dropped 75 percent since then.

The following month, Mr. Niknam, Mr. Tehrani and Mr. Craven started Kick, which now has 195 employees based in Australia, Serbia and the United States.

Streamers have flocked to the site; Kick said that it had 158,510 active streamers in October, and that viewership has climbed to 104 million hours in October from 12.5 million hours watched at the beginning of the year. Some Kick streamers say they have seen better growth and earnings than on rival sites like YouTube or Twitch.

Andrei Zanescu, an assistant professor at Concordia University in Canada who is the co-author of a forthcoming book about Twitch, said it was unsurprising that Kick was offering such generous terms to its creators, because Stake was probably seeing an influx of traffic as Kick streamers broadcast themselves gambling on Stake.

Slot machine livestreams and gambling advertisements for Stake are commonplace on Kick, and the 54.8 million hours of gambling content that viewers watched in the third quarter of this year made up nearly 20 percent of total Kick content, according to the data firm Streams Charts.

Kick “can absolutely afford to run at a loss as long as it takes, as long as overall the business venture is generating profit for them,” Mr. Zanescu added.

But Mr. Craven said that was not the goal. He acknowledged that Kick, which is losing money, offers “marketing value” for Stake and that the two sites have some of the same shareholders, but said they are “completely separate entities” with distinct management and operations teams.

The Kick homepage, on a typical day, is an overwhelming swirl of youthful testosterone.

One recent afternoon, several thousand people watched Nick Kolcheff, a member of the e-sports group FaZe Clan who goes by Nickmercs, shoot at cartoon enemies in Apex Legends, a battle royale game. Other viewers watched a British livestreamer named Sam Pepper walk down a street in Brazil, commenting in the chat box on his interactions with street vendors and making lewd comments about the women who popped up on his broadcast.

Some streamers chatted with their viewers as they watched colorful slot machine reels spin in the background on Stake and other gambling sites, with animated gold coins sometimes raining down the screen. As a British streamer who goes by AverageGuy watched his slot machine spin, one commenter sounded a note of criticism: “No moral compass showcasing this to younger viewers,” the commenter wrote.

The streamer pointed out that people had to click a button affirming they were at least 18 to watch his stream — one safeguard Kick has put into effect to guard against influencing underage viewers to gamble, though it relies on an honor system. “I’m quite happy to educate people,” AverageGuy said, calling the critic a “moron.”

Online gambling…

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