Amazon’s Twitch has helped build the careers of online celebrities who livestream video of themselves for hours at a time and can bring in millions of dollars a year. Now, a controversial new platform is crafting deals and attracting top talent, and it’s dividing the livestreaming industry.
Félix “xQc” Lengyel and Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa were two of Twitch’s biggest stars. Between them, they amassed nearly 20 million followers on Twitch alone. But in June, both left the streaming giant for lucrative contracts with a rival platform, Kick, which boasts looser moderation policies and practices. They left amid an exodus of popular Twitch creators that continues despite criticism over the personalities Kick has attracted and reports that it has ties to gambling industry figures and influencers.
Since Amazon acquired Twitch for $970 million in 2014, the platform has enjoyed a near-monopoly on the US streaming market. Business especially boomed during the pandemic. According to The Verge, hours watched jumped 50% from March to April 2020 and 101% year over year. By May 2020, it had reached 1.645 billion hours watched per month.
While most partnered streamers split their subscription revenue 50/50 with Twitch, some of its biggest creators cut more lucrative 70/30 deals.
But the platform sparked a furor in September when it revealed it would strip some of those streamers of their 70/30 cuts.
At the time, Twitch President Dan Clancy argued that the change would not only help Twitch pay for the rising costs of hosting live video, but eventually help streamers, too.
“Ultimately, the more we grow our audience, the more our streamers benefit,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “A big part of it is about trying to get to this position that allows us to keep sustaining and steadily being able to invest, being able to grow.” But many Twitch creators remained unconvinced.
Enter Kick. The fledgling platform launched eight months ago, backed by gambling industry heavyweights Bijan Tehrani and Ed Craven, the co-founders of Stake.com, an online casino based in Australia, and Tyler “Trainwreck” Niknam, a popular gamer and gambler. Its concept bears a striking similarity to Twitch’s, with one major exception: It offers streamers a whopping 95/5 revenue split. A spokesperson for Kick called the split “simple back-of-napkin math for any serious Twitch Creator tired of handing over 50% of their subscription dollars to Twitch.”
In a statement posted to X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Niknam blasted Twitch, arguing the company “built an empire off of [streamers’] backs and has the audacity to spit in all of our faces” while praising Kick’s creator-friendly policies and promise to “make the live-streaming world better.”
In what was widely viewed as an effort to win back creator trust, Twitch backpedaled on its initial payment structure plan and instead introduced the Partner Plus program, which allows eligible streamers to earn 70% of their subscription revenues up to the first $100,000 brought in every year. But by then, many streamers were ready for something new.
For Siragusa, the choice was clear. “I was the top female streamer on Twitch, but they never reached out with any recognition,” she said in an interview. “On the other hand, Kick is open from the beginning and communicative. They are open to hearing suggestions. There are decision-makers available for creators to discuss about the platform’s future.”
Although details of Siragusa’s contract are yet to be made public, Lengyel’s has garnered significant attention: a two-year, non-exclusive, $100 million deal that rivals some of the biggest contracts in sports.
In a statement, Lengyel expressed excitement about the partnership. “Kick is allowing me to try and do things I haven’t been able to before,” he said. “I’m extremely excited to take this opportunity and maximize it into new creative and fresh ideas over coming years.”
And they are not the only streamers to have left Twitch. In recent months, popular Fortnite streamer Tyler Blevins — known to fans as “Ninja” — and chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura have also joined Kick, bringing their followers with them.
But several popular streamers and others have voiced concerns about gambling content on Kick.
In a post on X, Twitch’s former director of creator development, Marcus “djWheat” Graham — who is now the vice president of community development at Fortis Games — called Kick “a sham.”
“There are so many red flags present that it is embarrassing watching people who I respect give this platform an ounce of credibility,” he said, pointing specifically to the lack of transparency around the platform’s reported connections to crypto gambling.
Subcategories for streams featuring “Slots and Casinos” remain prominently displayed on the front page of the site — even after Craven reassured users last month that the platform would remove “some unnecessary exposure” to such content.
Twitch banned some gambling content, including streaming activities on Stake.com, last year amid threats of boycotts from several creators.
Dr. Timothy Fong, a co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, fears Kick’s lack of transparency around the gambling content on its platform could be risky.
“They don’t call themselves a gaming company, and they’re not a gambling company,” he said. “It looks like YouTube, but it also looks like PlayStation 5, but it also looks like Las Vegas.”
The most popular gambling streams often include slots and casinos, wherein streamers play the slots for their audiences, often for hours on end, as viewers follow along in the live chat. Some streamers have even been sponsored to produce such content, including Lengyel — who previously admitted to a gambling problem and apologized for exposing his audience, much of it underage, to his gambling content. His most recent Kick stream featured slots on Stake.com.
“There is a reason gambling has to be regulated: for the public health and safety of its consumers,” Fong said.
A spokesperson for Kick noted that gambling is popular on many platforms besides Kick and that “Kick has heard the call against gambling and we created a toggle feature found on any user’s dashboard that allows you to remove all gambling content from your Kick experience.”
Hasan “Hasanabi” Piker — who is in a contract with Twitch to distribute his streaming content on its platform — is among Twitch’s biggest partners. He championed efforts to rid Twitch of predatory gambling last year and now counts himself among Kick’s critics, as well.
In an interview with NBC News, Piker said: “Streaming, as a medium, is a little bit more hands-on than any other medium out there. That’s what makes it unique. For that reason, creators have even more responsibility to conduct themselves a certain way.
“When you’re a content creator,” he continued, “and you get a brand that you’re promoting on stream, they’re giving you money because they think there’s going to be a return on that investment. And the return on that investment for gambling is that your audience is going to gamble.”
Siragusa disagrees. “It doesn’t make sense to hold individual creators responsible for the business model decision outside of their privy,” she said.
Lengyel has repeatedly rebuked critics of his deal and Kick. In a cryptic tweet in June, he appeared to suggest that his detractors are “flexing [their] morals and ethics on people” out of “pure insecurity.”
But Piker said that assessment is unfair. And although he has not been offered a rival deal with Kick yet, he said he would never consider one — no matter how lucrative.
“I have been approached to do gambling streams before,” he said. “I got offered half a million dollars to play poker. And I turned it down. … I didn’t think that would be appropriate.”