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A Wave Of Sexual Abuse Stories Is Causing A Reckoning In The Twitch Streaming World

Tom “Syndicate” Cassell speaking at 2015's San Diego Comic-Con alongside actress Heather Graham.
Tom “Syndicate” Cassell speaking at 2015's San Diego Comic-Con alongside actress Heather Graham.
Photo: Tonya Wise (Associated Press)

Over the weekend, a trickle of sexual harassment stories surrounding influential figures in the streaming world grew into a tidal wave. More than 50 streamers, most of them women, shared dozens of stories that have already produced vast reverberations, including the resignation of the head of one of the biggest management firms in all of streaming and the departure of over 20 streamers in his wake. In response, some streamers are boycotting the platform altogether today and refusing to stream.

High-profile streamers have been accused, often by multiple women, of patterns of inappropriate behavior up to and including sexual assault. The flood of stories this weekend has caused Twitch and its CEO to respond, saying that they will work to address the systemic issues that have so far allowed these kind of predatory behaviors to flourish in the streaming world.

A warning to readers: This story contains frank descriptions of sexual misconduct that some may find disturbing.

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One of the biggest names in streaming to come under the microscope this week is Omeed Dariani, the CEO—now former—of Online Performers Group. OPG is a huge force in the streaming world, orchestrating brand deals and handling business for a wide variety of top streamers like Ben “CohhCarnage” Cassell, Brian “Grimmmz” Rincon, and Cory “Gothalion” Michael. OPG makes connections, throws parties at events, and provides ample quotes to the media about the streaming business.

In a Twitter post published on Saturday, Overwatch community development lead and former streamer Molly Ayala accused Dariani of predatory behavior. At the time, in 2014, Dariani was working at Sony Online Entertainment. Ayala, who was still trying to break into the games industry, met Dariani at a game convention. The two had a lengthy conversation that culminated in Ayala asking for “any final advice” as they parted ways late that night. Dariani, she wrote, proceeded to tell a story about a woman who slept with men to get ahead at a company, eventually segueing into how “relationship-based” the industry is and how some women in the industry had been “blacklisted” for not “doing the right thing.”

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“Shortly after these stories, you propositioned me to come back to your room for a threesome with you and your wife,” Ayala wrote in the post, addressing Dariani. “I was shocked and confused. I playfully brushed off the suggestion—thinking there’s no way that could actually be what you meant. (Especially after the stories you had just told me.) But you asked a second time—this time more bluntly. I declined a second time. At this point, I had some pretty strong red flags, but not wanting to be ‘blacklisted’ I politely made excuses for needing to leave. We went our separate ways and I avoided you for the rest of the convention.”

Ayala wrote that she opted not to say anything back in 2014 because she was intimidated by Dariani’s power in the industry. (Neither Dariani nor OPG responded to requests for comment. Ayala responded to say that she had no further comment.)

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Initially, Dariani denied Ayala’s story. “We definitely did end up in the lobby of my hotel,” he wrote on Twitter Sunday afternoon. “My wife had gone to sleep several hours ago, so I remember apologizing that we couldn’t go up there for the mini-bar. I don’t recall asking you to have a threesome. [My wife] isn’t really into that, but I wouldn’t shame people who are. I’m incredibly sad that you came away from that night with that impression, but I respect your version of our conversation.”

Not long after, however, Dariani made a Twitter post announcing that he had stepped down from his position as CEO of Online Performers Group. In follow-up tweets, he added that he doesn’t “remember” the incident in question, but he believes Ayala. “I reacted out of frustration, shame, and self-doubt, and as a result I compounded the original harm,” Dariani wrote. “I didn’t stop to think, and as a result my response and retweet were dismissive at best and gaslighting at worst. So I want to say this again: I believe my accuser. The fact that I don’t remember and she has had to live with this is just more evidence of the privilege I’ve enjoyed as a successful man in this space. It’s not an excuse.”

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Ayala’s story and Dariani’s responses caused a wave of clients to depart OPG. These included Cassell, Rincon, and Michael as well as Ben “ProfessorBroman” Bowman, Amanda “CurvyLlama” Defrance, Chris “Sacriel” Ball, Sam “Strippin” Thorne, HayliNic, Ava, and many more. On Tuesday, OPG’s “Clients” page returned a 404 error. OPG’s chief technology officer, Cole “Sir Slaw” R. resigned as well, expressing support for women “coming forward and speaking to their traumas” and saying he no longer felt comfortable working for the company.

According to some of the streamers who cut ties with OPG, it was not an easy financial decision. “OPG is my main source of income,” said a streamer named Ava on Twitter. “I’m scared to not be able to pay rent... It may seem like an easy decision to make. Drop the management because the CEO did shitty things. It’s not.” Another streamer, Friskk, said on Twitter that OPG deals represented “40 percent or more” of some streamers’ income. (Neither Ava or Friskk responded to requests for comment on this story.)

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In the streaming world, there are numerous stories about managers and agents drawing up contracts that quietly swindle streamers out of thousands of dollars even while remaining the primary drivers of streamers’ incomes. The industry is powered by power imbalances. Historically, it’s in these kinds of spaces that predation thrives.

But managers are far from the only problem. Throughout the weekend, over 50 streamers, most of them women, came forward with stories about streamers, mostly men, who had abused them. It was an industry-rattling show of solidarity, one in which many women spoke up about traumas with which they’d been silently dealing for years. The moment revealed what can happen when streamers band together to face down a common injustice, but it also painted a picture of a male-dominated industry rife with loopholes for abusers to worm their way through.

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Two of the most influential streamers accused of sexual assault were competitive game streamer Tom “Syndicate” Cassell and prominent Destiny 2 streamer Lono “SayNoToRage,” who has never shared his last name.

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Cassell is a streamer with 3 million followers who’s very publicly landed himself in hot water before—most notoriously after promoting a Counter-Strike skin gambling site called CSGO Lotto without disclosing that he founded it. Over the weekend, two women said that Cassell had forced them into sex while they were in relationships with him. (Cassell, who did not return requests for comment, called the allegations “false” on Twitter.)

Natalie “ZombiUnicorn” Casanova put out a video in which she said that Cassell forced her into non-consensual sexual activity in 2016. The two were “friends with benefits” at the time, Casanova wrote, but during one sexual encounter Cassell physically held her down against her will. “I smacked him and said, ‘No, stop.’” Casanova said that she later found out that Cassell had lied to her about not having any condoms.

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After Casanova posted her video on Sunday, another streamer posted a series of videos to Twitter in which she said that Cassell also sexually abused her on multiple occasions. (Because of the extremely sensitive nature of her story, and the fact that this streamer did not return requests for comment, Kotaku has not linked her videos or used her name.) They met when she was 18, she said, and he was her “first boyfriend.” She said he pressured her to drink when she didn’t want to and engaged in other behavior that made her uncomfortable, such as an incident in a hotel room where he tried to watch her in the shower and tore her towel away when she tried to cover herself.

At one point in December 2012, the streamer said that Cassell raped her in a hotel room, physically dragging her to the bed and restraining her. “And he didn’t care. He just did what he wanted.”

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Cassell published a statement on Twitter on Wednesday addressing both allegations, which he called “incorrect.” Of Casanova, he said that he “did not pin her down” or “use any force against her.” He also said that he never had a “full sexual relationship” with the other streamer and that her allegations of rape were “completely false.”


Another popular streamer who has faced sexual misconduct accusations in recent days is Lono, aka “SayNoToRage,” an influential figure in the Destiny community. He is married with children. Beginning on Friday, six different people accused him of sexual misconduct and harassment. (Lono has since responded to some of these stories in a video in which he said that some of his actions had been “inappropriate” and “unacceptable,” but denied others. Reached for comment via email, Lono declined to comment further but said he is “continuing the therapy that I started 2 years ago when I was first made aware of this.”)

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Variety streamer JewelsVerne wrote on Twitter that in 2017, she “played an entire card game” while sitting next to Lono, who she said kept his “hand on my thigh” the entire time and “then basically asked for sex.”

Later, a streamer who goes by the handle Snaps published a letter she wrote to Lono. In it, she recounted an April 2018 movie night that she and Lono attended, during which she said Lono, at various points throughout the evening, grabbed her hair, repeatedly stared at her, insisted on touching her despite her protests, and talked about how being inebriated made him feel “really liberated… sexually.”

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This was not the first time that Lono had behaved inappropriately towards Snaps, she wrote in the letter. She described another situation in which Lomo came up behind her while she was leaning against a counter, putting his arms around her waist and pressing his body against hers. “I remember very forcefully removing your arms from around me and stepping aside and saying ‘Woah, no.’ ...The feeling of looking down and seeing your arms where they were not wanted made me feel violated. Your arms were touching my breasts, your groin was pressed up against me, your head was on my shoulder, and none of that was OK.”

Another streamer, who goes by PrincessKitley, said in a Medium post that Lono’s behavior almost put her off from streaming altogether. When they first started talking, she said, she was just a fan, rather than a streamer. In 2016, before she began streaming herself, she started watching Lono’s streams as a college student and he became what she initially thought was a “mentor.” Over time, however, his DMs grew more flirtatious, with screenshots she shared of their conversations depicting Lono talking about her legs, asking if she “secretly” wants to “stroke” him, and encouraging her to wear nothing. He frequently acted as though he was joking, but it all made PrincessKitley uncomfortable. Eventually, they stopped talking for a while, only to be reconnected by a situation involving “mutual supporters.” The two hopped on a Skype call, hashed out their past, and seemed to have ended things in a good place. Then, PrincessKitley said, Lono asked to see her breasts.

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“I don’t remember at all how this comment popped up, but he asked me to show him my boobs,” PrincessKitley said. “At first, I laughed nervously and thought to myself, ‘Oh no…’ He broke the weird silence with something like this: ‘What’s so funny? I’m actually serious. My wife and kids are on a trip... so they won’t be walking in or anything. I’m alone.’ So uncomfortable. I remember falling dead silent and looking down.”

PrincessKitley said that a few days later, she told Lono how uncomfortable it all made her. In screenshots of the conversation, Lono said that he makes dirty jokes “with the guys” and thought of PrincessKitley that way, but he also acknowledged that it wasn’t “cool” and he “probably” pushed the joke too far.

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PrincessKitley said she stopped speaking to him after that. “I disappeared entirely because I felt alone,” she said. “I felt isolated. I felt crazy. I felt like I was pushed away from the community, even if nobody knew… I fell out of streaming because that was my first nasty encounter that drew me away from absolutely everything I worked so hard for.” (Snaps, PrincessKitley, and JewelsVerne did not return requests for comment.)

Several other streamers then came forward with stories about Lono. Sarah Daniels told Kotaku that he wouldn’t stop making “very aggressive” remarks about her appearance, and how angry his wife would be if she found out, during a 2017 trip to Disney World following a convention. A streamer named Liz, who was present for the same movie outing as Snaps and has endorsed her account, said on Twitter that Lono harassed her on two separate occasions, including another trip to Disney World. A streamer named “Melrosee” said on Twitter that he hit on her at a convention and tried to put his hand on her thigh; she spent the rest of the convention avoiding him, she told Kotaku later. And a streamer by the name of “Enviro” (who uses they/them pronouns) said that, two years ago, Lono touched their leg and tried to invite them back to his hotel room after a long conversation at 2018’s GuardianCon about their pasts, family, religion, and Enviro’s recent divorce. According to Enviro, Lono sought them out online the next day after Enviro had already told the story to a friend while in tears.

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“I wasn’t a streamer and my DMs were closed, so he had to follow me to send me that,” Enviro told Kotaku in an email. “I thought, well, maybe he didn’t mean it like that, and in all honesty, I didn’t remember crying or the hand touch on my leg. My mental issues do that to me. I block things out that are traumatic.” (The friend did remember the conversation, and confirmed it to Kotaku.)

Enviro went on to become a streamer, and Lono, they said, got involved. “I admired him as a mentor, then when I started streaming, he really pushed me and made me feel I was being a better streamer,” Enviro said. “I do think that Lono played it off as just ‘friend’ flirtatious behavior. If you ask anyone in chat, it was a regular occurrence for him to be lewd with me. I am a lewd person; I admit that, but I never felt I could say that wasn’t okay. I felt because of his standing and how he handled people who were against him that I would be ostracized.”

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When stories about Lono began to come out, other streamers with ties to the Destiny community revealed that they had heard the stories and had distanced themselves from him behind the scenes until those who said he abused them were ready to come forward.

“I was asked by the people who are sharing these stories now to not say anything at the time,” Ben “Dr Lupo” Lupo said on Twitter. “If you’ve ever wondered why I distanced myself, here it is.”

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“While respecting the wishes of those wronged by Lono to not speak out until they were ready, we... revoked his creator rights at our event,” Gothalion said on Twitter of the convention he helps run, GCX, where several of the stories took place. “We did everything we legally could to protect more from experiencing the same.”

In response to some of these stories, Lono published an apology video. He began by apologizing for another, shorter apology video, which he has since deleted, that he said painted him as a “victim.” Then he called his own actions “unacceptable.”

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“I took something from people,” he said, noting that he’s been trying to improve himself in therapy for the past two years. “I took memories and events, and they’re now clouded and darkened by my selfish and reckless behavior. Being inappropriate with these people robbed them of their sense of safety and security, and it broke trust. I am deeply sorry.”

He went on, however, to say that there are “things” in people’s accusations that “I don’t remember,” adding that he might post another video in the future to address those things. He also disputed the idea that he’d made unwanted sexual advances, saying that he only “made sexual remarks and jokes and comments that were completely inappropriate,” but that he did not regard those as advances. He said he also has no memory of “anybody rejecting an advance, and then me persisting beyond that.” He denied ever asking for sex. He admitted touching people’s hair, and then offered a roundabout explanation for why he touched an unnamed person’s leg: “I had my hand on a table, and their leg ended up underneath the table and against my hand, and I should have moved it, but I didn’t.” (At least three people have recounted separate stories of Lono touching their legs.)

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The recent flood of stories of sexual misconduct—of which these two prominent streamers are just the tip of the iceberg—prompted Twitch to put out a statement on Twitter.

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“We take accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct extremely seriously,” the Amazon-owned company wrote. “We are actively looking into the accounts concerning streamers affiliated with Twitch and will work with law enforcement where applicable. We’re thankful for the bravery shown by those who have come forward to speak about their experiences, and we are committed to working to make the streaming community safer for everyone.”

Additionally, Twitch’s CEO Emmett Shear made public an email he sent internally to his company. In it, he said that punishments on the table for streamers who’ve been accused in a “credible” fashion include “banning, removing partnership, or removing people from promotional opportunities.”

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He also admitted that Twitch needs to do a better job on this front, saying that “many people’s experience of Twitch and people who call our service home—particularly women, those in the LGBTQIA community, Black people, and other under-represented groups—have not been what we aspire to” and that the company can “set a higher standard for ourselves and those with power and influence on our service.”

In response to the allegations, as well as Twitch’s longstanding problems with racism, some streamers have elected to avoid streaming today under the hashtag #TwitchBlackout. In an accompanying petition, streamer Third Artifact, who organized the blackout, demanded that Twitch “finally take action against those who use their power to take advantage of others, and against those who enable it by knowing it goes on but stay silent or brush it off.” While many streamers have opted to instead stream and use their platforms to discuss these issues, a few big names, like Hasan Piker, are participating.

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Streamers who’ve dealt with harassment hope that Twitch gets its act together this time, because in the past, it hasn’t exactly acted with urgency when it comes to making spaces—digital or real—safer.

“I have never, ever felt safe on Twitch,” streamer Sarah Daniels, one of the women who said she was harassed by Lono, told Kotaku. “I have been personally targeted with hateful raids from partnered streamers. One example is when a streamer sent his entire community over to spam ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ in my chat. More recently, a streamer (not partnered) made sexist comments about how women should be in the kitchen, and I commented on the video on Twitter to ask who it was so I could block them. This person proceeded to send his community into my stream to harass me. Did Twitch respond to any reports? No. Did anyone get banned? No.”

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TwitchCon, the annual convention run by Twitch, needs to “really buckle down on in-person harassment” as well, she said. “There needs to be more security, people in plain clothes policing parties and making sure people are safe. The amount of roofie stories that came out of last year blows my mind.”

But this, as recent days have shown, is an industry wide issue. Game companies can’t continue to quietly empower abusers. Individual games have to crack down on harassment. YouTube has to crack down on harassment problems of its own, as well as YouTubers who send viewers to harass Twitch streamers. Brands need to vet the streamers they decide to partner with; they can’t just sweep prior indiscretions under the rug. These ecosystems overlap, and while some, like Twitch, do sometimes issue punishments to streamers based on off-platform misbehavior, all of these platforms ultimately need to overhaul how they approach abuse and harassment. As long as they continue to inconsistently enforce policies and tolerate harassment until the point that it impacts the bottom line, creators won’t be safe.

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Natalie Casanova, one of the women accusing Tom Cassell, told Kotaku via Discord voice call that it’s time for fewer second chances and more zero tolerance policies: “I know it might take some getting used to, but what’s the outcome: Some people get mad for a little while, but then they have to start acting nice?”

Streamer Enviro thinks that Twitch needs to hire people who understand how power dynamics work on a structural level, and that if it doesn’t, the past will just keep repeating itself.

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“I have a degree in public policy,” they said. “I understand how systems like this work and what policies need to be changed. We need more people who are educated in social and public policy involved in the background.”

“Twitch needs to police its partners and affiliates,” Enviro said, suggesting an anonymous reporting system specifically for harassment and abuse as one possible step in the right direction (Melrosee independently offered the same idea). “They need to do their due diligence in vetting character and promoting the voices that should be heard.”

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Twitch’s present is far from an ideal state of affairs, but there’s a faint silver lining: This long-overdue reckoning came about because streamers felt emboldened by a critical mass of support. The inglorious chore of cleaning up this mess should not fall solely on the shoulders of streamers and viewers, but by working together they are exposing the power structures underlying Twitch’s problems and the abusers taking advantage of them.

“I will say that the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive,” said Casanova. “In my case, there’s a lot of negative comments, but they’re all coming from my abuser’s fanbase. But people who don’t even know me are coming to support me. I think that really says a lot and it means a lot to me. It’s really helping, definitely.”

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“I never thought it would happen to me,” Casanova said. “I never thought it did because I suppressed it so much. I just normalized it as ‘Boys will be boys. He’s just a dick.’ I want to get this out there and do my best to help support everyone coming forward right now and bringing light to these people who can be very predatory.”

“That’s what this is about: getting everyone on the same page and making sure they understand that these kinds of behaviors are not okay. We can’t keep normalizing them. We can’t keep making excuses for them.”

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

jamiethomaswhite
Jamie White

As someone with a fair few female friends, who are involved in creative endeavours and lines of work, it is beyond ridiculous how much they have to go through on a daily basis. Every single one of them has a story from every single event or just every day.

It’s not my place to name names, but the comic industry is due a massive reckoning. One of the people I’ve had a long relationship with, was basically “passed around” from person to person and event to event. Some of the men involved were married with children, others just openly despicable people that you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot barge pole. But take a fairly inexperienced and sheltered girl, put her in an environment with so much opportunity and so many men willing to give their... attention, and you have a recipe for abuse. Twitch is the same. Men with power, women being exposed to that world, and then the men offering a way in but with a price.

The only way this changes, is if we are all aware and constantly vigilant, to the point of needing to be a little rude and intrusive. I used to go out drinking with my female friends a lot, the amount of times I’ve had to sit there whilst they danced, so I could watch their drinks. The first time I saw someone trying some funny business, I never stopped watching to this day. Like I said, to the point of missing out and being a bit rude or at least blunt.

The other way, is in these companies, institutions and events. They need to do more to vet people, not just before but also during. Offering safe “spaces” for people to report anything at all, encouragment and a general uptick in the feeling that they CAN talk about it freely.

In the end, if even one tiny fraction of our money (and Amazon’s) is going to support a company that enables abusers and does very little to punish them, should it really get any of the money at all?