Image: Twitch

On Twitch, if a streamer’s concurrent view count consistently stays above 20,000, it means they’ve probably hit the big time. It’s the culmination of years of hard work, of amassing followers and community building. Even big names like Myth and Summit1g average below 20,000 some months. Yesterday, I watched a casino stream with zero followers do it in a single day.

Twitch’s casino section has been around in various iterations for years, playing host to streamers who wager money on online gambling sites in hopes of winning at games like slots, jackpot, and blackjack. If you use Twitch’s “browse” feature to look through sections at any given point during the day, the casino section will almost certainly be near the top of the list due to its high view count, which dwarfs most individual games. As of writing, for example, casino had over 51,000 viewers. Overwatch had 28,000.

Some casino streamers, like longtime channel CasinoDaddy—which has been around since 2016 and has over 60,000 followers—feature a regular cast of streamers who interact with chat and provide entertainment value. In those, streamers hang out, chit chat back and forth, and place wagers on digital games of chance. They cheer when they win and rage when they lose. They also sometimes host giveaways.

Other channels, however, are more blatant about their intentions, featuring only video feed of digital jackpot games playing endlessly, with unknown, off-screen users slowly but surely raking in dough. They do not usually speak. Many casino streamers, CasinoDaddy included, plaster their channels’ descriptions with so many casino ads that they look like the walls of Vegas alleyways. If you click through, you get bonuses—usually extra starter cash or points—that you can use to bet on gambling sites. For example, CasinoDaddy, which tries to keep things above board by noting that it’s only for people who are 18 or older and linking to a UK-based charity dedicated to minimizing gambling-based harm, directs viewers to a site that lets them place bets on hundreds of different slots, blitz, jackpot, roulette, blackjack, and table games.

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Over the past year—but especially in the past few weeks—Twitch users have taken notice of a different, less scrupulous breed of casino channel. These ones come out of nowhere and rocket to the top of the casino section. Take, for instance, Casinoblast, which seemingly did not exist until yesterday, but which peaked at just over 25,000 concurrent viewers during a seven-hour debut stream that showed a simple jackpot game basically playing itself. When it started, it had zero followers and was following zero other streamers. It now has just 20 followers despite having allegedly been viewed by thousands of people yesterday. For comparison’s sake, CasinoDaddy—with its 60,000+ followers—usually pulls 2,000-3,000 concurrent viewers.

Twitch users suspect foul play.

“There is someone viewbotting to top the casino [section] and make money, and his chat is full of bots with a list of about 20 common ‘Twitch phrases,’” a Twitter user said to Twitch’s official account yesterday. “This is the weirdest thing I have ever seen.”

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The user did not receive a reply. Kotaku reached out to Twitch twice prior to publishing this piece, but a representative only said they would check to see if this was something they could comment on.

That Twitch user isn’t wrong about how bizarre the whole thing is. I spent an hour yesterday watching a handful of these suddenly-popular channels—Casinoblast, Dubrix_Casino, and my personal favorite, John_Casinogame—and their chats were either ghost towns, or they were full of “people” rhythmically blurting unrelated nonsense. Here are a few examples:

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Notice how a new message enters chat almost exactly at the four-second mark every time. Notice also that none of these people seem to be talking to each other—or even really referencing the basic jackpot game that’s happening on screen beyond, occasionally, some vague allusions. Lastly, here’s the moment when somebody came in to a channel with over 10,000 concurrent viewers and asked everybody to type the number one into chat if they weren’t a bot, and nobody did it:

Of the channels I watched yesterday, two—Dubrix_Casino and John_Casinogame—were banned as of today. However, the biggest of the three, Casinoblast, still persists, and if you look at data from unofficial Twitch monitoring site TwitchMetrics, it becomes clear that this is hardly an isolated incident. In just the past seven days, seven of the top 50 most popular channels on Twitch (as measured by average number of viewers) are casino streamers that follow this exact M.O. They pop up for a day, almost instantaneously amass thousands of highly suspect viewers, stream for a few hours, and advertise the heck out of gambling sites. Twitch eventually bans them, but often not until after they’ve been live for multiple hours.

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Many of these channels advertise the same handful of gambling sites. So in effect, these gambling sites can repeat this formula indefinitely, getting free, largely unregulated advertising by dangling their bright lights and glittering prizes from the top of Twitch—and then, when they inevitably get banned, repeat the process with a fresh channel. Most of the gambling sites I tried to click through to are inaccessible to US-based users, but these streams seem targeted at users in the UK and Russia, where gambling laws are different. I reached out to several of the gambling sites that appear around these streams, but as of publishing, they hadn’t replied.

There’s also the matter of Twitch’s audience, which at least in the case of certain popular streamers like Ninja, skews young. These gambling channels are accessible to everyone, with only a small handful even paying lip service by putting “18+” in their descriptions. It’s not a great look in the wake of other gaming-related gambling controversies like the 2016 Counter-Strike gambling fiasco, in which Valve cracked down on third-party sites that let people make wagers using expensive in-game cosmetics. Two popular CSGO YouTubers had bragged about their earnings on a gambling site without disclosing that they owned it. At the time, people took issue with the fact that there was little to stop the kids who watched these YouTubers from gambling. A 2017 report from the UK Gambling Commission found that 11% of children between between ages 11 and 16 had bet with in-game items while playing computer or app-based games.

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As of publishing, Twitch’s casino section was in a lull, with just south of 20,000 viewers spread across its many channels. Maybe Twitch is finally cracking down, but more likely, it was just a daily fluctuation. Even then, though, the casino section was still the 15th most popular on Twitch, meaning that if you decide to take even a cursory look around Twitch, scores of gambling channels—some sketchier than others—will be just a couple clicks away.