Monday, March 4

Inside Kick, an Upstart Streaming Competitor to Twitch

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 Justin.tv, 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 Stake.com. 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 is heavily regulated in the United States and illegal in many states, though it can be possible to evade regional restrictions through virtual private networks that mask a user’s location. A representative for Mr. Craven said that even users with V.P.N.s are unable to gamble on Stake in the United States because the site checks people’s photo identifications as an additional safeguard. (A recent lawsuit accusing the company’s founders of stealing the idea for the site claimed that Stake was aware of and encouraged efforts by Americans to gamble using V.P.N.s. The lawsuit was dismissed over jurisdictional issues.)

To dodge U.S. restrictions, American streamers who broadcast themselves gambling have typically done so while outside the country. Though sports betting has proliferated after a 2018 Supreme Court decision, online gambling remains illegal in many states, particularly for users under 18, who are considered more likely to develop addictive habits if exposed to gambling early.

But in recent years, a “parallel ecosystem” of sites and products that are less regulated have sprung up, said Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, an advocacy organization. Such products include loot boxes in video games, online slot machines that offer some free chips and websites that advertise or direct users to gambling sites, like Kick.

“In many cases, these are very deliberate schemes to get around gambling laws and to be able to profit on youth gambling,” Mr. Whyte said. “We think it’s extremely predatory.”

Mr. Craven said Kick had “strong trust and safety controls” to block children and people in places where laws bar residents from accessing gambling content.

Dealing with a global patchwork of regulations had been an unexpectedly large obstacle, Mr. Craven said. In June, Kick was blocked by internet service providers in Greece for its gambling content.

He said that Kick resolved its issues in October with Greece’s regulatory body and that the country’s internet service providers would remove Kick from their blacklists in the coming weeks.

The big names have set up shop on Kick. Mr. Lengyel drew headlines when he signed a two-year contract with Kick worth up to $100 million. Kaitlyn Siragusa, known as Amouranth, one of the most popular women on Twitch with 6.4 million followers; Mr. Kolcheff, who has 6.7 million followers; and the chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who has 1.9 million Twitch followers, have also signed lucrative Kick deals.

Kick’s pilfering of creators — some of whom also still broadcast on Twitch — has put pressure on Twitch to improve its relationship with streamers. But Kick is still dwarfed by Twitch, which averages 35 million daily viewers and seven million streamers who go live each month. And despite Kick’s more favorable revenue split, Twitch offers a variety of other ways to earn money that Kick does not, including a cut of advertising dollars.

“As of right now, Kick isn’t the most brand-friendly platform, so if you want to do deals, you need to still be active on other platforms,” said Mike Lee, the head of gaming talent at the United Talent Agency, citing some of Kick’s questionable content.

In its community guidelines, updated in October, Kick warns viewers that the site can get “rowdy,” and some of its streamers may not be for everyone.

“We value the importance of constructive dialogue over knee-jerk reactions often associated with ‘cancel culture.’ Still, we also firmly recognize that free speech should not be a shield for hate speech,” the site says.

Some of Kick’s edgier livestreams have generated publicity and more viewership for the platform, such as when Mr. Ross advertised an forthcoming interview, alongside Mr. Tate, with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The guest turned out to be a Mr. Kim impersonator, but the stream still drew 330,000 viewers. (Mr. Ross did not respond to a request for comment.)

Other streams have landed the site in hot water. A tipping point came in September, when a pair of streamers, Paul Denino and Mr. Pepper, paid a man in Australia to hire an escort for a sexual encounter, which Mr. Denino then livestreamed on his Kick channel. When the woman realized the two livestreamers were watching the broadcast from another room in the apartment, she walked out, though the man who had hired her tried to prevent her from leaving. Mr. Denino and Mr. Pepper were detained by the police, then released without being charged. The police said “no offenses had been committed.”

Mr. Pepper did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Denino said the police action was the result of a viewer of the livestream making false claims to the police about him, and was unrelated to the situation with the escort.

Mr. Craven, the C.E.O., left several laughing emojis in the chat tool accompanying the livestream as the action was unfolding, and even donated $500 to Mr. Denino during the broadcast, according to screenshots and video clips of the stream.

The incident prompted a flood of social media criticism, and some creators said they were considering leaving the platform. In response, Kick updated its community guidelines and added a button allowing its users to report inappropriate behavior.

Mr. Craven said that he regretted the situation, and that he and Kick were still learning. He said he didn’t want Kick to be known solely for “edgy content,” and said the site had established new guidelines on whether staff members should be present in the chat during livestreams that were considered “high-risk.”

Mr. Nakamura, the chess player, said he saw Kick going through the same growing pains as other social media platforms in their early days — including Twitch.

“Twitch, when it started, was very much the Wild West,” he said. Of Kick, he said, “I do think they’re trying to clean up certain parts of it. At the end of the day, it takes time. Everything is not going to be solved overnight.”

Still, past efforts by other competitors to break into the livestreaming industry have petered out. Mixer, a livestreaming service purchased by Microsoft in 2016, signed top creators like Ninja and generated headlines for a few years before shutting down in 2020 after failing to grow large enough to compete with YouTube, Twitch or Facebook Gaming.

At TwitchCon, the company’s annual gathering where fans interact with the site’s content creators — held in Las Vegas this year — Twitch executives said they were unbothered by Kick’s meteoric rise.

Dan Clancy, Twitch’s chief executive and a former Google executive, said he was focused on growing the livestreaming industry as a whole, and wasn’t worried about where streamers chose to broadcast. He said he had learned a phrase at Google that was applicable: “Focus on growing the pie, don’t focus on your slice of the pie.” Among a plethora of new features announced at TwitchCon in October was the ability for creators to stream on Twitch while simultaneously streaming on any other livestreaming site.

As Mr. Clancy walked down the Vegas Strip one evening of TwitchCon, a streamer broadcasting on Kick beckoned him onto his video. “I got some bad news,” the streamer, VinnyB, told him. “We’re live on Kick.”

“Uh oh,” Mr. Clancy replied. “Hey, that’s your choice, you know? Whatever you decide.”