Longform

Rage Against the Machinima: As YouTube Becomes Increasingly Wealthy, Its Stars and the Networks Who Contract With Them Battle for Money and Creative Control

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Take YouTube user KSIOlajidebt. In March, a few weeks after Vacas posted his video, KSIOlajidebt released an anti-Machinima video of his own.

"ENOUGH IS ENOUGH," says KSIOlajidebt, who, according to his Facebook page, graduated from high school this year. "We as a people can stand up to the control freak that is Machinima. We need to not only shout-out, but let the right people know about Machinima and their ways." At the end of the video, he ticks off the names of tech reporters at Wired, TechCrunch, Kotaku.com and others, telling his fans to tweet his link to them.

But after dozens of his subscribers succeeded in getting the attention of Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, KSIOlajidebt went silent — he did not respond to calls for comment. His video, like Vacas', quickly was switched to private.

A representative for Machinima downplays the contract disputes.

"Machinima's network is now comprised of over 6,000 creators. Even with our large network, we find disputes are rare. In these rare cases, Machinima engages and focuses on mutual success for the company and our network partners," Sanjay Sharma, executive vice president for strategy and business development, says in a statement. "Today, Machinima's agreements are consistent with developing norms for multichannel networks."

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Ben Vacas' video was posted to YouTube on May 8. Within hours, it appeared on Reddit, where the post racked up 2,221 comments and 7,964 "up" votes. That was enough to promote the video, and the commentary it provoked, to the website's massively trafficked front page — the Internet equivalent of getting on Good Morning America.

The most popular comment in the resulting thread came from user HuskyStarcraft, a YouTube creator with more than 600,000 subscribers. He explained that he had been approached by Machinima years ago but turned the offer down because he felt the terms of the contract were unfair.

The experience motivated him to create his own channel, he wrote. The Game Station channel is now an affiliate of Maker Studios. "It's really sad that this keeps happening (this is the fifth or so video I've seen on this EXACT topic) but keep fighting the good fight," wrote HuskyStarcraft, whose real name is Mike Lamond.

Thousands of other users wrote messages of support; the publicity from Reddit even helped Vacas to connect with a lawyer.

The same day, back at Machinima's Hollywood headquarters, an employee, presumably without knowledge that the network was being ripped apart on Reddit, uploaded a piece of new content to the network's home page: a trailer for the video game Primal Carnage.

Immediately, angry Reddit readers "nuked" it: Within minutes, the clip received more than 500 dislikes and racked up hundreds of comments decrying the company's shady practices. The video was hastily wiped from the site.

Also that same day, a 32-year-old Belgian named Bachir Boumaaza, the self-proclaimed "Best Gamer in the World," known online by his YouTube username AtheneWins (or simply Athene), made his own video.

Shot in black-and-white, the video features the same soft, sad piano music as Vacas' video. In it, Boumaaza makes a shocking announcement.

"If things are wrong, I'm not the kind of guy that — that just ignores it," he says, gazing earnestly at the camera, head cocked to one side, a shock of shiny black hair falling over his face. "This is a very hard decision and I've been thinking about it. But the only thing that I can do — the only thing that feels right, right now — is to leave Machinima." Boumaaza apparently had an older version of the network's contracts, one that allowed him to come and go as he pleased.

The news that Athene, a bona fide YouTube celebrity with 589,798 subscribers and 382 million video views, was leaving Machinima reverberated throughout the YouTube community.

Reached by email, a representative for Boumaaza told the Weekly, "Over the past six months, we've regularly talked to several people from Machinima about complaints we have been hearing from partners about how they felt intimidated by their business and contract practices. 

"Every time that we brought this to Machinima's attention to make them aware that this could lead to a PR disaster, we were assured that these were things of the past and that they had started taking a different approach. But when the situation with Braindeadly occurred, it was clear to us that nothing had changed."

At the time, Athene had made no decision regarding which network he would join, the spokesman added. The star would be open to joining a network that "wants to make YouTube a better place for content producers or wants to give gamers more freedom and resources."

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Tessa Stuart
Contact: Tessa Stuart