Major brands are getting caught up in the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault that’s sweeping through video game streaming, the fast-growing but insular world of watching amateurs and professionals play live online.
In the past month, dozens of women — often, former girlfriends or fellow streamers — have accused more than 150 people of everything from rape to groping underage girls to cheating.
Nvidia, which makes powerful chips used in gaming PCs and runs a gaming service, is among the big companies contending with the problem. The company was working on a sponsorship project this year with Samuel Earney, a streamer on Amazon.com’s Twitch platform. Then the allegations hit.
On June 22, a former girlfriend accused Earney, known on Twitch as IAmSp00n, of sexual and emotional abuse. She said he lorded his sponsorship deal with an unnamed PC-part manufacturing company over her as part of that mistreatment.
The ex-girlfriend’s statement helped to explain the apology Earney had issued the previous day. “My actions haven’t been proper or appropriate,” he said, adding that he would ask his sponsors and partners to remove him “from programs and services so that they aren’t held responsible.” Soon after, Twitch closed his account; the site wouldn’t provide reasons for the ban.
“We have ceased all engagement with Samuel Earney (IAmSp00n),” Nvidia said in a statement. “We condemn such behavior and commend those who come forward to support the safety of our gaming community.”
Nvidia isn’t alone. Twitch, by far the largest streaming site, recently banned a handful of streamers and said it will report some cases to the authorities. Facebook Gaming banned one streamer as well, and is investigating some personalities from rival service Mixer who are supposed to join the platform. YouTube said it’s investigating allegations as well; many streamers banned elsewhere still have a presence there. All streaming sites’ terms of service prohibit harassment of other users, and many of the accusers are also streamers.
While the streaming industry has been accused of sexism and harassment of women for years, in the past many accusers faced a backlash, said Isabelle Briar, who streamed under the name of LadyNasse before retiring recently.
“You may speak up about something, and you might want to work with a brand, but you get turned down, and you don’t know why,” Briar said. “This can damage your hirability.”
But this time around — possibly because of the broader #MeToo movement in entertainment and business — “reaction was wildly different,” she said. Accusers have received a wave of support in comments on Twitter and elsewhere. And some brands are breaking ties with the accused, withdrawing the advertising and sponsorship fees that make up the lion’s share of the most popular streamers’ earnings.
Many industry insiders say this is just the tip of the iceberg, in large part due to streaming culture, particularly among gamers.
“Every streamer feels the need to push some sort of boundary in order to differentiate themselves,” said Lewis Ward, an analyst at IDC. “You are trying to fix something that’s embedded into gaming culture.”
Some of the accused streamers have posted lengthy apologies. Others deny any wrongdoing. Facebook said on June 22 it suspended streamer Michael “Thinnd” McMahon while it investigates abuse allegations from an ex-partner. McMahon categorically denied the allegations. He now advertises his YouTube channel on Twitter, instead.
Headsets maker 1More, a past sponsor, said McMahon’s contract expired more than a year ago. “To our knowledge we have not sponsored any other streamers accused of harassment, nor would we if the information was brought to our attention,” 1More said in a statement. “We hold our partners to a high standard, and will continue to do so for any future sponsorships.”
After being accused of sexual misconduct, Omeed Dariani, chief executive officer of the streamer-management firm Online Performers Group, vacated his position. “I believe women, I recognize that I am not innocent and have contributed,” he said in a tweet. Today, OPG’s website lists no clients, amid reports that many streamers have left the company. OPG and Dariani didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On June 29, OPG said it hired a consulting firm to investigate claims against Dariani. In the past, the firm had helped streamers strike deals with the likes of Yum! Brands’ Taco Bell, according to the San Diego Business Journal. Taco Bell didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
As a result of all this, major brands are expected to step up their vetting.
“Sponsoring streamers has been sort of the Wild West over the past few years,” said Doug Clinton, managing partner at Loup Ventures, a research-driven venture-capital firm. “The industry has grown so quickly, I think brands have been forced to adapt to the opportunity and probably take some chances that they may not be as comfortable with in the future.”
Still, small and thirsty brands may not be so picky — simply because having a streamer gulp down your drink, wear your glasses or point out your gaming gear during a session is marketing gold.
“When trying to target gamers, there aren’t many better ways than through streaming,” said Matthew Kanterman, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.