Rage Against the Machinima

As the stakes get higher on YouTube, video stars are finding safety—and power—in numbers

“Back in ’97, ’98, there were probably 50 of us who were really serious about it and another 200 who dabbled,” Hancock says.

In 2000, Hancock registered Machinima.com as a hub where people would watch and upload videos. As their numbers grew, however, the cost of hosting all that video increased and, six years in, Hancock sold the site to an enigmatic pair of serial entrepreneurs, half-brothers Allen and Philip DeBevoise. (Hancock declines to state the purchase price.)

Before buying Machinima.com, the DeBevoises ran Creative Planet, a collection of digital tools and film-industry-related web properties, including Directors Net, Editors Net and VFX Pro. That company grew fast—then imploded. “Ultimately, it crashed and burned,” one former employee says.

Video game filmmaker Hugh Hancock sold Machinima.com to entrepreneurs in 2006.
Cory Doctorow /Wikimedia
Video game filmmaker Hugh Hancock sold Machinima.com to entrepreneurs in 2006.

When the DeBevoise brothers bought Machinima.com in 2006 (the same year, incidentally, Google purchased YouTube), one of their first innovations was to migrate their video hosting to YouTube. Not only did it significantly cut down on the server costs, but the move also came at a time when YouTube was hungry for content and, in 2007, just beginning to pay video creators for their work. The brothers began to cut deals with video game companies to advertise alongside the videos that used their games as source materials. And a business model was born.

Today, Machinima describes its content as being about not just video games but anything that appeals to men ages 13 to 34. CEO Allen DeBevoise calls them the “lost boys”: males largely unreached by traditional advertising. They don’t watch TV; they don’t read magazines. But they do play video games and Machinima’s channels have become the place for advertisers to find them. Machinima’s network today has 180.5 million subscribers to 5,621 channels hosting 1.3 million videos, for a total of 43.7 billion network views. That’s 392 times the number who tuned in to last year’s Super Bowl.

Anyone who studies the growth of digital companies can tell you that their ability to adapt to the challenges of mega-scale, and whether they are able to keep the original mission and ethos intact, can determine whether they survive. Just as at Creative Planet, where former employees say the DeBevoise brothers lost focus in buying up too many properties, there is a sense that the rapid expansion of Machinima could be its undoing.

Decisions such as offering partnership deals to loathed, view-trolling “reply girls,” whose ability to earn pageviews is based mostly on their cleavage, have exposed the company’s management to a lot of second guessing. More than anything, though, Machinima’s detractors are worked up by the fact that the network has asked for rights in perpetuity to the content created by its talent—and, in some cases, by the fear that Machinima might claim any content they create in the future as well.

Vacas certainly isn’t the only producer who has taken a public stand against his (former) network. Dozens of others have written blog posts or created videos complaining about the contracts—videos that often show a pretty evolved understanding of digital-age PR.

Take YouTube user KSIOlajidebt. In March, a few weeks after Vacas posted his goodbye video, KSIOlajidebt released an anti-Machinima screed of his own. “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH,” he says. “We as a people can stand up to the control freak that is Machinima.” He ticks off the names of tech reporters at Wired, TechCrunch, and Kotaku.com, telling fans to tweet his link to them.

But after subscribers succeeded in getting the attention of Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, KSIOlajidebt went silent. He did not respond to calls for comment.

Not surprisingly, 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.”

Ben Vacas’s video was posted to YouTube on May 8. Within hours, it appeared on Reddit's front page—the Internet equivalent of getting on Good Morning America.

Thousands of 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 uploaded a trailer for the video game Primal Carnage to the network’s home page.

Angry Reddit readers “nuked” it: Within minutes, the clip received more than 500 dislikes and hundreds of comments decrying the company’s shady practices. The video was hastily wiped from the site.

Also that same day, the YouTube star Athene (YouTube ID: AtheneWins; real ID: Bachir Boumaaza, a 32-year-old Belgian) made his own video featuring the same soft, sad piano music as Vacas’s. In it, Boumaaza—the self-proclaimed “Best Gamer in the World”—makes a shocking announcement.

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