Amid the ongoing discussion about the ethics of gambling elements in games, the developer behind Rocket League recently announced it would remove loot crates later this year. (Being bought by Epic probably helped.) When the news was announced, besides the disturbing amount of people who were actually upset at the change, a whole bunch of folks started tagging and mocking YouTube creator Jon Sandman, who has nearly a million subscribers.
The reason people were thinking of Sandman as Psyonix and Epic Games rolled out this news was obvious: a lot of his most popular videos involve the opening of loot crates in Rocket League. This change was, indirectly, a shot at the way Sandman makes his living.
Sandman seemed to take the news in stride publicly, announcing “RIP Rocket League crates,” and joking about having to “get a real job” by streaming Minecraft. In response to fans who were worried about the future, about the prospect of his viewers abandoning him for his noted schtick, Sandman said if he “can’t adapt to that then I am just a shit YouTuber.”
The doom-and-gloom from his fans got me wondering about how Sandman arrived at this moment. We talk a lot about how game companies suddenly became reliant on gambling to turn larger profits, but less so about the different ways that drive interest in them. Sandman is part of that ecosystem, though he’s hardly the only person who covets opening loot boxes to a curious audience.
I recently had a chance to shoot over a few questions to Sandman, where we talked through his history with loot boxes, what he thinks of making money off boxes that make money, and how he’s planning to pivot into something new, as the changes begin hitting Rocket League.
This email interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
VICE Games: Can you talk to me a little bit about your channel? How'd you get started? What's the journey been like?
Jon Sandman: It’s been an amazing ride of Twitch and YouTube! I started streaming on Twitch five years ago because a friend told me you were able to record your footage after you are done playing games without it being on your computer (it was saved as past broadcasts on Twitch).
I originally was an admin for an Arma 3 Life server, which was roleplaying in a massive military sandbox style game. I wanted to teach people how to be better role players, and catch any hackers/cheaters, to make sure I had the footage to back up anyone I banned. I noticed after about a month of doing this I would have like 5-10 people who would come join me every night to see what we would be getting into.
From there, I started playing many different games, such as Wildstar, DayZ, and Arma 3 Battle Royale. A now-good friend, Woofless, had found me one night while watching me play Arma and was a YouTuber with over a million subscribers. A year after following me, he reached out to me to see if I wanted to do a series playing Rocket League (which was a new game at the time), and told me I should definitely post my perspective. That is when the YouTube channel really started taking off, and I have been posting daily Rocket League videos since.
The ride has been amazing, filled with many ups and downs. You really live on the edge doing this type of work, but I truly have never worked a day in my life since streaming because I have been able to play videogames and fully take care of my family. My community has supported me through it all.
I didn't scroll through your entire video history, but I didn't have to go far back recently to see a lot of loot box videos from Rocket League. How'd you fall into that hole?
I definitely wouldn’t call it a hole, I think for me I just loved the idea of sitting a talking with the community while gambling for a chance at that 1% AMAZING item! I would definitely call it a hole if that was the only content I made but I have been apart of the Rocket League community for so long I have done everything from ranked videos, modded Rocket League, playing with pros, blind trading, and definitely have opened my fair share of crates.
You have to remember for me (and I told the community this all the time)—I would definitely spend my fair share of money getting the crates and keys for the video but was ALWAYS able to earn it back from them watching and enjoying the content.
What do you think it is about loot box opening videos that so captures people?
I think it’s the reaction, and the overall chance that someone might beat the odds. When you post a video and you open three black market decals in 20 crates—that is almost unheard of. (Editor’s Note: Black market decals are super rare and desired.) It’s like beating the system in a way which I think makes people excited.
Also, for me personally, it was a way for me to mindlessly have something going on the screen and be able to really connect with my community. I could chat about the week and ask what videos they enjoyed, as well as see what they would like to see in coming weeks. You are sitting there for 20 minutes not getting the item you want over and over again, and then BANG you hit that really rare painted item and lose it because the chances of you hitting that are EXTREMELY rare.
Part of what you do goes beyond just opening loot boxes in Rocket League. You've actually come up different games, new ways to spice up the process. What's that been like?
Personally, I saw my community REALLY enjoy watching me open crates, but I am a little crazy. Unless the crates were new, it gets VERY tedious just opening crate after crate, and you truly start not caring about the items you get. I HATED that feeling and refused to put that on YouTube, because if I am not enjoying myself I know people will not enjoy it. So, we came up with crate wars, which would be a battle between you and another person to try and get the most points (we assigned points to items based on rarity) and the winner would get all the items opened on both sides, in addition to any side bet we would make. From there, I met with a coder, and we created games such as blackjack, ningo, and most recently fights. All of these minigames were against an opponent, and just made crate openings EXTREMELY fun again.
"During almost every crate opening, I did I would tell people DO NOT OPEN CRATES, it is a waste of money and you should just trade for the item you want. My go-to line was 'That is why you watch me, because I am dumb enough to risk money every Friday for that 1% chance of joy.'"
Recently, a streamer mentioned they'd been contacted by a publisher who offered to "tweak" the values of a crate opening to ensure they got better stuff. Has that ever happened to you?
Never. I truly don’t even think that is possible. I know that was happening a lot during the CSGO days but [I have] never had heard of anything like that for Rocket League. Psyonix was really strict about third party sites or anything like that.
What was your response when Psyonix announced the changes? Were you surprised?
A little bit but not really. Listen, it’s 2019 and it seems the world is moving away from the chance/luck/gambling ways of opening loot boxes. Psyonix was recently bought out by Epic Games, and I think Epic was just looking at the big picture. It is being banned in parts of Europe, and truly is only a matter of time before it’s banned all over the world. I definitely was a little sad to hear the news because obviously, when you put a lot of time into creating something and then find out it will no longer be, you definitely feel bummed. I definitely knew it was going to happen sooner or later, though.
Lots of folks were joking about what this means for your channel, but… what does this mean for your channel?
I said it in a tweet and I will say it again, if my channel can’t survive because I can't open crates anymore than I was a s!%* YouTuber. I probably did crates for two days a week, and that is not even including my other channel, as well as the second videos I do on the weekends. I will be coming up with some new fun ideas and experimenting with other series to see what sticks. Crate opening were a BLAST, but I am still the same guy people were watching, so they can watch me do something other than that (if they want).
There's an enormous debate happening right now about the legality and ethics of loot boxes. As someone who's made money opening boxes that make money, what's your take on them?
It’s a very weird position to be in because I completely understand both sides of the debate. I get how people think it is wrong and gambling should not be promoted to kids. I also get how many people (like myself) are responsible and shouldn’t lose out on the fun because some people are unable to monitor their kids. During almost every crate opening, I did I would tell people DO NOT OPEN CRATES, it is a waste of money and you should just trade for the item you want. I would say over and over again it was gambling and should be done responsibly.
My go-to line was “That is why you watch me, because I am dumb enough to risk money every Friday for that 1% chance of joy.” I think gambling can become a huge problem in people’s lives, but you also have to remember gambling isn’t in just the video games we play, and it is nothing new. Gambling is introduced to us when we were WAY younger playing the claw game, [or] when our parents would buy a one dollar lotto scratcher and let us do the scratching, and many other influences that teach us how to gamble. For me, it was an investment, and I always tried to really let people who watched the videos know that.
It’s funny, because even though they are taking out crates in Rocket League, I guarantee you there will still be some form of chance to their new system. For me as the user, I absolutely love a little gamble when trying to get items that I want. I prefer it [to] just spending money on exactly what I want. The beautiful thing about people is [that] we are all different and some want to gamble on items and some don’t, so I will just go with whatever games implement and continue to create content that I enjoy and I think people will enjoy!
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you know anything interesting happening on YouTube, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.