Gun Skins and Live-Streamed Blackjack: The Strange New Face of Online Gambling
People are spending hundreds of pounds on making their make-believe guns a different colour.
Image via CrowbCat YouTube video "CSGO hysteria and forgotten TF2 design"
In 1994, the small Caribbean twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda began offering licenses to interactive gaming companies, allowing them to start operating there. The same year, on the Isle of Man, a company called Microgaming – one that has since remained near the top of the online gaming industry – set up what is generally regarded as the world's first online casino.
Throughout the 1990s, as the dot com boom grew ever larger, so too did the popularity of online gambling. Its inevitable regulation came with the Kahnawake Gaming Commission in 1996, in the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, Canada. By the time the clock struck 12 on the 31st of December, 1999, online gambling had exploded and, as an industry, was worth over $2 billion a year.
Americans loved it; the poker rooms, the slots, the roulette – it fit neatly into their insatiable love of not leaving their houses to do anything. Now they could gamble away their life savings from the comfort of their own homes, in ways more exciting and less gloomy than holding a fistful of betting slips at a race track. For others it was the beginning of extremely lucrative careers as professional gamblers and poker players. College students would drop out to play full time, win millions and quietly become celebrities in their own gaming circles.
But these are the trends of yesteryear. While poker remains perhaps the most popular "casino" game outside the confines of the windowless caverns and tacky online gaming rooms that haven't had their graphics updated in over a decade, different people are looking for different ways to fill their boots. Once again, the internet and technological advancement has opened up experiences to more people than ever before, and allowed them to tailor those experiences to their own tastes, whatever they may be.
This brings us to the strange phenomenon of skin gambling.
For those who don't know, a "skin" refers to a variety of weapon designs you can pick up in many first-person-shooter games. In Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a very popular game in the burgeoning eSports culture, these skins can represent a level of hierarchy for players: the rarer the skin, the better and more prestigious you are – or so some believe.
The skins are available to purchase on Steam, which is owned by Valve, who also published CS:GO. Some of them cost pennies, others cost upward of £300. The skins have become a kind of currency in and of themselves. And what do people historically do with their meaningless currency? They gamble it away.
Websites were set up so people could bet away their virtual currency – CS:GO Diamonds, CS:GO Lotto – all of which are now defunct after a recent effort by Valve to crack down on the skin gambling, with the Washington State Gambling Commission breathing down its neck.
Streamers on phenomenally popular game-streaming site Twitch would stream themselves betting seemingly thousands of dollars worth of skins, and in some cases losing it all – though there is suspicion in some cases that the streamers were sponsored by the skin gambling sites. Other streamers, like JoshOG, promoted CS:GO Lotto and sung its praises, encouraging others to use it, but was then found to own equity in the site – which he said he was given as part of a sponsorship deal. Problem is, as has been pointed out elsewhere, when you own part of a company, any deal is no longer solely about sponsorship. People were upset.
Much like any form of gambling and betting, skin gambling has had its share of scandals. In August of 2014, North American CS:GO teams iBUYPOWER and NetcodeGuides.com played each other in a professional eSports league. iBUYPOWER lost the match, though they were the favourites. It was revealed in January of 2015 that iBUYPOWER had skin-bet against themselves and thrown the match, leading to all members getting banned from the game by Valve, aside from a guy called Skadoodle, who didn't wish to revel in the digital spoils.
One of the most fascinating parts about the new wave of gambling is the interaction of players with viewers. Anyone who has been to a casino will know that it can be exhilarating to watch someone let it ride on the roulette table,rooting for their big win. The same can and does occur on the live streams, though the relationship between viewer and streamer is quite different, as subscribers can donate money to their gambler of choice, who then spends it right in front of their eyes.
Chance Morris, also known as "SodaPoppin", has been streaming himself playing live blackjack – where a dealer deals oversized cards to people playing online via webcam – for over a year. There are various compilation videos of him on YouTube winning and losing thousands of dollars at a time, his viewers perhaps getting a dopamine hit via digital osmosis. Live blackjack isn't a new thing, however with the advent of game streaming and the immense popularity it seems to bring, the game lends itself to the medium. Most streamers on Twitch play video games, where there is a similar risk and reward at times, but perhaps nothing compares to the thrill of watching someone lose money. In essence, the people who donate to these gambling streamers are paying for the experience of potentially watching someone fail. Morris plays on a website called BetOnline.ag. The .ag domain is, you guessed it, Antigua and Barbuda – the spiritual birthplace of online gambling.
While it looks like skin betting might have reached the end of its very short lifespan, I suppose there's nothing to say it couldn't return under another guise, one perhaps more regulated, or maybe pushed even further underground. But this type of betting, the stream donations included, is a form of gambling (or gambling by proxy) that yields no real results, no true ownership, no meaningful application.
On Monday, Culture Minister Tracey Crouch likened betting shop machines to "crack cocaine". The fixed odds betting terminals were criticised for allowing people to wash away hundreds of pounds in mere seconds, and campaigners have called for greater responsibility to be placed on the government with regards to curbing the addictions of Ladbrokes regulars. But at least when you win on these you get some money.
Here, thousands of people – a lot of them children – are siphoning their money away to corporations who, on the face of it, are game producers, but in essence are income rakers to the fullest extent, who so far have only stopped the extreme cashflow from idiotic obsessives after someone's told them to.
Guys: you really shouldn't need need an orange and blue camouflage AK47 to be happy. But then again, maybe you do.
More from VICE: