Something about Novaruu looked like dollar signs from the moment she landed on Twitch. Blonde and with a radiant smile, Novaruu, then 19, had been gaming and hanging out with her growing fanbase for only a few weeks when she began receiving messages from entrepreneurial viewers offering to get her “deals”—vague promises to connect her with a capital-b Brand.
One in particular stood out. He offered management tips—what game to play, how to play it—and said he’d get her free products to advertise on-stream. After a while, though, Novaruu discerned that this guy was, in her words, “suspicious.” His management tips mostly comprised telling her to play games and emulate other streamers he liked. And he didn’t bring her sponsorships—just affiliate links for product discounts, obtainable by anybody with a web browser and free space in their Twitch profile. He didn’t seem to have a background in this after all, which luckily also meant he never got her to sign a formal contract. Novaruu dropped him. A couple of months later, she would learn that, after changing his username, he had approached another streamer about managing them as well.
Frustrated by the unprofessionalism, Novaruu took an interview with an established management company that dealt exclusively with pro gamers. These companies had cropped up in step with the booming industry of livestreaming games, which according to streaming software company Streamlabs is currently worth $50 billion. With her tens of thousands of followers, Novaruu decided it was time to formalize her hustle. Spire Management had everything: the posh website, a logo fit for an international airline, and an actual contract. Although Spire took 7 percent of the revenue she earned on Twitch and 15 percent of the sponsorships they secured for her, they made Novaruu feel like a pro. But after some early traction, the sponsorship deals dried up.
“I was paying Spire $100 to $130 a month out of my own pocket and not even getting a brand deal every month,” says Novaruu. “I wasn’t comfortable with that.” (Spire did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)
Twitch has 6.2 million monthly broadcasters. Forty-five thousand of those have “partner” status, which means they can monetize their streams through donations and advertising. Only a couple hundred make a good full-time living off the platform, playing Fortnite, League of Legends, or Call of Duty live while onlookers flood an adjacent chatroom with emotes. That hasn’t stopped countless thousands of aspiring pros from trying to reach that upper echelon.
As rockstar streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins pull in six- and seven-figure sponsorship deals and appear everywhere from Ellen to Times Square billboards, the business of managing gaming luminaries has exploded. Over the past six years, dozens of agencies or management companies have cropped up specifically to service the microcelebrities of Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube’s gaming channels. Quality representation can mean lucrative deals with companies like G Fuel, Red Bull, Logitech, Lenovo, or even non-endemic brands like MAC or Postmates. It can provide support like sorting through streamers’ emails, sharing social media know-how, holding them accountable for deliverables, and helping book appearances at conventions.
Yet the business of managing streamers is just as much of a Wild West as the broader industry. As traditional talent agencies like CAA, WME, and United Talent enter the scene, celebrity gamers are slowly realizing that the untamed environment they’re used to isn’t the norm.
In interviews with two dozen people currently or formerly affiliated with the streaming management industry, many describe rampant exploitation they’ve seen or experienced. Sources detail management companies skimming extra money off the top of deals, acting as unlicensed agents, offering no exit clauses, and sometimes receiving offers of kickbacks behind the scenes. As noted where applicable, several sources WIRED interviewed for this story themselves later became subjects of allegations of sexual misconduct as part of gaming’s #MeToo movement in June. WIRED also reviewed six contracts from some of the biggest players in the space to corroborate sources’ claims.
“There are no industry standards that have been set or recognized by everyone yet. When there’s no standards of industry norms, people can try to do whatever they want,” says Scott Ball, president of End Game Talent and a former Twitch employee.
Young, starry-eyed kids whose first-ever job is livestreaming video games on a platform that owes them nothing: Who could be an easier target?
Managers first entered the games entertainment industry through YouTube. Once some early YouTubers attained microcelebrity status, multichannel networks like Maker Studios—founded in 2009 and acquired by Disney in 2014—and Machinima promised to help creators make a stable living off the ever-changing platform and its ever-changing policies. It didn’t take long for these businesses to sour; many early YouTube creators, reliant on immaterial “views” and unreliable ad sales, were promised more than they received. In 2017, Maker dropped support for nearly 60,000 YouTubers; many of them felt relief. Stuck in endlessly auto-renewing contracts, and sometimes sacrificing 25 percent of their revenue, several YouTubers complained that Maker cost more than it contributed—at least if you weren’t already a megastar.
By 2011, the nascent streaming site Justin.tv had gained so much traction with gaming that it spun out Twitch to address that audience’s appetite for live content. Skilled and charismatic gamers now had their own platform to distinguish themselves as stars. As Twitch grew, Starcraft II luminaries, hot girls who played League of Legends, Diablo III min-maxers, and Call of Duty bros all grew audiences and a potential pathway to a career—or, at least, a side gig—playing video games. At the same time, esports pros, tournament organizers, and game publishers were gathering kindling for the conflagration that would be today’s reportedly billion-dollar esports industry. Together, the promises of Twitch streaming and esports would slowly normalize professional gaming—in the past, a pipe dream of children.
Established management agencies were slow to turn to Twitch, a void filled mostly by amateurs and moderators who would promise unrealistic sponsorships or early access to low-budget indie games. A step up were friends of friends who had real connections at AAA developers or publishers.
In 2015, while he was working on esports programming for the game studio Hi-Rez, Josh Belkin had a two-sided pitch: One of his friends was launching the game Darkest Dungeon; a couple of his other friends streamed games on Twitch. “I texted buddies like, ‘Hey, can I help you market your game launch?’” Streamers gained both money and clout from the novelty of playing a new game. Developers benefited from the organic-ish influencer marketing. After working for free at first, Belkin began to ask for 15 percent of paid campaigns he brought to streamers.
“It was just word of mouth,” Belkin says. “We were bringing some streamers paid activation because I had friends in industry who had budget to burn.” Belkin, now CEO of a company that develops software for streamers, counseled clients on business direction, their week’s content, how to grow the stream, and how to cross-pollinate audiences on social channels—stuff he only sort of, kind of knew how to do at the time.
Other young and green fans of Twitch streamers were catching on too. When he was 22 years old and living on his friend’s couch, Justin Warden, now the CEO of management company and marketing agency Ader, began to wonder whether influencer marketing was a potentially lucrative workaround to the disruptive impact of ad blockers. Warden secured a sponsorship to attend the first Twitch Con, a large convention for Twitch streamers and their fans. On the back of a pink Walmart T-shirt, he wrote in Sharpie: “ASK US IF YOU WANT SPONSORSHIPS.”
“I was working at Godiva,” says Warden. “We were desperate.”
Warden had just dropped out of college and had no management background whatsoever. A year later, he spammed emotes in Byron “Reckful” Bernstein’s chat until he caught the popular streamer’s attention. In a video Bernstein made titled “Reckful accidentally helped a random viewer build a multi million dollar company,” he explained how before they even knew each other, Warden was just another viewer posting emotes in his chat. But one day Warden decided to email a subsidiary of the game company Cygames asking whether they’d pay Bernstein to play Shadowverse. When they said yes, Warden cold-emailed Bernstein with the deal, saying he wanted a cut. It worked. Warden then used the same tactic on another streamer, and another. (Bernstein died in July.)
The company he built out of those early attempts, Ader, now manages dozens of streamers and has 20 employees. In a now-removed 2018 Reddit post, titled “How I took Ader from $0 to $8m yearly revenue in 2 years with no experience,” one of his bullet points included “over promise and over deliver.”
Brandon Freytag, founder and senior vice president of talent at Loaded, a top management firm representing superstar streamers, was working in esports marketing in 2016 when he snagged his first clients over at Twitch: Saqib “LIRIK” Zahid and Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar. They didn’t have available emails for incoming business, he says, so Freytag introduced himself with a message attached to a five-dollar donation. (Today, Zahid has 2.6 million followers and Lazar has 5.3 million. Loaded also manages Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.)
In those early years, streamers consistently underestimated their own value. Without the business know-how to haggle, gaming content creators tended to lowball or ask for essentially random numbers, as did their friend-of-friend managers. Esports was particularly bad. When he was just getting started out, longtime Call of Duty pro James “Clayster” Eubanks says his enthusiasm to be on a good team trumped his skepticism about contracts. (Teams share some of the same duties as managers.)
“It’s an opportunity,” he says. “They’re not gonna give us a better deal. It was like they controlled everything. We just signed whatever was put in front of us.” When he got involved with agents, he says, it wasn’t much better. He says that the great majority of agencies he’s worked with in the esports space haven’t made him as much money as they’ve cost. “I’ve been with a couple agencies and they’re all asking for between 5 and 30 percent of gross,” he says. “They’ve brought me a couple brand deals that almost even it out. But in the end, I almost always ended up paying the agent more than they made me.”
“It’s just not understanding leverage,” says Ben Nichol, a senior account executive at Next Generation Esports. “When you’re 20 and trying to negotiate your first six-figure contract for your buddy, on day three of that two-week waiting period you might call him back and say, ‘Fuck it, we’ll take it!’”
Esports pros and Twitch streamers weren’t necessarily yoga-toned or professionally tanned, but AAA game publishers and developers had by the mid-aughts recognized gaming stars as influencers—real, relatable ones—for a demographic with a lot of expendable income. Managing Twitch streamers would soon formalize from a side-hustle into a job.
“My first day at Sony Online Entertainment, my boss John Smedley was yelling at us about how big Twitch streaming would be,” says Omeed Dariani, who joined SOE in 2012. Until June 21, when a former Twitch streamer accused him of sexual predation, Dariani was the CEO of the Online Performers Group, a full-service management company for Twitch streamers. But eight years ago, when he was tasked with understanding that whole new Twitch thing, what he found was “very concerning,” he says.
Dariani says he once worked with a major multi-channel network to market a game using a YouTuber, only to realize afterwards that the MCN had taken half of the money he thought would go to the YouTuber—not just 10 or 20 percent. He saw how creators, fresh faced and just thrilled to be here, routinely offered to work for free in exchange for exposure. One streamer, who goes by Cohh Carnage and now has 1.3 million followers, told Dariani in the SOE days that he’d fly himself out to Sony headquarters and put himself up if he could be the first person to stream the upcoming shooter H1Z1. Dariani balked. “It’d be insane not to pay him at least $50,000, $100,000 to do that,” he says. “At the time, a lot of these people were so excited, you didn’t have to pay them.”
At a Boston Westin Hotel during 2015’s PAX East, Dariani announced OPG. The company would eventually manage dozens of top streamers with a staff of 15 employees. On Twitter, Dariani was known to speak out against unsavory business practices and sexism in the field, positioning himself as a champion for justice. The contracts he offered streamers avoided common grifts like skimming off from fans’ donations, nudging the industry toward credibility—although he did charge 30 percent from sponsorships and other income.
But while Dariani was still formulating a company with a reputation for standing up for the little guy, he allegedly was engaged in unscrupulous behavior of his own. On June 21, a former Twitch streamer took to Twitter to detail an experience with Dariani that she describes as “predatory” while he was still at SOE. She alleges that, after meeting and hanging out at a games industry event, Dariani told her that the industry was “small” and “relationship-based” before suggesting a threesome. Dariani did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment about these allegations, but has said on Twitter that while he does not remember the events detailed, he believes his accuser.
After Dariani was accused of misconduct, several top streamers left OPG. On July 13, news broke that OPG would close.
Two lawyers who work with Twitch talent say that, overwhelmingly, streamers don’t read or understand the contracts they sign with management companies or agencies. Several streamer managers described how new clients will introduce the people who moderate their Twitch channels as agents in initial dealings. “Almost every deal I’ve seen poses the possibility of predation,” says Mona Ibrahim, a lawyer formerly with IE Law Group and now with Epic Games.
Dan “Danotage” Herrera, who’s been streaming on Twitch since 2015 and has over 24,000 followers, was fed up with the flaky amateurs floating the prospect of Coca-Cola sponsorships. When a new potential manager approached him, he’d share the proposed contract with his girlfriend, who was in law school. There were invariably non-compete clauses, unwieldy exclusivity periods. “It was all changes in a document that was really just a letter of intent,” says Herrera. “They talked about it as if it was legally binding.” The whole thing sketched him out too much, so he signed up with OPG.
Ibrahim says that, for the most part, influencers don’t understand the contracts they’re signing. Several are so afraid of appearing troublesome, or earnestly believe they have no negotiating power, and “are more inclined to accept it as is,” she says.
Twitch streamers with the platform’s coveted “partner” status—generally granted to those with average concurrent viewership well into the hundreds and a regular broadcast schedule—can make money on their own; first-tier subscriptions cost five dollars a month, of which they typically get half. And they can receive donations from fans, from which they receive a share of revenue. The manager’s job is to facilitate deals on top of that, typically taking anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the payout.
Yet contracts reviewed by WIRED vary widely. One contract for the medium-sized management company MoreYellow, which works with both YouTubers and Twitch streamers, stipulates that it will receive a quarter of all gross income “as a result of services performed by Influencer for any Sponsor,” regardless of the work MoreYellow itself does. If MoreYellow actually develops a sponsorship deal, it will be compensated 35 percent of the total fee. “Within our relationship with our talent, they have no obligation to take on any sponsorships we bring them or that come to them,” MoreYellow said in a statement.
Some contracts ask for the right to own and market a streamer’s image or work; in MoreYellow’s case, at their “manager’s sole discretion, in perpetuity, and throughout the universe.” That means it can use the streamer’s face or likeness in its marketing materials forever, to whatever end they please. MoreYellow says it does so to “make materials and share information about talent.” However, “nobody needs your rights in perpetuity,” says Ibrahim. “That is far more onerous than is reasonable or necessary in a management contract.” According to two sources who regularly review contracts between esports pros and their teams, these clauses are common in esports as well.
Other organizations blur the line between management and influencer marketing—a dangerous rhetorical elision when one looks out for the streamer’s wellbeing, and the other wants a cut of a fat deal. “Let’s say you have a $100,000 deal,” says Devin Nash, CMO of Novo, a company that does both influencer management and branding. “What actually ends up happening a lot of the time is you do a limited partnership agreement and send the influencer a contract for, let’s say, $5,000 or $10,000. You say, ‘Hey, I got you a $5,000 and $10,000 deal.’ Then you take the rest off the top and take 20 percent of the $5,000 to $10,000.”
“Because the influencer is never in the conversation,” Nash says, “they don’t know you got more.” Two sources described this practice as “double-dipping:” getting as much money out of the brand as possible, hyping up the streamer clients’ reach, and only acting accountable to the agency’s bottom line.
Ader’s Justin Warden describes it as a “brand-first management company,” meaning that a brand might come to him with $100,000 to distribute between three or four influencers he manages. In one Ader contract reviewed by WIRED, the streamer waives the right to know the sum total compensation of a multi-influencer deal brokered by the company, meaning they have no insight into whether they received a fair percentage. Ader’s agreements specify that the company negotiates separate contracts for these deals “in its own best interest despite the services that it is providing influencer.”
“We can’t in good faith give an influencer visibility into the rest of our business because our clients don’t really want them to have visibility into that,” says Justin Warden, explaining it’s a “big NDA violation.” He says Ader runs “razor-thin margins.”
He also says that Ader does not collect a management fee for deals that its agency arm lines up, so as not to charge its clients twice for the same service. Warden says he’s actually being more transparent than other companies in the space that keep their management and marketing companies separate. Two different companies can collect two different fees.
Lack of visibility into financial dealings can lead to a variety of consequences. Three sources deeply involved in the industry allege that their clients have complained of management firms that take a portion of their donations and subscription earnings despite not directly helping earn those. Two sources who represent streamers say brands have offered them private incentives to convince multiple clients to publicly promote their products.
“It’s very easy to exploit individuals in that capacity,” says Ibrahim, referring to the industry’s opacity. “You may be receiving money on their behalf so you’re controlling the purse strings.” In a recent Kotaku article, Nash described a deal in which one management company received a $100,000 deal for a streamer to work with a big brand, and silently pocketed $90,000 of that deal—on top of the 10 percent it was contractually entitled to.
These sorts of power imbalances are part of why legal recourse exists, and why managers’ contracts spell out exactly how streamers can leave them. Yet some contracts offer no exit clauses, says Ibrahim, which means streamers may be trapped in unfavorable conditions for years. She describes the practice as “ass backwards; it’s the creator that’s hiring the manager, not the other way around.”
One of the best-known names in gaming pop culture, esports team-slash-talent company FaZe Clan promises “360 management” to its 80 irreverent, young, and mostly male celebrity gamers. It’s an apparel business, a marketing business, and an esports team, with talent living in a luxe Hollywood Hills mansion. Last year, celebrity Fortnite streamer Turner “Tfue” Tenney sued FaZe Clan over an allegedly exploitative contract, in a case that threatened to restructure the streaming management industry.
Tenney signed with FaZe when he was 20 and had significantly fewer Twitch subscribers than the 9 million he has today. In the suit, he alleged that the contract gave FaZe the right to 80 percent of brand deal earnings they introduced, a huge step up from the norm of 15 to 25 percent. He wanted out.
Contesting this, a representative said FaZe has “only collected a total of $60,000 from our partnership, while Tfue has earned millions as a member of FaZe Clan,” and never actually took 80 percent of his earnings. Last August, FaZe Clan launched a countersuit, alleging that Tenney withheld income that was contractually owed to the management company. In an interview with WIRED, FaZe CEO Lee Trink, who previously worked in the music entertainment industry, said that “There’s nothing inherently wrong with an 80-20 split in favor of an organization.” Trink cited Janet Jackson and other musical artists who he says were lucky to get royalty rates around 20 percent. (He also says he did not oversee this contract.)
“You get to put ‘FaZe’ in front of your name,” says Trink. “You are immensely more famous the day after you sign with FaZe Clan.”
Tenney’s suit also alleged that FaZe, like some other gaming-focused management companies, operated as if it was an agency without first registering as one, as the complaint says is required by California’s Talent Agency Act. Agencies procure employment; managers help clients get it done. Because agents maintain enormous power over clients’ business dealings, the law forces registered talent agencies doing business in California to submit their contracts to California’s labor commissioner. And unlike managers, who can start doing business from their friends’ couches with a smartphone, the road to becoming an agent is a years-long grind. In theory, the bureaucracy helps prevent exploitation. Trink told WIRED, “We do not act as an agency.” FaZe’s lawyer argued they didn’t manage Tenney in California, anyway.
Bryan Freedman, Tenney’s attorney, said in a January interview with WIRED that he consistently sees streamer management companies acting like registered agencies. “I get phone calls all the time from someone who will send me a contract between a company that calls themself a ‘talent agency’ or a ‘management company’ and a streamer or a gamer. All I do is look it up and see if they’re registered and they’re not registered. I’ve seen it more than 20 times over the last six months.”
In July, a California judge dismissed Tenney’s lawsuit. In late August, Tenney and FaZe settled Faze Clan’s countersuit out of court.
Tenney’s suit could have forced streamer and esports management companies to button up, but now the threat is less looming. The blurred lines between agency and management company extend even to top streamer management companies like Loaded. Although Loaded founder Brandon Freytag and Josh Swartz, COO of PopDog, a tech and service company that owns Loaded, described acquiring business for clients multiple times in an interview with WIRED, Loaded is not registered as an agency.
“I don’t think the work we do falls under the purview of the act, but that act is over 40 years old at this point and really designed to protect talent from predatory practices,” says Swartz. “Regardless, we are quite confident that we do not fall into that category. We are extremely, extremely professional and we’ll be out of business very quickly if we try to take advantage of talent.”
One of the only true agencies endemic to this space is Evolved, run by Ryan Morrison, who is also a founding partner of the law firm Morrison Rothman. California’s labor commissioner has vetted Evolved’s contracts, though at one point the firm represented 70 percent of players in the Overwatch League, creating potential conflicts of interests. (Morrisson says his “heart strings got pulled.”). Now he represents a fifth of the league.
In a Twitlonger posted on June 23, a former employee of Morrison’s law firms named Ma’idah Lashani accused Morrison of conflicts of interest and sexual harassment, and said that he made inappropriate remarks about a transgender staff member. Morrison Rothman contracted a neutral law firm to investigate the allegations, and in July, announced it had found “no evidence” of sexual misconduct or inappropriate relationships with team owners. “While Mr. Morrison has made mistakes in the past, he has taken and will continue taking considerable steps and actions to improve,” the firm wrote. Lashani says she declined to speak with the investigator because the investigator would not sign a letter ensuring confidentiality.
“I absolutely am the first to admit that when I came into this industry, my most professional job beforehand was bartender. The way I networked, joked around and behaved was unprofessional and immature,” Morrison told WIRED. “A person is only as good as their worst moments. I genuinely believe that and I’m working every day to be better.”
The mainstream success of Fortnite in 2017 was a watershed moment; the saccharine shooter game birthed the major gaming celebrities du jour—your Ninjas, your Tfues—who have architected brand empires atop it. “It was a game that hit the mass audience—younger and older—in a way we hadn’t seen from Minecraft. It also has a competitive side and a livestreaming side on top of it,” says Peter Seville, a talent agent with Creative Artists Agency. “That, plus celebrities getting involved, definitely elevated the exposure and number of brands looking into the space.”
William Morris Endeavor, United Talent Agency, and Creative Artists Agency—all traditional, decades-old Hollywood agencies—have begun representing streamers as clients. While they may not be endemic to gaming’s idiosyncratic culture, their deep background in film, sports, and music helps them advocate for clients clawing for relevance in the gaming entertainment world. Top streamers have begun diversifying their brands with book and television deals, which these agencies have experience brokering.
“We take a long-term growth roadmap with talent because I think it’s in their best interest. A lot of these kids are 16, 17. It’s tough to try and project yourself out 15, 20 years in the future,” says WME agent David Huntzinger. “I think things are changing and becoming a bit more standardized.” FaZe CEO Trink says that the space is moving so fast that, at least twice a year he asks his legal department to review their contracts.
“Having originally come from film and TV, where the standards and practices have been set for two, three decades, is very different from being in a world where people are making up new rules,” says CAA’s Seville. “I think now we’re seeing that old rules are being applied in ways that I think are really helpful.”
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Part of what’s helped standardize the space, Seville says, is money. Traditionally gaming-adjacent brands—energy drinks, hardware companies—were spending $5,000 or $10,000 a month for a celebrity streamer to namedrop or use their product live just a couple of years ago. “That was considered a pretty solid deal,” Seville says. “At this point, they’re looking at seven-figure deals and above.” And as the financial stakes get higher, the infrastructure of big business follows.
“A few years ago, everybody was fucking around, for sure,” says Novo’s Devin Nash. “Nowadays, you have [esports] league oversight, agency oversight. Players are smarter. They have lawyers.”
That maturation doesn’t help everyone, though. The small portion of streamers at the top of the food chain benefit, but in the middle and at the bottom are streamers who fall into the system’s many potholes as they sprint toward success. “At the lower level of broadcasters, the optics aren’t improving at all. It’s getting worse,” says Nash. “Twitch doesn’t care about these people. Nobody cares. Nobody cares until you’re big. And then when you’re big, everybody cares.”
Nash, who has a successful Twitch channel himself, says he receives hundreds of emails every week from streamers asking how to grow their brand. “Right now, if I had to say where the exploitation is focused, it’s streamers with between 100 and 3,000 viewers,” he says.
In just the last few years, the dream of the professional video game player has become more vivid, more polished. Kids grinding out higher and higher rankings in online shooters night after night might flick their eyes over to Ninja on a second monitor, brandishing his Louis Vuitton shoe line and whitened teeth. It seems attainable. The popularity of platforms like Twitch and YouTube relies on these aspirations. As long as the dream persists—like in any other entertainment industry—hangers-ons will sell it to the young and the hopeful, perhaps in exchange for a third of their gross income.
“You can say the same thing for anyone who wants to sing on stage or act on stage or be a movie star,” says Ibrahim, the lawyer formerly with IE Law Group. “It’s true for anyone with a dream. Desperation is the easiest way to be exploited.”
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