That company followed the typical boom-and-bust pattern of the first wave of the Internet: It grew fast, and imploded. "Ultimately, it crashed and burned," one former employee says.

The DeBevoise brothers purchased in 2006 — the same year Google purchased YouTube. One of their first innovations was hosting Machinima videos on YouTube. Not only did it significantly cut down on the server costs, but it was done at a time when YouTube was hungry for content and, in 2007, just beginning to pay video creators for their work.

The brothers also began to cut deals with video game companies to advertise alongside the videos that used their games as source materials.

Maker Studios, co-founded by LisaNova in 2009, hosts more than 1,000 YouTube channels with over 1 billion views.
Maker Studios, co-founded by LisaNova in 2009, hosts more than 1,000 YouTube channels with over 1 billion views.

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 advertising. They don't watch TV; they don't read magazines. They just play video games.

And Machinima's channels have become the place for advertisers to find them. Machinima 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.

But, just as at Creative Planet, where former employees say the DeBevoise brothers lost focus buying up too many properties, there is a sense that the rapid expansion of Machinima might mean the dilution of the company's winning formula.

Decisions such as offering partnership deals to loathed, view-trolling "reply girls," who earn pageviews mostly thanks to their prominently displayed cleavage, have called the company's judgment into question.

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.

Vacas is not the only one who has taken a public stand against the company. Dozens of creators have written blog posts or created videos complaining about the contracts — videos that often show a savvy understanding of digital-age PR.

Take YouTube user KSIOlajidebt. In March, a few weeks after Vacas posted his video, KSIOlajidebt released an anti-Machinima video of his own.

"ENOUGH IS ENOUGH," says KSIOlajidebt. "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, 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.

A representative for Machinima down-plays 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' 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: 32-year-old Bachir Boumaaza of Belgium) 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.

"This is a very hard decision and I've been thinking about it," he says, gazing earnestly at the camera, head cocked, a shock of shiny black hair falling over his face. "But the only thing that I can do — the only thing that feels right, right now — is to leave Machinima." Boumaaza apparently had an older contract, one that allowed him to quit.

The news that Athene, a bona fide YouTube celebrity with 589,798 subscribers and 382 million video views, was leaving Machinima reverberated throughout the YouTube community.

Reached by e-mail, a representative for Boumaaza said, "We've regularly talked to several people from Machinima about complaints we have been hearing from partners about how they felt intimidated by their business and contract practices.

"Every time that we brought this to Machinima's attention ... we were assured that they had started taking a different approach. But when the situation with Braindeadly occurred, it was clear to us that nothing had changed."

At the time, Athene had made no decision regarding which network he would join, the spokesman added. The star would be open to joining a network that "wants to make YouTube a better place for content producers or wants to give gamers more freedom and resources."

Shortly after the controversy blew up on Reddit, Vacas said in a Skype interview, "It was really amazing to see how many people took the time to support me. It just shows how much the community can do when they all group together and help others out."

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