Mar 17 2015 - 11:04 pm

Leading StarCraft streamer embroiled in viewbot controversy

Over the past year, Evan "Winter" Ballnik has risen to become the number one StarCraft 2 streamer on Twitch
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Over the past year, Evan "Winter" Ballnik has risen to become the number one StarCraft 2 streamer on Twitch. This is no mean feat given that he has never been a professional player, nor does he even play at the highest competitive level. His stream generally comprises “climbing the ladder” on smurf accounts against low level players, and he focuses on helping his viewers improve their own game.

For the most part his success was attributed to his relatability, a persona that's seen him invited to events for commentary and analysis. Ballnik has publicly spoken of his success, posting on Reddit that he earned $60,000 per year. In many ways he was a posterboy for the life-changing possibilities that streaming platforms such as Twitch can provide for hardworking and talented broadcasters.

Ballnik still believes that he has a streaming future whatever the outcome. 

There were, of course, detractors. Several professional players and commentators have taken swipes at the stream, criticizing the minimal effort required to beat low level players under the guise of it being a “learning exercise” for those who watch. Several others, including prominent streamers such as Steven “Destiny” Bonnell, have always been skeptical of the viewer numbers compared to the chat activity. The community has often treated such criticisms as motivated by envy. And while the question of whether Ballnik has used viewbots to inflate his popularity has cropped up, it has been mostly dismissed.

But then it happened. A Heroes of the Storm streamer named Nicholas "NickHotS" Wuollett posted to the StarCraft subreddit what he said was concrete evidence of viewbotting on Ballnik’s stream. After taking a look at each of the accounts viewing the stream, he noticed a significant number of them appeared to be throwaways. The ones he highlighted had generic names in lowercase and only followed one other Twitch account. These accounts, MythTheGamer and Honor_Buddha, were the vendors of the viewbotting service, Wuollett concluded. He gave a complete breakdown of his findings and the accounts involved in a detailed 80,000 word document that he made publicly available. It made a compelling case against Ballnik and showed that there were significant number of bots actively viewing his stream on multiple occasions.

The Twitch accounts look credible at first glance. Most have biographies and details about what games they like to play. But those are just part of the service offered by viewbot providers. Here’s an example of a typical package description from an established viewbotting site.

“Followers and Channel Views really help improve the image of 'popularity' on your stream. We have legitimate accounts, all with avatars and bio descriptions, to follow your stream. We add both followers and channel views slowly over a few days, for the most organic appearance possible. Larger orders can take longer.”

What muddies that waters even further is that during past discussions about the allegations, Ballnik maintained that someone else was viewbotting his channel, and it was beyond his control.

“I do get botted on occasion (out of my control),” he posted during a Reddit AMA in May last year. “But the reason the chat is slower than most is there is a very strict policy in chat about spamming/trolling/being unproductive etc. This is so if someone new wants to ask a question they can actually get it answered as opposed to being drowned out in spam.”

Sometimes people who offer viewbotting services use this as a form of advertisement, contacting the streamer after they boost their viewing numbers and then offering their rates to repeat the feat.

When Ballnik took to Reddit to defend himself he invoked this defense once more saying he didn’t want to believe that his success was due to viewbotting. He later deleted the comment, but a screenshot can be viewed below.

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Reddit

If his supporters were convinced by this, few other people were. Bonnell made several sarcastic tweets that underlined how unlikely it was that someone would do this without the recipients knowing for such a prolonged period of time. “call mom, dad picks up, says she's disappeared” he joked in one. “no clue where she went, all traces of her vanish, find out she was a viewbot all along.” Another popular StarCraft streamer, David "avilo" Blowe, who had also accused Ballnik of viewbotting in the past, recorded a lengthy diatribe about it, which he uploaded to YouTube.

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“I feel like this guy obviously cheated the system with these scummy fucking business tactics” he said. 
“No ethics at all. He came in and just shit on everybody and other streamers… People have to understand that, sure, he probably has some real viewership but being the number one streamer illegitimately puts you on top of the streaming list on Team Liquid, it puts you on top of the streaming list on Twitch…”

Despite Ballnik protesting his innocence on Team Liquid, a central hub for StarCraft discussion, the site later released a statement that it would not feature his streams anymore. In a lengthy statement justifying its decision, Team Liquid explained that intent was largely irrelevant in arriving at their decision.

“Evidence has recently surfaced that indicates that Winter's stream has been the target of viewbots for at least the past year,” the statement read. 

“Winter's public explanation for this is that other users have been paying for the service against his wishes. While we concede it is impossible to prove who exactly paid for the viewbots on Winter's stream, there is no question that Winter has benefited from viewbotting. The evidence is clear.”

We reached out to the person that stirred this hornets nest and asked why he had taken so much time to catch out Ballnik.

In Heroes of the Storm's short history, viewbotting has become rampant and directly damages the growth of legit streams,” Wuollett explained. 

“I became interested in how rampant viewbotting on Twitch was. I heard the rumors about WinterGaming viewbotting, so he was one of the first streams I investigated. It's just a shame that viewbotters are so prevalent on Twitch. At one point yesterday in the Heroes of the Storm section, seven of the top fifteen streamers were viewbotting, even above people like ZPs who plays for Evil Geniuses and SolidJakeGG who casts for ESL. These are guys who are putting out excellent content, trying to make it in eSports and streaming, but the viewbotters are damaging their livelihood. I've been trying to do the same and know how it feels, so these are the main reasons for exposing them, whoever they are.”

For the most part Ballnik has remained silent on what happened. He's continued streaming. Several viewers have complained about being banned when they bring up the controversy in Twitch chat. His viewing numbers have dropped, yet he still remains the most popular StarCraft streamer.

So we reached out to Ballnik to ask about his thoughts on the evidence and allegations. He said he didn’t feel the evidence was as solid as it first was, which is why he deleted his comment. He also hinted that he feels it is linked to a campaign to cause his reputation harm that dates back to him being the victim of a DDOS attack earlier in the year.

In many ways he was a posterboy for the life-changing possibilities that streaming platforms such as Twitch can provide for hardworking and talented broadcasters.

“I was ddosd throughout late January and most of February because my previous ISP was incapable of changing my IP address, so the DDoser(s) had pretty much unlimited access to taking down my Internet during that time” he wrote. “Every single one of the DDOS attacks, and there were over 20 of them over the course of several weeks, happened while I was streaming, and would last for 30 minutes to 3 hours.”

“The fact that my being DDOS’d presented an 'opportunity' to examine whether or not there were bots on my channel seems suspicious at best considering the nature of the attack. This is especially true when there were very significantly more 'bots; found before and after I was DDOSd than much more recently when I've finally fixed the problem.”

He also said that the reasoning behind his assumed guilt was faulty. “The basis for my guilt is ‘no one would ever go through this much effort to troll someone,’” he told me. 

“Based on the response the past few days as well as the fact an individual went through the effort to DDOS me for an entire month, that is subjective at best. Overall I thought there was some valid information within the evidence post (my first response to the post was after over 24 hours of no sleep and I had not yet really looked through the details), but it was not nearly as comprehensive as originally thought.”

Ballnik wanted to make it clear to his supporters that he hadn’t engaged in any viewbotting activity, whatever the evidence showed. “I have no idea how long this went on for or why it went on for, or even the extent” he confirms. “I've been talking with twitch over the past few days to get an idea and there is some headway, but overall I don't know the details.  There are plenty of streamers (sodapoppin is a widely recognizable example) that have had unsolicited 'help' from outside sources like viewbots to increase their popularity.”

The Twitch accounts look credible at first glance. 

Despite a serious blow to his reputation and a difficult few days under the PR microscope, Ballnik still believes that he has a streaming future whatever the outcome. 

“All I want to do now is move forward as transparently as possible. I currently have 600+ subscribers, thousands of followers and fans that just enjoy watching the stream. Any details I can say publicly from Twitch I will, but of course the more details released on solving an issue like this the more likely it is that it will be harder to stop the next time.”

He also confirmed that Twitch was still investigating the situation, something he says he was encouraging in order to get to the bottom of the DDOS attacks. Twitch did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The company usually declines to make public statements about such services, seeing it as a form of advertisement for them.

As for Ballnik, he said that he had made no plans to close his Twitch account anytime soon.

Image via Blizzard


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