“I’ve kind of developed a problem,” J.J. tells me over Discord voice chat.
In his early teens, his dad won $50,000 on a scratch-off lotto ticket, dramatically improving the family’s living situation almost overnight. “That helped us not be poor,” he said. But the windfall also colored his views of gambling in ways that didn’t become evident until recently. Unemployed for nearly a year — and trapped inside like the rest of us — the 23-year-old has discovered that a web browser and a cryptocurrency wallet can serve as an ersatz casino with its own network of marketers who appear on platforms like YouTube and Twitch, drawing in players and keeping them betting.
J.J. only bets a few cents per play, but that added up quickly over the course of the four hours a day he would spend gambling online. After two months, J.J. found himself $1,500 in the hole. “I am the depressing 70-year-old woman at the slot machine dumping her SSI checks,” he joked.
Like a lot of young people lately, he arrived in this situation in part by watching enticing videos of a cartoon rocket.
The spaceship is the emblem of Crash, a style of betting game born in the semi-legal world of online cryptocurrency casinos. In each round, players follow a rocket’s trajectory upward and a corresponding “multiplier” of what their bets could pay out. But at any point on the journey, even just after the rocket takes off, it can “crash,” resulting in a complete loss of all bets still left in the pool. The goal of the game is to cash out before the crash with as big of a multiplier as possible.
Even after a successful cash out, there’s a thrill in watching the numbers tick upward, especially in the rare cases of multipliers that hit tens of thousands. In the time it would take to do the math on how many months of rent you could have paid off with your winnings, the next round starts. The game runs continuously, 24 hours a day.
It’s no shock then that the daily wager totals at Crash betting sites can hit eye-popping sums. Betting amounts for all users are public as are the multiples at which each player cashes out. Unlike cards or sports betting, there’s no skill involved and no real barrier to entry. It’s a simple test of will to see who can hold out the longest before the catastrophic end.
The chances of a big multiplier are seemingly impossible to predict; sites also have varying levels of a “house edge” on player winnings, which is more akin to a vigorish. Claims of “provable fairness” appear on most sites as well, which, at best, show the game isn’t actively rigged during play. At least one YouTuber has attempted to run the numbers on one site’s instance of Crash and found that, over time, the house always wins and the majority of payouts were around 2x.
On Twitch and YouTube, gamblers stream their sessions or repost their biggest wins. Both sites are rife with channels claiming to have found foolproof strategies for generating passive income with Crash. There are also guides for accessing popular sites like Roobet and Stake, which are geo-blocked in the U.S., where they cannot legally operate.
A major spike in interest around Crash seems related to prank YouTuber Stephen Deleonardis (Stevewilldoit, 3.1 million subscribers) hitting several large payouts late last year. On March 16, another prank YouTuber, Paul Denino (Ice Poseidon, 748,000 subscribers), began live-streaming himself playing various games on Roobet, including Crash, in an attempt to win money meant to finance a trip from Texas to New York.
Unlike cards or sports betting, there’s no skill involved and no real barrier to entry. It’s a simple test of will to see who can hold out the longest before the catastrophic end.
Twitch and Streamelements, for their part, have very little in the way of specific site policies around gambling content, though a Twitch spokesperson said the platform will take action against these types of streamers if online gambling is illegal in their home jurisdiction.
YouTube allows “links to online gambling sites that have gone through checks to make sure they meet local legal requirements” but does not state what those requirements are or which sites have passed inspection.
YouTube and Streamelements did not respond to requests for comment.
This content is readily accessible to viewers of all ages. Few if any of the guides for accessing gambling sites are age-restricted, and even streams marked as “mature” on Twitch do not require a sign-in to click past the age gate. In one since-deleted TikTok that was reposted to Reddit, a boy claimed to have sold blood to a blood bank to refill his Roobet account.
Nearly all gambling-focused channels make use of some form of affiliate marketing, with streamers linking to casinos that kick back some portion of revenue for driving traffic, often side-by-side with affiliate links to specific VPNs. Naturally, this affiliate system is, itself, gamified. As Roobet puts it in its affiliate terms of service: “We offer you the chance to refer new users to the website and receive a cut of the house edge. … The Affiliate System uses a level system; the higher your level is, the higher the commission of the house edge of your affiliate link becomes.” Items like “free” spins or reloads to specific online casinos are often sold in the Streamelements stores for certain channels and can be bought using “channel points,” which passively accrue for viewers by watching — another way these streamers boost their viewership numbers.
And, as Paste reported in December, some of the channels that drop truly astronomical sums each day are doing so with the house’s money. If they win, they keep a portion of the windfall; if they lose, no big deal. Naturally, some channels are more open about these disclosures than others.
If platforms have a gaping hole in their gambling policies, it’s in large part because U.S. enforcement of laws around offshore gambling is rare. Most online gambling remains illegal in the U.S. And doing business with an offshore casino as an affiliate — as many U.S.-based streamers do — likely is too, according to Greg Gemignani, a lawyer who specializes in the subject with Dickinson Wright. But the motivation and resources to pursue cases just aren’t there. “We’re not going to send CIA operatives or whatever on a private jet overseas to throw a hood over somebody’s head and pop them back in a plane to bring them to the United States to face trial over gambling crimes,” he said.
Roobet and Stake have not responded to requests for comment.
Big platforms are also full of advice for safely getting your money out. “If you have significant winnings on [Roobet], your best bet is going to be to transfer those out more slowly,” one YouTuber explains. “I would recommend, personally, transferring that out in about $500 increments just so that you don’t flag anything.” There is no shortage of allegations from U.S. players that their accounts didn’t pass geographic verification after a big win and were subsequently closed before they could recover their money — a risk J.J. and other players seem willing to take.
Crash may only be reaching mainstream recognition, but the game has been around for the better part of a decade. Bustabit, the first instance of the game, has operated continuously ever since it debuted in 2014, according to the site’s former owner, software engineer Ryan Havar. The game was created while another crypto enthusiast, Eric Springer, was attempting to program a type of stochastic number sequence called a Martingale. The name might be a familiar term to gamblers: The Martingale strategy is a rigid betting system where players raise their wagers after each loss. “The first thing people wanted to do with the Martingale simulator was play with the Martingale strategy,” Havar said. “People really enjoyed it, and Bustabit was born.” He bought Bustabit from Springer when the site was “basically a proof-of-concept.” He sold Bustabit in 2018 after having made enough money off it that “working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week” was no longer justifiable.
Havar saw gambling and cryptocurrency as a natural fit, a way to avoid the fees charged by payment processors or traditional online casinos. “As it’s become more commercialized, it’s become less honest. I guess more business-driven,” Havar said. Though he no longer has much of a horse in the race, Havar seemed bitter that these newer casinos had copied Crash and instrumented some of the “user-hostile” elements he’d tried to avoid — advertising and affiliate marketing being the most pernicious.
“When I operated the site,” Havar continued, “I always thought of gambling as a bit of a vice. Maybe akin to the cigarette industry. I believe that casinos (and cigarette companies) shouldn’t [be] trying to encourage the use of their product but should someone make an informed decision to do so — make sure they are getting the best product possible.”
Bustabit’s earliest codebase was open-source, but having that information public made the site more vulnerable to denial-of-service attackers, Havar said. Future iterations of the game’s code were made private, but the format was successful enough to generate outside interest. Whether by copying and augmenting V1 or reverse-engineering the concept, Crash became a staple of online cryptocurrency casinos.
It’s fitting that a game endemic to crypto casinos has grown in lockstep with crypto’s speculative bubble. The very first post on Bitcointalk’s newly minted gambling sub-board appeared in mid-June 2011, right around the time Bitcoin itself was experiencing its first big price spike. It crashed shortly after, though not for the last time. The similarity isn’t lost on some enthusiasts, with one Redditor remarking recently, “Instead of gambling, just buy Bitcoin and HODL.”