Welcome to the Barstool Web

Read to the end for some good Coachella content

Hey there, folks. I’m on a little “vacation” (slightly diminished work schedule) this week. Taking a couple days off before my summer gets busy (and it looks like it’s going to be real busy). There won’t be audio versions or a weekend issue this week. Everything is back to normal next week, though.

As for today’s issue, I am very excited to finally share this piece that Garbage Day researcher Adam Bumas has been cooking up. It’s all about how gambling has taken over the web.

But before we get to that, first, a word from today’s sponsor…

The following is a paid ad. If you’re interested in advertising, email me at [email protected] and let’s talk. Thanks!

Friends! Hello – Mike Rugnetta here, one final time interrupting your Garbage Day, to point you towards Never Post, our podcast about and for the internet.

On the episode which will drop later this week our producer Hans dives deep into what the Twin Cities face when / if Uber and Lyft leave town over fair-pay laws, leaving a transit vacuum. Then I look at how the automobile has become a default setting for short-form, vertical video.

You can also hear us chat about which bands have sounded like the internet, why there is so much purposefully bad sounding audio online, and why millennials are incapable of sending “important emails” from their phone.

Find Never Post at https://neverpo.st, this RSS feed, and wherever you get your podcasts ✌️

How Gambling Took Over The Internet

—by Adam Bumas

Earlier this month, The Raptors’ Jontay Porter was banned for life from the NBA for betting on games. Meanwhile, the biggest star in baseball, Shohei Ohtani, just got out of his own betting scandal. And Jack Raines had a good piece in Sherwood last week, summing up how completely bets have overtaken literally everything else about major sports, writing, “The sportsbooks are the business, and the games happen to be something for us to bet on.” But it’s not just happening in sports. 

Gambling is eating the web faster than AI. The question is why now?

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine has been providing predictably great coverage of Trump Media's stock market performance. Which, to summarize, is possibly the biggest meme stock ever. All the shareholders seem to understand that the stock is a (gaudy, gold-plated) donation box for Trump, and not really an investment in a company — again, the theoretical purpose of it all has taken a backseat to betting on it. “What are we all doing here,” Levine asked. “The answer is ‘not fundamental [stock market] analysis.’ Maybe it is ‘having fun online’.”

The “online” part is crucial for understanding how popular gambling has become. Just like how the porn industry skyrocketed once you didn’t have to go to a grimy theater or shady video store, gambling seems a lot more appetizing when it’s on your phone instead of a casino or horse track. But it's also the direct result of the long, strange journey online platforms have been on for the last fifteen years.

The earliest social networks were supported by ads, so popularity directly translated to revenue for the platforms, but not the actual users. It’s easy to forget how much of a stigma existed around the idea of internet creators asking for money for their work. Before the rise of Kickstarter, it was called “e-begging”. That stigma is gone, which is good for creators who have enough fans, but isn’t something you can generalize, and there hasn’t been an effective business model to fill the gaps. And the platforms that birthed this brave new world did what all unregulated marketplaces do: monopolized. So the flow of money to ad-revenue sharing programs is barely even a trickle anymore. Which is why the real killer business model in 2024 is gambling. It's hard to beat users paying you for nothing except a chance to win money.

And you can see why most acutely in sports media — or what’s left of it. Sports betting has been legal in the US since a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, but it got a foothold thanks to the rise of daily fantasy sports. Sites like DraftKings and FanDuel were able to start in the late-00s because fantasy sports were specifically left out of a 2006 ban on online gambling. They were allowed to continue since they qualified as games of skill, not chance.

But it’s still a game. And gambling can be fun, at least if you’re secure enough to do it — i.e. young, wealthy and, more often than not, a man (Emily Stewart got into this further in Business Insider last week). And because everyone using the internet is, in some sense, a media brand, anytime there’s a new way to make money, anyone and everyone who can get away with using it will use it. And that’s why pretty much anything men are looking at on the web right now involves gambling in some way.

(Welcome to Dave Portnoy’s internet, folks.)

Barstool Sports started life as a local print magazine giving betting tips, years before it became probably (unfortunately) the most important digital media brand of the decade. And on the other side of the money media spectrum, MrBeast doesn’t do gambling content, but he does plenty of giveaways, both for the contestants in his videos and viewers on the other side of the screen. He even slips them into his candy bars. His entire project is based around converting Internet traffic into money by giving others a chance to win some of that money.

But this extends far beyond digital media. r/WallStreetBets, which was founded in 2012 by a guy who thought normal day trading wasn’t as fun as gambling, helped establish a central hub for the casinofication of the web. The GameStop short squeeze in 2021 legitimized meme stocks as, essentially, a bet that could pay out big. Dan Olson, in his feature-length documentary about WallStreetBets, argued the payout was a once-in-a-generation event, even though the current Trump Media stock pump shows people are still willing to bet it can happen again. 

Olson said the GameStop squeeze happened mostly thanks to the pandemic giving people extra money and young men wanting something lucrative and fun (online) to spend it on. That’s also a tidy summary of what caused the boom in crypto, NFTs, Web3 and “DeFi” (decentralized finance) around the same time. Is it fair to call those gambling too? I think so, since just like with meme stocks there’s next to no focus on what any of it actually does. That’s why Dogecoin, based on a meme that was already old 10 years ago, remains a foundational pillar of the crypto industry.

And where this all gets a little scary is how little any opposition matters. We haven’t even talked about the video game industry, which has always evolved somewhat concurrently to Internet culture. Massive games like Overwatch and Counter-Strike are full of loot boxes (where you pay to “open a box” of randomized in-game items). Some of the most lucrative titles are gacha games like Genshin Impact, where opening loot boxes is the main point of the game.

There was substantial pushback to loot boxes in 2017 across the industry, but most prominently over Star Wars Battlefront 2. EA, the game’s developers, removed loot boxes from the game shortly before release after early testers revealed it would take approximately 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader unless you paid extra money on top of the $70 game. Despite all the controversy, sales were largely unaffected, and EA did it again last year when they charged $30 for loot boxes in EA Sports FC 24 before the game was even fully released. There’s no end in sight, because enough people will keep using these services even when you tell them it’s rigged.

Everything points to the problem getting worse. With the kinda-sorta exception of crypto, all these spaces have trended towards less regulation in the US, not more. And if that continues, I don’t think it’s crazy to predict we’ll start seeing the web in general become something we have to beat the odds just to engage with. If you think paywalls are annoying, imagine a world where content is chance-walled. Where you have to keep paying over and over again until you roll sixes and “win” the opportunity to see what you were looking for.

***Any typos in this email are on purpose actually***

Join the conversation

or to participate.