Updated May 4, 2020 - 11:04 am
Casinos across the country have been shut down for weeks, but that hasn’t stopped Joshua O’Connell and others from experiencing the rush of a slot machine jackpot.
The Connecticut resident sets aside time every day to watch his favorite slot machine YouTubers, a growing niche of the internet where creators film their slot play.
“You get that authentic moment of the win (in these videos),” O’Connell said. “I watch because I get to learn what’s new (with slots) … and the personalities coming through make the channels. It’s a nice pick-me-up in the day.”
O’Connell used to watch an average of four videos every day, but his viewing time has been cut in half in recent weeks. New uploads have dropped dramatically since the YouTubers lost the ability to create more content inside casinos, resulting in a major drop in views and pay for some.
“We can empathize with those furloughed and waiting to return to work,” said Heidi Clemons, half of the husband-wife duo behind The Slot Cats channel. “Our income is down about two-thirds from where it was a year ago.”
A growing community
A growing community of slot-focused content creators have started to make a living off YouTube, posting videos of them risking — and sometimes winning — large sums of money in casinos across the U.S.
When YouTuber Brian Christopher uploaded his first slot video four years ago — a shaky video titled “’Lightning Strikes’ — HUGE WIN on Vegas Slots! $3,75/Bet” filmed inside Paris Las Vegas and Planet Hollywood casinos on the Las Vegas Strip — he expected a couple of views from friends. Instead, the video garnered Christopher thousands of views and roughly 1,000 subscribers in only one week and propelled his career as a full-time YouTuber.
“I did not expect those videos to explode the way they did,” said Christopher, a Canadian actor who had been driving for Lyft in Los Angeles before his channel took off.
He had roughly 245,000 subscribers as of February, and business had been successful enough for him to sell merchandise — including lanyards, rubber wristbands and autographed headshots — and hire five employees.
While all U.S. commercial casinos have been shut down temporarily, that hasn’t stopped Christopher and others from posting content, at least for the time being.
He said his team films up to two months in advance and can sustain his regular posting schedule until mid-May.
“We are happily working from home, as is advised, and also hosting premiere lives of prerecorded videos and streaming live online slots,” Christopher said.
Bringing in business
Even when casinos were open, finding a place to film wasn’t always easy. Casinos have a reputation for strict anti-camera policies, but Christopher said that has started to change in recent years.
“We’ve slowly been able to convince them that it’s actually a good thing for them for us to promote them,” he said. “We’re getting to the point now where casinos are now finding us and approaching us.”
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ vice president of slots, Kevin Sweet, said he began working with the slot YouTube community in 2016. He has personal relationships with at least three YouTubers and encouraged them to film slot play back when casinos were open.
“It absolutely brought us new business (when the casino was open),” he said, adding that he has lost count of how many times guests have asked where to find a slot machine they saw someone playing on YouTube.
Slot manufacturers also have discovered the benefits of working with slot vloggers.
Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza, told the Review-Journal that the downtown property had embraced the slot YouTuber community. He said the Plaza saw a spike in business and gained a stronger social media presence after it started allowing them to film in the property.
He thinks they will be just as important to business once the casinos are allowed to reopen.
“We will continue to work with them for sure,” Jossel said. “Having them communicate that casinos are open, fun, and safe thanks to extra precautions and efforts is going to be important.”
Sweet agreed, saying that the industry will be able to recover faster with more people advocating that casinos have taken the necessary steps to protect employees and guests.
“Each casino will undoubtedly share with their guests the precautions they are taking, but those guests with a large social media following can only help to echo those efforts and broaden its reach,” Sweet said. “We of course look forward to welcoming (the social media influencers), along with the rest of our guests.”
$9,000 for one video
The YouTubers in this article wouldn’t disclose exactly how much money they make off their channels, but it’s lucrative enough for many to have left their day jobs, even as they regularly spend large amounts of money on casinos and travel expenses.
“It’s probably one of the most expensive channels you can run on YouTube because it’s a losing sport,” Christopher said. “You lose tens of thousands of dollars a year gambling. It took awhile before we became profitable.”
A YouTube channel needs 4,000 watch hours and 1,000 subscribers over the past 12 months before it can enter the company’s partner program and monetize videos.
While the money that videos earn per thousand ad views is fickle, some can end up being worth thousands of dollars.
Francine Maric, who runs the Lady Luck HQ channel, posted a video in January explaining how a viral slot video from September hit nearly 2 million views and made her almost $9,000.
Many YouTubers have found other income avenues. Some, like the user behind Sarah Slotlady, have a Patreon page that allows fans to pay $5 to $25 each month to suggest slot games or access behind-the-scenes videos. Others, like Maric, offer merchandise. Her fans can buy $16.99 Lady Luck HQ crew socks or a $14.99 mug with a cartoon image of her face.
She also offers a channel membership to fans, starting at $4.99 a month, that gives subscribers extra perks such as special emojis they can use when commenting on her videos.
“It’s just a more social way to connect with your audience but also turn it into a business,” Maric said.
But many slot YouTubers’ pay has taken a hit amid the shutdowns as they have to cut back on new videos.
Heidi Clemons said she has had to reduce her posting schedule to three videos a week, instead of seven.
March views for The Slot Cats — run by Heidi Clemons and her husband, Fred Clemons — were down nearly 60 percent year over year, from 370,000 views to 150,000.
The couple face even more challenges in the coming weeks; the two were set to run out of unused videos to post last week.
Heidi Clemons said finances would be more of a concern if she hadn’t won a $20,000 jackpot the week before the shutdown.
“It was good timing,” she said.
Christopher said income from his videos has gone down about 40 percent since the shutdown. He pointed to a drop in advertising revenue for YouTube, causing a trickle-down effect that hurts his ad revenue.
According to a Wednesday regulatory filing from Alphabet, parent company of Google, YouTube ads revenue growth was “slightly offset” by a decline in revenue growth in March, driven by the effects of COVID-19.
“The marketing dollars aren’t there because no one can sell anything,” Christopher said. “I’m not going to complain, though. I’m still able to make income and pay all my employees their normal wages.”
Why so many watch
It’s been about seven years since O’Connell first started watching slot videos. A lot has changed since the early days, he said, pointing to the growing number of content creators and improved production quality.
“It’s exciting seeing how far (the channels have) come in just a few years,” he said.
A Reno-based YouTuber who goes by Diana Evoni said people are drawn to slot videos for a variety of reasons.
Some live miles from any casinos. Others don’t have the money to play themselves but still want to experience the rush of hitting a jackpot. But most are just looking for entertainment.
Las Vegas-resident Jim Hilliard watches at least one or two slot videos every day. One of his favorite channels is Evoni’s — he pays for a channel membership and said he and his wife plan to visit Reno at some point to try out some of the machines featured in her videos.
“It’s helped us identify the places we like to play,” he said. “You feel like you’re one with the game and the player (in these videos). … You learn from the videos, which really makes it fascinating when you don’t get the chance to see the game in person.”
Maric likened it to watching video games online — which get thousands of views on YouTube and Twitch — or watching an NFL game on ESPN. Viewers could play the games if they wanted to, but many think watching is just as fun.
Christopher said his subscribers are the reason he plans to be one of the first customers once casinos lift their shutdowns.
“I miss the interactions with the fans,” he said. “I need more content, but I also want to be there reporting to people, letting them know what the casinos are like and the steps they’re taking to make sure the casinos are safe for everybody.”
Others, like Evoni, plan to wait a bit longer before returning. She said she misses interacting with friends and fans but doesn’t want to risk spreading the coronavirus to her 86-year-old mother.
“There’s a lot to worry about,” she said. “If our (confirmed cases count) goes up in Reno … I’m going to have to wait a long time.”
Fred Clemons who travels with a scooter after multiple back surgeries related to an injury from serving in the Navy, was at first skeptical about starting a channel. Heidi Clemons said she pushed the idea to give Fred a purpose, something to focus on every day.
“She was like, what do we have to lose?” he said. “We should’ve done this years ago.”
Now, when he visits casinos, Fred Clemons carries gifts from fans in the front basket of his scooter: a stuffed Taco Cat from a viewer in Washington he says is a “good luck charm,” and a cowbell the couple ring when they get a bonus.
Heidi Clemons’ neck supports a rhinestone jaguar necklace, a gift from one of the couple’s Patreon subscribers that matches the black cat ears perched atop her head.
But with the state’s shutdown expected to be extended, the couple aren’t sure when Taco Cat or the other gifts will make their next appearance at a casino.
“I think (returning is) going to be a same-day decision for us,” Heidi Clemons said.