One of 2016's most explosive pieces of gaming journalism was broken by a news-obsessed Indian IT guy with a relatively unknown YouTube channel. HonorTheCall, an anonymous internet presence, is a full-time software developer whose YouTube image, up until June, was built on small-fry Call of Duty news. Over Call of Duty footage, HonorTheCall pronounced updates and opportunities exclusive to the COD community, facelessly and with a strong accent. Illustration by Sam Woolley
In June, HonorTheCall's video on shady Counter-Strike: Global Offensive gambling practices blew the lid off of a betting scandal implicating several top YouTube personalities. Upending a $US2.3 billion ($3 billion) underground gambling industry around online video game skins, the amateur watchdog unearthed evidence that a CS:GO gambling site's biggest promoters did not disclose their ownership of that same site. His report came out of nowhere. Ever since, Forbes, The Daily Dot, PC Gamer and IBTimes have pursued the leads HonorTheCall published on his Call of Duty YouTube channel.
Now, he's turned his humble channel into a full-blown accountability project for the YouTube gaming community and its adoring, though credulous fans. Just last week, he went digging again, and saw his channel briefly wiped from the internet for his efforts.
"I want to help fellow YouTubers," HonorTheCall explained to me over the phone. "If there's any under-the-table stuff going on, I want to warn them of potential scams or misleading information."
HonorTheCall's "Tmartn, ProSyndicate and JoshOG CS GO Scandal Part 1"
Alongside YouTube's inflated personalities and the cults bolstering their empires is a growing industry of novice YouTube journalists. Like reporters, but ignorant or irreverent of the reporting method, these YouTubers post regular news videos about YouTube gaming celebrities. If you're Scarce or Keemstar, these videos can attract millions of views. If not, the bigger fish are probably aggregating you. Anything from insipid "She said what?" gossip to unearthed online pyramid schemes fuels the movement that, many say, is the fungal stratosphere of YouTube metacommentary.
"Drama" is big business for YouTubers. But HonorTheCall wants to be on the other end of the invisible, and frankly cosmetic scale of YouTube newsworthiness; more of a spectrum than a scale. Essentially, a YouTuber's place on it is all a matter of packaging: Nearly nobody calls sources for comment. Everyone yells curse words into the microphone. Unabashed value judgements, comparisons to Ebola and accusations of autism are common. Also, a lot of trust is placed on superficial Googling, balanced by limited fact-checking. What makes HonorTheCall's videos reminiscent of what many call "traditional journalism" is his professed obsession with public interest over views or money, even though his methods don't deviate much from other YouTube reporters'.
"I don't hate anyone," HonorTheCall told me. "I don't have personal grudges. The thing that ticks me off is these guys have a huge responsibility running these channels, and sometimes, they shamelessly rip off their viewers — either by lying to them or selling them something that isn't there, false hope, promise."
As a child in North India, HonorTheCall was obsessed with the news. Growing up, he told me, he subscribed to two newspapers and a weekly magazine, all the time anchoring his homepage to his favourite news site of the moment. Journalism, to him, was a hobby, an entertainment, unparalleled by his interest in technology.
When HonorTheCall moved to Canada for university, his cousin introduced him to the PlayStation. The action-adventure game Prince of Persia became his obsession. He even considered growing his hair to mimic the protagonist's hairstyle. Once, when he and his cousin were playing, they encountered a boss they couldn't defeat on their own, no matter how many hours they sunk into strategising. That's when HonorTheCall first went on YouTube. From then on, it was his go-to site for gaming walkthroughs, tips and news.
In 2012, HonorTheCall found a new video game obsession: Call of Duty. YouTube hosts infinite channels dedicated to Call of Duty, which HonorTheCall devoured after his day job developing software. Like many YouTubers, HonorTheCall scrutinised the technical aspects of his favourite videos and decided that, hell, he knew enough about Call of Duty to make his own channel. For $US50 ($67), he bought himself a microphone. His work laptop could handle a decent video editor. For $US400 ($532), he purchased a green screen, which, now that he's in the anonymous accountability business, he says he will never use. Comprehensible and clear English, his third language, would prove to be a challenge, but he noticed that many other YouTubers had accents. He persuaded himself to publish his Call of Duty news videos.
HonorTheCall was scrolling through Twitter on a Sunday afternoon in June when he was snagged by some Counter-Strike hearsay. FaZe Clan, a celebrity esports team with millions of fans, was accused of gambling Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins on the website CS:GO Wild, which, allegedly, they helped found. In YouTube videos, FaZe Clan member FaZe Rain boasts of his plush earnings without disclosing his alleged involvement with the skin gambling site. In a $US2.3 billion ($3 billion) underground game skin gambling industry, HonorTheCall realised, it was a clear conflict of interest.
The issue, though, was that the allegations were just that. Evidence was slim. Also, HonorTheCall wasn't a journalist.
HonorTheCall's "Tmartn, ProSyndicate and JoshOG CS GO Scandal Part 8 (Skype Logs)"
It was unusual for him to pursue a news story outside the sphere of Call of Duty, but HonorTheCall was intrigued by the claims against FaZe Clan, the attention-guzzling frat boys of the first-person shooter scene. HonorTheCall wondered whether any other first-person shooter celebrities were in on the scheme. Thinking back, he recalled another big Call of Duty personality's YouTube videos advertising CS:GO gambling. It was TMarTN, who, perhaps on account of amateur YouTube crusader HonorTheCall, is now named in a Florida class action lawsuit for creating an "illegal gambling enterprise".
This time, the evidence was out there. For it to be found, someone only had to look.
TMarTN's YouTube videos are what brought HonorTheCall out of Call of Duty obscurity into the life of a YouTube watchdog. Sampling TMarTN's videos, HonorTheCall noticed that the CS:GO gambling nut and his friend Pro Syndicate always visited the same site: CS:GO Lotto. On camera, TMarTN and Pro Syndicate "gambled" on CS:GO Lotto and, they claimed, won thousands of dollars at a time. Their reactions were lunatic: Shrill laughter, blood-curdling screams of surprise. In one video, TMarTN shouts wide-eyed that he won $US13,000 ($17,293). He also taught his viewers — many, underaged — how to do the same. Was TMarTN guilty of the same unsavoury antics that FaZe Rain was summarily accused of?
"I Googled TMarTN's full name, which everyone in the Call of Duty community knows, along with CS:GO Lotto and Orlando, Florida," HonorTheCall told me. Florida, HonorTheCall said, is where CS:GO Lotto was registered. In the matter of a few minutes, HonorTheCall stumbled upon information — and, suddenly, evidence — that made him queasy.
"Immediately, I had, like, 10 pieces of evidence in front of me that he's not just a visitor of the site. He's the president of it. It's a huge conflict of interest. You can't own your own casino and pretend to win," HonorTheCall told me. Immediately, he was struck by a feeling of "hollowness". He was scared. TMarTN's friends are influential members of the gaming community, and he himself boasts a subscriber base equal to the population of Mongolia. HonorTheCall had a measly 1500 regular supporters. But the evidence was out there, and sharing it was suddenly an ethical obligation:
"Most of his viewer base was underaged kids," HonorTheCall explained. "He's shamelessly pushing this gambling site on them and showing them how to win thousands of dollars in minutes, which is not the case."
HonorTheCall published the evidence in a brief, four-minute video in late June. On it, he shows screenshots from Bizapedia, the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations, corporationwiki.com and other sources confirming that Trevor "TMarTN" Martin was registered as the president of CSGOlotto.com. "I did some digging," he prefaces, "and holy shit balls."
"TMartN is the director of the site," HonorTheCall explained. "He fucking owns the damn site. He goes on his own site, pretends to win allegedly huge amounts of cash and do prerehearsed reactions."
The evidence was difficult to deny, and totally damning. About a week later, YouTube megachannel h3h3Productions, with its 2.3 million subscribers, picked up the story. Over Twitter, its co-producer told HonorTheCall that the video was "a slam dunk".
TMarTN said that his involvement with CSGOlotto.com has been a matter of public record since its founding, though neither HonorTheCall, h3h3productions nor I could find evidence of this. He did later apologise in a YouTube video that the disclosure wasn't clear enough, though that video was later deleted. The story was one of the most scandalous gaming news controversies all year.
HonorTheCall is not a journalist and does not profess to be one. His name, which sounds like that of an underground progressive pamphlet, comes from Call of Duty. His real username, despite the channel's branding, is the pedestrian "WarGod1283". When he stumbled upon an online gamer with the username Honor The Call, he decided to adopt it as his own. It sounded epic. He says his videos call out trust abuses in the YouTube community, so he now signs off with "Always honour the call," a riff on Call of Duty's tagline. His fans are "Team Honor".
HonorTheCall doesn't reach out to the subjects of controversies he sparks to hear their side. It would be unusual for a YouTube news personality to do so. Since their subjects, primarily other YouTubers, live most of their lives online, information about them and their shady money-making initiatives is often quite accessible. Information can lie, but so can sources. Traditional journalists tend to balance one against the other, and not doing so would elicit criticism from editors and readers alike. HonorTheCall's channel is a public service, with a mission not unlike The Nation's or Pro Publica's — exposing breaches of trust and empowering his audience — but with a method foreign to credible Western news outlets.
"When something is as clear as many of these cases are," HonorTheCall explained, "I don't think I have to reach out to these guys. It's clear enough for me to present it to the viewers."
Since HonorTheCall broke the CS:GO gambling story, the software developer has broken two other major stories and published nearly 20 follow-up reports on unscrupulous CS:GO gambling. The first was fact-checking Unbox Therapy's big 2015 publicity stunt, where the popular YouTuber showcased a literal truckload of iPhones for doling out to subscribers. HonorTheCall referred to it as a "scam".
"Dear Lew: YouTube channels such as yours are built on truth. Your viewers felt cheated and betrayed," HonorTheCall said. After Keemstar and Scarce ran the same story, Unbox Therapy "rebooted" the giveaway, saying he'd do it right this time.
More recently, HonorTheCall broke a story riding on his mistrust of FaZe Clan. A few weeks ago, he pointed out that a crowd-funded video game co-produced by the celebrity esports team remains unreleased more than a year after its targeted launch date. Backer gifts were nowhere to be seen. Fans who donated nearly $US20,000 ($26,605) to fund first-person shooter Starnet Eclipse were worried that it was a scam. HonorTheCall weighed developer iCazual's promises against the reality of the game, still in "pre-alpha": Novice, over-hyped and late. (iCazual contends that their formerly 70-person development team was having difficulty mastering Unreal Engine. The company's 19-year-old CEO denies that the game is a scam.).
"Dear FaZe Clan: You better phase the fuck up and return all the money back to your fan base. Not only have you deceived them, but also failed to live on your promises," HonorTheCall declares. "Remember: Always honour the call," he said before signing off.
After the video hit, FaZe Clan fans — and detractors — went wild. In full damage control mode, FaZe Rain — the same gamer accused of shady CS:GO gambling — attempted to explain himself in another YouTube video, noting that he didn't "remember the full situation" behind their promises to backers.
Fans still loyal to FaZe Clan rallied on their behalf. How could they trust what was until recently a Call of Duty news channel? One fan, HonorTheCall said, tried to teach him a lesson. Shortly after HonorTheCall's call-out, all 111 videos on his channel disappeared. On his website was a message explaining that he was hacked by "Tyrone", an anonymous FaZe Clan fan. Tyrone had allegedly tricked GoDaddy.com into giving out HonorTheCall's website admin information, which led him to the YouTube page. It was a brutal power move. HonorTheCall reached out to him.
"The first thing he said was he's sorry for what he did," HonorTheCall said. "He apologised." Going through his YouTube partner BBTV, HonorTheCall contacted YouTube, who had stored his videos. In a few days, they were returned, and so-called Tyrone expressed regret over his knee-jerk reaction over Twitter direct messages.
HonorTheCall's hobby of going after celebrity YouTubers for appearing to exploit their fans has earned him formidable, or at least vocal, enemies. A common refrain in his YouTube comments is that he's just going after big YouTubers for attention. Viewers allege that money is a main motivator. To maintain appearances, HonorTheCall made a follow-up video to his FaZe Clan call-out, screenshotting how much money his original video earned him: $US42.72 ($57).
"I strongly feel this is blood money," he explains. He makes a show of donating $US60 ($80) to the Red Cross.
It was, he said, "on behalf of Team Honor."