2020 will be remembered as the year where social distancing became the norm. For many, playing video games with friends was the perfect antidote to enforced isolation. As traditional sporting teams started the season in empty stadiums, over 500 million fans worldwide tuned into the virtual world of esports as gaming finally shakes off its relatively negative image.
With over 2.7 billion people playing video games, traditional stereotypes of teenagers in bedrooms are finally being retired. The average age of a gamer is 34 years old.
An incredible 46% of all gamers in the world are also aged 36 or over.
Predictably, global esports revenues have grown to $1.1 billion in 2020, and the gaming industry's entire revenue is set to hit $165 billion in 2020.
The future of gaming will probably be in the cloud, and many believe that we are witnessing the last generation of console releases. But demand has never been higher as gamers virtually line up to try and get their hands on the new PS5 and Xbox Series X. However, this time around, not everyone is playing by the rules.
Building bots is big business
The PlayStation PS5 pre-order in September was famously plagued with bots. An influx of visitors caused many websites to buckle under the strain. But not all these consumers were human. Savvy gamers were even turning to Reddit to share stories of how to build bots that would ensure they'd get a PS5 on release day.
However, it wasn't just a handful of consumers attempting to skip ahead of the line on pre-order day. Supply and demand issues have paved the way for armies of retail bots created by so-called scalpers to snatch the limited supply of consoles.
The bots are designed for the platforms they'll be operating on. They know how to bypass the bot detection steps, including defeating CAPTCHAs, using secure virtual credit cards, proxies (providing unique IP addresses), and living on servers (increasing the bot's speed). Once secured, they are automatically sold on auction sites such as eBay for over $1,000.
The rise of the bot community
Wannabe scalpers are signing up for services such as Crep Chief Notify that promise to teach new subscribers how to secure high demand products with relatively low stock, so they can sell instantly at an inflated price. Reseller groups typically gather on Discord to discuss tactics and which stores to target.
Inna Vasilyeva, Malware and Mobile Analyst of White Ops, told me that fraudsters develop bots customized to a specific retailer, including their checkout process, anti-bot detection (like CAPTCHAs), and sales (early access, best deals, etc.)
Scalpers also share exclusive intelligence within their closed communities, where they put additional advantage points like forecasts of huge price drops or insights about the launch date of the products, as well as technical aspects of bot development and bypassing detection tools.
Tech-savvy consumers might decide to fight fire with fire by buying bots for personal small batch purchases, exacerbating the overall problem.
Although it's unethical, no laws are being broken, but retailers are beginning to take action.
Retailers vs. Scalpers
Many stores are caught between a rock and a hard place. After a notoriously tough year in retail, many are motivated by selling as much stock as possible in the shortest amount of time. For ticket sellers of live events, the quicker they sell out their allocation, the more chance they have of securing more from the promoter. For these reasons alone, does an online seller care if their customer is a bot or a human?
Thankfully some retailers do take their responsibility seriously. Online store Very recently canceled over 1,000 PS5 and Xbox Series X orders that were placed by scalpers. In the UK, an amendment to the digital economy bill banned the use of bots to bulk buy concert tickets.
GameStop also attempted to tackle the problem by directing consumers to a separate landing page and placing them in a queue to access the main sales page. It prevented the website from becoming overloaded and provided customers with the transparency to see their exact place in the line. Other stores also committed to only selling one console per household.
"There are reputation and technological impacts for retailers. Customers may go to competitors that have better bot protection mechanisms. They may get blasted on social media"Inna Vasilyeva
If 2020 was not bizarre enough, we now have robots making products that are also bought and sold by a team of bots. Meanwhile, humans have more chances of getting their hands on one of Willy Wonka's golden tickets than a new shiny game console this Christmas. But I cannot help but think that machines buying machines from machines is a somewhat poetic end to a turbulent year in tech.