Between work, everyday life, and raising a 7-month-old kid, Luke Johnson only gets two nights a week to play games. Even still, he’s put more than 120 hours into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), 2017’s Battle Royale-inspired phenomenon that’s shown little sign of slowing down. Johnson’s PUBG session last Saturday was an otherwise ordinary affair. While waiting for a friend to finish a match, he spent a few in-game points to buy a loot crate. Quickly, though, his eyes widened; this was one of the new, rare “Desperado” crates, added to the game earlier this month.
“Cool,” he thought to himself. “I’m pretty sure this is a rare one.”
Already content with how his “badass” PUBG character looked, Johnson’s plan was to flip the items inside on the Steam marketplace, giving him a few dollars to buy a new video game. (In PUBG, loot boxes are purely cosmetic, and do not impact gameplay.) What Johnson didn’t expect to find inside was the second rarest item on the PUBG marketplace, the leopard-skinned cloth mask. At the time, sales for the leopard mask started at $1,084. A few weeks ago, someone bought the item for a whopping $1,866.
Johnson had stumbled upon the digital equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.
“That's when I start shaking,” he told me recently.
Moments later, Johnson’s friend finished his match. This friend’s response? “Fuck you,” he said, jokingly. The two immediately jumped into a new round of PUBG, Johnson put the leopard mask on, and they immediately won a chicken dinner. Johnson got six kills.
Over the next few days, as word spread about Johnson’s drop, friends began asking for free games. He found himself having bizarre conversations with his wife, trying explain the concept of loot boxes and why the family was richer, all thanks to the 120-plus hours he’d spent playing a game where you shoot other players for sport. They were soon having discussions about what to do with the money. Pay off a car loan early? Buy a ton of games? DM a reporter on Twitter and tell them how confused you are?
Steam isn’t PayPal, though. When you sell an item on Steam, there’s no way to transfer the dollar amount to Bank of America. Though Steam lists currency in dollar amounts, it’s not a real dollar. You own Steam credits. Having $1,000 in Steam credits is neat, but it’s not the same as walking away with a $1,000 check.
Of course, like most things, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Websites like OPSkins allow you to list and sell items you own in games like DOTA 2, Counter-Strike, and, yes, PUBG. This means you can turn virtual items into real profit. On OPSkins, the mask had been selling for more than $1,000. Less than Steam, but money in the bank.
“My main concern here is that I upload my skin to their website, hit send (or whatever) and get a 404 error and lose the skin,” he said. “A high-profile skin like that might ‘disappear.’ Maybe that's irrational.”
No, that’s probably not irrational! It’s not like Valve would give you another skin.
The irony of being rewarded for participating in a system he’s given little thought to isn’t lost on Johnson. He confessed to buying the occasional loot box, but it’s never elevated beyond passing interest. Making money off the system doesn’t bother him.
“I do not have any reservations about selling the actual item,” he said. “If someone wants it for cosmetic reasons, or even as an expression of showing that they have ‘fuck you’ money, it doesn't bother me.”
That said, his relationship with loot boxes is complicated, driven by his own experience with a family member being sucked in. Not everyone’s relationship is the same.
“My sister-in-law is on disability and on a fixed income,” he said. “My nephew lives at home and goes to a local community college. She went away for the weekend and left him a credit card ‘for emergencies.’ He used that opportunity to purchase $80 worth of Overwatch skins. He promised to pay her back, but that did not matter to someone on a fixed income. That money, for her, was just gone. And for what?”
After a few months, the nephew paid the money back. It hasn’t been an issue since.
“I do not have any reservations about selling the actual item. If someone wants it for cosmetic reasons, or even as an expression of showing that they have ‘fuck you’ money, it doesn't bother me.”
“My point is that loot boxes are not predatory to me,” he said. “I'm not sure they would have been predatory to college-age Johnson, but I know that they are predatory to some people and its easy to dismiss them if they don't affect you directly, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous.”
And yet, the random chance of a loot box may land Johnson an unexpected windfall. $1,000 might not change your life, but I’m guessing most would be happy with it.
Because Johnson hasn’t sold or traded anything before on Steam, there’s a hold on his account. On January 20, he’ll be able to do something with the mask. What he ends up doing with the money remains to be seen. They might invest in cryptocurrency.
“My wife [is still trying] to wrap her head around her husband waking up at 7:30 on a Sunday,” he said, “and while she is feeding the baby, telling her that we won free internet money.”
This is where everything stood a few days ago, when I last spoke with Johnson. Then, just as I was preparing to publish this story on Waypoint, he sent me an email with some unexpected news: the market for leopard masks had changed dramatically.
“Looks like the market got flooded last night with masks that people could finally trade in,” he said. “It’s pulled back a bit since, so there is no telling where it will be by Saturday.” (Saturday is when he can finally sell or trade his.)
By “pulled back” he means the average selling price for the mask has bottomed out, dropping from more than $1,000 to a little more than $300. On average, the mask is going for $323. Sure, $300 is nothing to scoff at, either, but it’s different from $1,000!
Johnson can sell his item on Saturday, at which point the price of the mask could go in any number of directions. Will more masks hit the market, allowing supply to meet demand, and pushing the price down further? Or will the recent rush of purchases prove momentary, allowing the price to slowly tick back up? Right now, it’s unclear.
“It’s all kinda abstract to me and not real,” he said. “Sure it would be nice to have $1,500 compared to $300, but who knows what it will look like on Saturday? It just kinda underpins how absolutely absurd this whole situation is.”
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