Phil had a single goal in mind: buy the fancy new RTX 3080 graphics card from Nvidia. An IT professional and indie developer, Phil's work is made easier with the latest graphics tech. The problem for Phil, who asked to keep their identity anonymous to avoid drawing attention to their work and is using a pseudonym to participate in this story, is that the RTX is sold out everywhere. Nvidia doesn't expect to be able to keep up with demand until well into 2021.
Wanting to buy a RTX 3080 is one thing, actually buying one is another. It's near impossible at the moment.
To find a card, Phil went searching for help, and in part, fell into the hyper competitive world of sneaker culture, a world where people will pay thousands of dollars for access to tech that'll give them an edge, an edge that might only be worth a few milliseconds. Those milliseconds, however, are the difference between buying a shoe, existential FOMO, and a chance to flip a $200 shoe into something you can sell to someone else for thousands of dollars.
The shoe, in this case, is a graphics card. For others, it's an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. The rise of bots has already disrupted industries like concerts and clothing, prompting companies to invest time, money, and resources to find ways to create a level playing field.
Many video game fans have been in the same, frustrating situation the past few weeks: frantically refreshing the website of a dozen online retailers, hoping for a chance to purchase one of the several pieces of high-end tech arriving this fall. In a just world, you'd merely be up against the thousands of other fans vying for the same digital raffle ticket. But in reality, you're going up against those thousands of fans and hordes of ruthlessly efficient bots, scripted pieces of code that can do everything from informing someone when a website has items in stock to filling out the checkout process automatically.
Over the course of three weeks, working in shifts that often lasted 18 hours, Phil hung out in two Discord channels—one rooted in sneaker culture that decided to dip its toe into games and tech, another that merely found itself adopting the same habits—before landing a card.
"The differences between the communities are interesting," said Phil. "Some try to operate as ethically as possible, and some are much more enterprisingly ruthless."
House of Shoes
One of the communities Phil stumbled up on was House of Carts, which describes itself as "the most active and most successful resel community alive." It's dedicated to following what are called "sneaker drops," when new, often limited shoes are released by companies like Nike and Adidas. People still stand in line to buy such shoes, but now, a lot happens online.
Joining House of Carts' Discord server costs $50 per month, but provides access to a suite of tools, including guides for setting up bots to auto complete purchasing, staff members to answer questions about how to use the bots, and perhaps most importantly, use of their "monitor" tools. "Monitor" is a fancy way of saying that House of Carts is automatically and constantly checking various retailer websites for a page to change its text from "out of stock" to "add to cart." Every few seconds, it looks for a change. When "add to cart" appears, a notification quickly goes out and people have a chance to try and buy whatever they're after.
House of Carts was started four years ago by 22-year-old Yousef, who asked to keep his last name private. Yousef, who recently graduated from Illinois' Northwestern University and now lives in the Bay Area, wanted a new sneaker that was dropping. Specifically, he wanted the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Core Black Red. Yussef dragged himself awake at the crack of dawn. Instead of sitting down at his laptop, though, Yousef went to his college's computer lab, empty at that time of the day, and had 30 computers point to the same sneaker website.
All 30 computers sat in a digital queue, so that Yousef could have a chance at buying at least one pair of those shoes. His strategy resulted in buying more than 20 pairs, and today, that shoe regularly sells for more than $900. The cost of buying a pair was originally $220.
"I was like, there's gotta be a better way than turning on 30 computers [laughs]," Yousef told VICE Games recently.
"The differences between the communities are interesting. Some try to operate as ethically as possible, and some are much more enterprisingly ruthless."
Yousef started by programming monitors and other tools, which garnered him attention on Twitter, Reddit, and other places. That's where House of Carts came from. At the time, it was a pretty new idea—now, there are hundreds of similar groups.
"Since then, the game has evolved tremendously," said Yousef. "I mean, now there's a ton of bots and a ton of anti-bot technology to counter them, but the bots always win in the end."
House of Carts primarily pitches itself at the sneaker community, but it has, on occasion, expanded elsewhere. During the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Yousef set up tools for people to buy and sell gym equipment. Getting into tech is just a natural extension of that.
Fake It Till You Make It
The bots did seem to win at the launch for the RTX 3080, which Nvidia recently admitted to, saying their storefront was "overrun with malicious bots and resellers." Within seconds, the entire inventory of cards, which Nvidia claims was "great," was sold out. This led to some people on Twitter claiming they had purchased not just a single graphics card but dozens.
One person on Twitter claimed to have used bots on a service called Bounce Alerts, which operates like House of Carts in helping folks buy shoes and flip them for profit, to buy 42 graphics cards at once. There were even articles written up in the wake of the botched launch that cited this individual. Their tweet has since been deleted, and when contacted, the user declined to offer evidence they actually managed to have 42 cards shipped to them.
Another user, who also used Bounce Alerts, claimed to buy 14 graphics cards, but when contacted by VICE Games, were unable to show proof because they had "sold them already locally" as "preorders before they even arrived." Asked for evidence, the person showed a redacted shipping order for a single card and then stopped answering additional questions.
Nvidia has said these claims of buying tons of graphics cards is overblown, and they "cancelled hundreds of orders manually" before they actually left their shipping warehouses.
"This is an industry where success is faked a lot," said Yousef. "So anyone claiming to have that many cards could just be playing into that element. Anyone posting that they got 14 successes can't wait to post the picture with the 14 actual graphics cards. This is a game where you do flex stuff like that, like, 'hey, I got 14.' When the 14 come, I'll just take a picture, make a cool fucking fort out of them and show you all."
The bot invasion that upset Nividia's launch was weeks ago, though, and Phil was getting desperate. He was spending days and nights inside these enormous, fast-moving Discord channels, communities he didn't know or really understand, and couldn't let things go. Most people would have thrown up their hands and waited for Nvidia to figure their shit out, but Phil doubled down on doing whatever it took to find a graphics card, even if it was unhealthy.
"Once you get emotionally invested it can become obsessive," he said. "Unhealthy even. People aren't sleeping. I wasn't sleeping enough. Leaving to get lunch was stressful because you might miss a drop and you're in the sunken costs fallacy after a while. 'This is something that will drastically improve my work' blended in with 'I have to get this so this can be over.'"
Phil had a three monitor setup on his desk, with one being used to work, while the two others had different websites queued up and ready to purchase, should an "in stock" notification come from the Discord channels he was in. He wasn't exactly getting a lot of work done.
Part of Phil's doubling down was spending more money, this time on bots. It was very much a situation of throwing anything at the wall to see what might stick. And so, $60 on a bot that automatically checks Best Buy for an item, add it to your cart when it's available, and begin the checkout process. And then $70 for a bot that does the same thing on Amazon. Both come with warnings that "a bot can increase your success chances only but no guarantee."
Sometimes bots work, but often they don't. Bots have been working during this cycle of pre-orders for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and orders for Nvidia's graphics cards because these sites—Target, Best Buy, etc.—aren't prepared to ward off bots in the same way that, say, Nike is. Companies like Nike have spent years learning to deal with bots, because sneaker drops happen all the time. Big order rushes in technology are just rarer.
"Nike botting now is so expensive to the point where it's like almost not worth it at all," said Yousef. "They make it more expensive to bot than it is worth botting. If I'm spending $300 bucks and there's a 20-percent chance that I'll hit [only] a few shoes, it's not worth it."
Double Down? Nah, Triple Down
Phil has now spent several hundred dollars just to increase his chances to spend several hundred more dollars for a graphics card. It's around this time he decided to, again, spread his resources by entering into more Discord channels. At one point, Phil was hanging out in five separate Discord channels that could, in various ways, alert him to new stock coming in.
What paid off, however, was when he spent just a single dollar to get access to a voice channel in a Discord for an obscure YouTube channel that has less than 1,000 subscribers.
Average Tech Reviews was, for a very long time, a side project for Mark, who asked to keep his last name private and goes by "Tu Madre" online. It was a side project he liked to ignore.
"I never really put much effort into that or did anything really with it until like a week ago," Mark recently told VICE Games.
Average Tech Reviews went from a YouTube channel nobody had heard of into a Discord with 13,000 people trying to score the impossible with Patreon where people are contributing $1,368 per month almost overnight.
Mark programmed his own monitors to try and buy a graphics cards, which picked up on a mistake by the online retailer Newegg. For a brief moment, long before orders were supposed to go live, Newegg allowed customers to add a graphics card to their cart and submit a purchase. This option disappeared pretty quickly, but it was up long enough for Mark to buy one.
It's common for retailers to cancel erroneous orders, but in this case, Newegg honored Mark's purchase. Once a FedEx label had been made for his card, he finalized the Discord he'd been working on, and posted a link to reddit. Then, everything got wild.
Unlike House of Carts, Mark isn't pitching his tools as a way to get rich—it's about giving people an edge. That said, he knows that people are probably using them to make money. There's no way to tell the difference, and so he tries to live with knowing he's helping folks. Some people will abuse the tools, but as he put it, "is an acceptable thing to have people that abuse the system" to make sure everyone is given a chance.
What Average Tech Reviews doesn't have, though, are guides to set up bots that help you through the purchasing process, which Mark considers "a little too dirty." The primary function of the Discord is to give people notifications when a website has new stock.
It doesn't cost anything to join the Discord, but with more than 10,000 people participating at any given time, including spikes of new users when there's more inventory available, Mark had to find a way to make it more usable for folks. Paying $1, for example, per month includes access to the voice channel. That's where Phil started hanging out more often.
"Everyone in that voice chat is kind of running their own intelligence operation," said Phil. "As time went by, there would be 'regulars' in a given place, and they would share other resources they had. Rumors they'd heard, emerging patterns, company tweets, reddit posts, etc. All in an attempt to find the next one minute window you might be able to get through checkout."
The cycle became familiar. Ding! A notification goes off about new graphics cards in stock. Then, tens of thousands of people slam the website, trying to figure out if it's legitimate. If it is, only a handful will be lucky enough to make it to the other side. Often, Phil was not.
This went on for weeks.
Then, one day, while idling in the voice chat, Phil heard someone say Nvidia's store had more cards. He'd spent money buying bots that were supposed to make this process easier, but in this one moment, all it came down to was someone giving a friendly heads up and a roll of the dice. A few minutes later, Phil had secured the card he'd been after for so long.
"I made it out the other side," he told me.
A lot of others are left behind, though.
And maybe there's reason to be cynical, too. For decades, folks have wondered if Nintendo, a company who constantly deals with shortage issues, engages in artificial scarcity. Just recently, the company introduced artificial scarcity for a digital game. By limiting how much you can sell, the theory goes, you generate hype and interest that helps you sell the next batch.
This happens all the time with sneakers, said House of Carts' Yousef. It's now part of the culture.
"It almost benefits them if items sell out," said Yousef. "I mean, particularly for sneakers, for example. If the items sell out, then they can sell hype and next time everyone will want that pair of shoes because it sold out last time. So the bots almost benefit the companies in a lot of ways because at the end of the day, they'll be getting their money regardless."