This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Finally, PC and console gamers have found something in common: their shared hatred of scalpers. In the gaming industry, people who buy products just to resell them at a higher price snap up new tech like consoles and graphics cards as soon as they’re released. Usually aided by bots, they then sell that stuff again for outrageous prices after all shops run out of stock.
According to PCMag, the average scalper makes a few thousand euros a month reselling goods. But in November of 2020, a 22-year-old reseller reportedly brought in over €30,000 in just one week after they managed to grab 221 PlayStation 5 (PS5) consoles at launch. More PS5s are being made available, but sell out almost instantly every drop, so your best bet is still paying a scalper three times the console’s retail price.
Scalping is unregulated in most countries – for now. In December of 2020, members of UK Parliament proposed a motion that would outlaw the practice. The problem isn’t new to the gaming industry, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic, since sales now happen almost exclusively online and production has slowed. To understand the scale of scalping, an independent analysis of eBay listings for 14 newly-released gaming items by data engineer Michael Driscoll estimated the scalping market to be worth €67 million (£58 million) in the US alone.
Scalping isn’t exactly immoral – whenever demand exceeds supply, somebody’s looking to make a profit. But the internet has forever changed this once mildly ignoble job for the worst. Scalping has now been turned into a quasi-automated process requiring very little effort on behalf of the trader. You don’t even need in-depth programming skills – bots can be bought for as little as €50 from online stores that are just a Google search away. These types of bots are designed to constantly monitor retail sites and buy up as many units of the desired product faster than a human ever could.
Online ticket sales were one of the first markets to be targeted by scalpers, and now up to 40 percent of digital tickets are scooped up by bots. By the 2010s, bot-based scalping moved to the fashion industry as brands started launching limited edition items that generated a lot of hype. These hyped-up products – often sneakers and streetwear – were dropped on the market using the same marketing model as new movies or iPhones, motivating consumers to grab them as soon as they became available, at any price. Scalpers have relied on this for years – but now, they have bots that can occupy almost 100 percent of a website’s traffic during major sale events.
I contacted multiple companies selling gaming equipment in France, which all said scalpers do not operate with their knowledge or approval. But in reality, most brands haven’t taken any concrete action to counter the practice. “They’ll publicly say it’s awful that people are buying this and reselling it,” Bruce Schneier, an internet researcher at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, told Quartz. “But they like the publicity, they like the scarcity, they like the fact that a product has such cachet.”
That is as true for Yeezys as it is for the latest Xbox. It would be easy to blame it all on the consumers – after all, if most people refused to buy from unofficial channels, the scalping market would collapse. But it’s important to highlight that this is also the result of careful marketing strategies that are decades in the making – a side effect that most brands seem to have no interest in correcting.
Besides a few legislative initiatives, the bulk of the anti-scalping resistance currently falls on retailers increasingly taking measures to fight back against bot invasions. For instance, Walmart said they blocked 20 million bots in the first 30 minutes after the launch of the PS5. From South Korea to the UK, retailers are introducing anti-scalping strategies, like reserving the right to automatically check whether an order is legit and cancel suspicious ones.
But they can’t do it all on their own – gaming tech firms will need to address the problem sooner rather than later, as their loyal customer base feels increasingly neglected.