Far away from the glitz and glamor the e-sports circuit, a different breed of semi-professional gamers is eking out an honest day’s work at arcades around the globe. If the Ninjas of the MLG, with their celebrity lifestyles and lucrative promo deals, are the World Series of Poker stars, these arcade hustlers—referred to within their community as “advantage players” (APs)—are more akin to legal card counters. These unassuming sharks will walk into a Dave & Buster's (or any other entertainment center with an arcade awarding tickets that can be exchanged for prizes), hit their handful of preferred games, and quietly rack up thousands and thousands of tickets. Doing this just a few days a week can quickly amass enough of a ticket balance to trade for the top shelf prizes that casual players could only dream of redeeming, like game consoles and iPads, which APs often sell for profit.
For the elites in this scene, advantage playing straddles the line between obsessive hobby and part-time job. They aren't scamming or stealing their way to big wins. They're just incredibly good at these games and much of their skill is learned, rather than innate. Though baseline speed and reflexes are pre-requisites for success, it's primarily repetition and a nerdy devotion to the scene that breeds top-tier APs who are able to quickly discern whether a game's jackpot is ripe and able to be won or if it needs more time to "refill" through casual play. At home, APs study PDFs of game manuals downloaded from manufacturer sites, discuss strategies on their subreddit, track fluctuations in prize ticket value, and post YouTube videos showcasing their talents. But despite the internet’s aid in connecting APs worldwide and revealing the tricks of their trade to new generations of players, their numbers are dwindling.
Michael Lucas, an advantage player in Pittsburgh, said that less than a decade ago, $100-per-hour profits weren’t uncommon, and players, arcade management, and game manufacturers all operated with respect for one another, unspoken gentlemen’s agreements keeping the peace.
“They tolerated what we did to a fair degree,” Lucas told me in a phone call. “We knew we were killing it. They knew that we were killing it. But they also knew that we were doing it by the book and not doing anything to cheat.”
For a time, Lucas said, the cycle would go as follows: advantage players would find a game to master and farm for infinite jackpots, management would catch wind and adjust the settings or download a software patch to nullify the exploit, forcing the players to rotate to other games while the jackpot gradually built back up past the threshold that allows it to be won again. Lucas pointed to Tippin’ Bloks, a game in which the player moves a paddle to try and catch falling blocks into a nine-high stack, as a case study in this sequence.
“On the old software back in 2011, [Tippin' Bloks'] 'impossible mode' wasn't very impossible, and people started to catch on,” he recalled. “Once the community figured that out, the average good Tippin’ Bloks player was winning four out of every five games. [Dave & Buster's] phoned up the makers of the game, ICE, and said, ‘Hey, this game's getting killed here and we don't want to drop the jackpot. Can you make the software work so there’s the win/loss control that we initially wanted?’ About seven months later, the software update began to roll out to the stores and we immediately noticed the difference and we all kind of gave up on it. But, in that patch, [ICE] also added an obvious tell that shows when the game is ready to pay out, which I consider a blatant nod to the community.”
When asked to verify if a change had been made at the request of Dave & Buster's or if their games were programmed with any nods to advantage players, an ICE representative said "no comment." Dave & Buster's did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.
Justin Wei, an advantage player from Irvine, California, says he believes his local Dave & Buster's "puts their machines on harder settings to discourage advantage players from coming." This has forced him and his friends to make one to two hour drives to the franchise's Hollywood location if he wants to earn serious tickets. He presumes that because that tourist-heavy Hollywood location "is so profitable and makes so much money, that they don't care if we come in and keep their games on normal settings."
Despite the frustration it causes some, Lucas considers settings adjustment and exploit patch responses to APs fair play, and understands the necessity to clamp down on free-for-alls. He's less amiable when corporate makes sweeping, company-wide changes to ticket valuation in the same way one might be upset if the Federal Reserve suddenly chose to double the amount of currency in circulation. To keep all parties satisfied and help prevent such drastic steps, Lucas claimed he cultivated a friendly relationship with the management at his neighborhood Dave & Buster's, resulting in their being “very up-front” with him about their targets for a game’s take-to-payout ratio.
“If something's running a little high, they would actually tell me and I’ll back off a bit,” he explained.
But not everyone is so tolerant of advantage players. Lucas’ tone hardened as he recalled a manager at a mom-and-pop local arcade who once changed the settings on all the games he’d been working when he stepped outside for a phone call.
“He couldn’t even wait for me to get off the property,” he seethed. “I knew I was never going back there and they were just going to change everything when I left, so I had no qualms about killing him.”
The “killing” here refers to Lucas going back in, redoubling his gameplay efforts, and cashing out for a Nintendo Switch plus four game package, taking a prize bundle that he presumed cost the house $600 or more for only $170 of his own. Not literal murder.
When asked if he could understand why a non-franchise arcade might want to shoo his kind away, Lucas was unsympathetic. “If the absolute best player to ever walk through that door, gives it everything he has and demolishes every game you have and he still only comes out ahead enough money that once you have two families of four walk in, sit down, eat and—boom—you have all your money back, is that really that big of a problem?” he asked.
The mix of hostile managers, apparently nerfed cash cow games, ever-increasing game prices, and changes in ticket-to-dollar exchange rates has gradually forced advantage players to become jacks of all trades rather than specialists. For many, the cost/benefit of this arrangement no longer makes sense, and the herd has thinned substantially.
“I had a whole list of contacts in my phone for nothing but advantage play,” said Lucas of his local peers. “I had about 17 or 18 people I’d send out mass texts to like ‘Hey, this game’s broken’ or ‘This game’s fixed.’” He said he's now down to one remaining IRL comrade, a former pupil named Joe Minkel. Years back, Lucas helped Minkel hone his natural gaming skills for advantage play and educated him in the strategy and benefits of sharing arcades as a group.
“Mike actually wanted to start a community of people that work together,” Minkel told me. “We're all in cahoots like, 'Okay, we're not going to kill a game. We're going to keep it profitable so that the jackpot doesn't get lowered.'”
Minkel said he now sees an increasing number of lone wolves who’ve learned how to beat a few games coming in to wipe out an arcade with little regard for other players or the long-term impact their assaults may have on company policy.
“I don't like calling them APs,” he said. “I call them ‘pirates’ because they're in it for the booty and themselves. They just swoop in and ruin things.”
These days, Minkel is more focused on entertaining the audience for his popular arcade-centric YouTube channel than flipping prizes when he hits an arcade. Lucas, who says advantage play used to make him more money annually than his day job managing a liquor store, still earns from the endeavor, though it now makes up only a third of his income. Neither can imagine a time when they stop going to arcades, and are heartened by the few advantage players they know in younger generations, but both seem to acknowledge their glory days are behind them.
“I'm not asking to go back to the days where I was making beaucoup amounts of money in a short amount of time, because I know that's not sustainable,” reflected Lucas. “Just don't quit your day job, kids. This isn't something you're going to do and be able to quit your job and tell everyone to go bleep themselves and live the high life and roll around in a Ferrari. This is something that's basically going to be your beer money.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.