YouTuber Jake Paul, who has 17 million subscribers, is shilling real life loot boxes to his fans. “Guys, we are about to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on mystery boxes,” Jake Paul said straight to the camera in a recent video. The scheme is simple—Paul logs onto the website Mystery Brand and spends $5,000 on boxes that could contain anything from an iPhone case to a $2.5 million Lamborghini Centrano. A customer doesn't know what exactly the box contains until they pay.
Mystery Brand's business model imitates the loot boxes that have become popular in video games in recent years. It’s a practice hated by gamers, considered gambling in some countries, and eyed by American legislators as a target of regulation. When a player buys a loot box they know that they're guaranteed to get one or some of a possible variety of rewards, but they don't know which rewards exactly they'll get. Mystery Brand sells the same thing, but the boxes can cost from $2.49 to upwards of $1,300, and contain real world objects such as iPhones, sneakers, toys, and video games. Mystery Brand claims that once you’ve opened your prize it’ll ship the goods direct to your house.
Mystery Brand's rewards are even color-coded by rarity like items from World of Warcraft. In the "Apple Boy" box, for example, the 64GB iPhone X is an orange "legendary" item, while a Lightning to USB dongle is a blue "uncommon" item.
If a customer opens something they don’t want, they can immediately sell it back to Mystery Brand at a fraction of its value. Users can get a cash value back or put it back into into the Mystery Brand system and spend it on more boxes. “Forgot to mention about payments in any convenient way, even bitcoin or instant replenishment of the account,” Mystery Brand explains on its site, which often features broken English.
At one point during Jake Paul’s video promoting the store, he spends more than $2,000 total on two boxes only to receive two Apple Watches worth less than $500 each. But it never curbs his excitement. Later, when he gets his boxes in the mail, he acts as if he had completely forgotten what he won.
Mystery Brand paid Paul to make the video promoting its website. A small disclaimer appears in the bottom left hand corner of the video and in the description below. We don’t know what Mystery Brand paid Paul, but another YouTuber—KeemStar—tweeted that they’d approached him and offered $100,000. He said he turned them down. KeemStar did not immediately respond to our request for comment. RiceGum, another popular YouTuber with 10 million subscribers, uploaded his own Mystery Brand video the same day and explained it was a promotional video up front. Then he told his loyal followers how he’d snagged a pair of Apple AirPods, which retail at $159, for just $4.
“There’s no losing in this,” RiceGum said. “Because even if you get an item you don’t like you just sell it back.”
Despite the video proof RiceGum and Jake Paul offer of receiving their various items, the site feels like something you shouldn’t send your money to. The website’s terms and conditions and FAQ sound as if they were written in a foreign language then translated into English. The site’s terms note that the company’s “terms are interpreted and are subject to the jurisdiction and the laws of Poland.” Notably, Mystery Brand lists G2A Pay as one of the payment options. G2A Pay is a product of G2A.com, another Polish website that trades in gray market digital video games that often angers video game publishers for cutting them out of profits from sales of their own games.
Mystery Brand users can also make their own boxes, fill them with a variety of loot, then adjust a slider to increase or decrease the chance that a user will get it. That’s how Paul ended up spending $2,000 on Apple Watches. He’d made a custom box with the possibility of receiving an iMac Pro that spiked the price.
Wednesday, Mystery Brand players could make a mystery box with a $250 million mansion listed as “Most Expensive Los Angeles Realty.” But the listing for the mansion on Mystery Brand disappeared after The Daily Beast pointed out that the mansion pictured was listed for $188 million and not owned by Mystery Brand. According to The Daily Beast, the odds of winning the mansion started at 0.0000018 percent.
There’s a social aspect to Mystery Brand too. Users can share their pre-made boxes with friends and every time someone opens them, the user gets a percentage of the take fed into their Mystery Brand account. There’s even a leaderboard that shows who’s spent the most cash in the last week and who’s earned the biggest prizes.
The closest analogue to Mystery Brand is CSGOLotto, a now defunct website that ran a remarkably similar scheme. CSGOLotto allowed users to bet skins and weapons from the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Players bet their skins and had a chance to win more expensive ones worth, supposedly, thousands of dollars. Two YouTubers ran the site and published videos of their amazing experiences betting and winning big on CSGOLotto without ever telling viewers that they owned the thing. Valve, the company that developed Counter-Strike and profits from these skins, served them a cease and desist letter and the FTC slapped them on the wrist.
But CSGLotto didn’t get in trouble for promoting gambling. Its owners got in trouble for not disclosing that they owned the site in videos where they promoted it. That’s a big difference. Mystery Brand represents the next logical step of the loot box phenomenon.
Legislators, video game companies, and consumers have allowed loot boxes to flourish in the digital realm. There’s been some pushback, but not enough to stop them. Now they’ve made the leap from virtual items to real world consumer products, and people like Jake Paul are promoting them to millions of fans.
You might look at Mystery Brand and think that this business model will never work because no one is dumb enough to fall for it, but there are two things I've learned about loot boxes after years of writing about them:
1. Players hate them. They complain to developers and they announce boycotts of games that include them. Gamers love to argue, but one thing they all seem to agree on is that loot boxes are a blight on their hobby that cheapens the experiences they love. 2. Loot boxes are incredibly profitable. They are still around, despite players hating them, because they make video game companies millions of dollars.
It might seem dumb, but if it turns a profit I wouldn't be surprised to see Mystery Brand or something like it continue to make reality more like a video game in the worst way possible.
We reached out to Mystery Brand, but it did not respond to our request for comment.