There’s been a whole hullabaloo around loot boxes in video games as of late, and arguably with good reason.
EA has managed to make a complete meal of the launch of Battlefront 2 under intense scrutiny from the community given a controversial almost “pay to progress” model on top of the consumer having to fork out an initial small fortune for the game itself. Loot boxes are nothing new to those particularly enamoured with Valve titles but as they creep more and more into already premium game titles, consumers have become tired of it and critics more vocal.
The UK Gambling Commission recently released a statement whereby they maintain a stance that loot boxes in themselves are not under consideration for gambling regulation. The post reads “A key factor in deciding if that line has been crossed is whether in-game items acquired ‘via a game of chance’ can be considered money or money’s worth. In practical terms, this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it’s unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity. In those cases, our legal powers would not allow us to step in”.
Now look, I am not dismissing that loot boxes are complete luck, but calling for them to be classified as gambling and thus facing the intense regulation and scrutiny that being regulated by the UKGC entails would likely do more damage than good. Add to that, there’s more severe issues we should be kicking up a fuss about.
Dota 2 and The International
Take the game I’ve spent countless hours wasting my life playing – Dota 2. The International last year boasted a prize pool of just shy of $25 million and that was funded by basically loot boxes. Whilst the compendium offers more clarity than “spend some money and potentially get some prizes” there were sets of loot boxes entrenched in a progressive level system that – guess what – could be accelerated by purchasing coins. The coins helped unlock further loot boxes and snazzy cosmetics that didn’t affect gameplay in the slightest – but you did look the dog’s b*llcks if you spent more money. The community, as per usual, was whipped into a frenzy to beat last year’s prize pool. And so we did it. 25% of purchases whisked the prize money up from $1,500,000 to near $25,000,000 and let it doesn’t take a rocket science to work out just how much Valve pocketed off the back of that.
I don’t dislike the way that Valve do the TI campaign. Sure they could stick extra percentage into the mixer and it would take less money spent to reach such a milestone but alas, it’s not all ill conceived. But, I didn’t pay a penny for Dota 2. I may have spent in excess of $2,000 over the years but considering I purchased Skyrim in the sale and haven’t installed it, i’m still getting bang for my buck, no matter how soul destroying the game can be at times.
Skin betting is a bigger issue – let’s complain about that
The issue I have, having attended numerous conferences around esports and betting is the skin betting market. Instead of whining that pay-to-progress or pay-to-win loot boxes are the problem, we should instead be raising further awareness of black market, unregulated and underage gambling sites that continue to rake in money from children by utilising Steam’s API. Whilst in Overwatch you didn’t get the Halloween skin you really wanted, there’s no way to take your Reaper legendary and spunk it on black eleven like there is with CS:GO items or Dota skins.
To provide some numbers as to what I’m talking about: CS:GO Lounge took $1billion of bets using skins prior to shutting down in 2016. They were the largest operator, but there’s plenty more popping up on a daily basis.
The Steam marketplace facilitates trading of items that vary in value depending on rarity. There’s items no longer available in game that can sell for hundreds of dollars on the market, and all of this currency will go straight into the consumer’s Steam Wallet. The issue is that through the open API which has nascent and often ill-enforced terms and conditions, people have set up marketplaces where skins can be both purchased and sold for real money. Effectively, skins now act as a pseudo-currency. Other sites use the same API to run disgraceful gambling sites. If you decided to set up a real money deposit roulette site and operate in the United Kingdom today, the chances are you wouldn’t last very long and may even face criminal sanction.
Take the fabulous CSesport, which was forced to shut (at least temporarily) when Valve decided to ban all of their trade bots – thus losing the entire inventory, and thus liquidity of the company:
2) If you don’t agree with all of these rules… don’t place bets on CSesport;
3) By placing a bet on CSesport you are confirming that you are in abidance with your country’s laws which allow you to participate in skin-betting. This is generally 18 years of age or older, but make sure to check;
5) The value system is automatically updated at our discretion and can be updated without warning and may occur during active bets;
24) You have 21 days to claim your items/winnings from your returns. After which, these items will be claimed by CSesport and used for giveaways, promotions, and in some cases, added to winnings of future bets;
25) These are the basic rules to which we operate, however, we reserve the right to change these rules at anytime without warning. If a situation arises for which we have no rules, a decision will be made amongst the CSesports staff – and this is the final decision.
This is but one example of a number of sites that is straight-up operating illegally and targeting youngsters to gamble. The terms outlined above show just how ridiculous they can be too. Imagine a world where you don’t withdraw your money in 21 days from a site so they just take your money and use it for “promotions”? Come on now, behave.
Whilst I understand your frustration at having to play hours to unlock Darth Vader and the fact it can be made easier by purchasing in-game items, it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s simply a company experimenting with further revenue models off the back of a wholly successful system in the past. Sure, it’s mind-blowingly greedy but EA’s (temporary) removal shows that public criticism does in someway impact their decisions and can have an impact. To use a comparison that I’m sure everyone’s tired of now – buying a packet of Panini stickers, or Yu-Gi-Oh, or Pokémon could all be considered gambling. You buy a packet with a chance of a shiny “uncommon” or “rare” card. You’re paying for a product and don’t know what you’re getting. You can then actually sell that item on for real money gain, and they’re not considered gambling. Lastminute.com sell “surprise” breaks where you pay an amount of money and get stuck somewhere random. Again, that’s very much the loot box premise but we don’t have daily outrage threads about those.
Elements of luck are prevalent across day-to-day life and whilst it may or may not be correct, there’s certainly more pertinent issues for the games industry to be outraged about.
If you’re worried about your children buying too many Overwatch boxes, don’t give them your bloody card to do so.
How about we worry about little 8-year-old Jimmy who has been gambling $500 knives on the CSGO Lotto roulette wheel for the last six months?