Since the introduction of skins to Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive it seems that the community around that game has lurched from one scandal to another. The in-game cosmetic items quickly became like a second currency for players and Steam users alike and this contributed to an unprecedented growth spurt in the amount of people interested in the game. The playerbase and viewership sky-rocketed and CS:GO was at the forefront at promoting mainstream interest in esports. While it is fair to say that skins played a huge role in getting us to where we are now, their existence has also been instrumental in some of Counter-Strikes lowest points. Match-fixing, scamming and gambling all followed and today we’re going to present the latest in a long line of examples of dishonesty, so called “case opening” sites. First, for the uninitiated, here’s how we got to this moment in time.
Skins were first introduced to CS:GO in August 2013 with the “Arms Deal” update. Following a similar methodology to Valve’s other titles Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, this saw cosmetic items of varying scarcity become obtainable for players via in-game rewards, trading with other players or opening cases. The case-opening system was one that was profitable. A key would cost $2.49 and would, more often than not, lead to obtaining an item worth far less than this amount. Valve’s co-founder Gabe Newell held a philosophy that earning items that would retain value for players after they put down the game was a way of rewarding their dedication. He did acknowledge that there could be problems with the rise of a virtual currency on the Steam platform. “I’m worried that there are a set of initial conditions that have different outcomes,” he said adding they would put in the “right kind of structures” to stop any unintended consequences.
Some of these checks and balances included limiting Steam Market purchases to $400 when many of the desirable items had values of thousands of dollars (a move that was subsequently changed anyway). However, with the Steam API openly available this allowed numerous sites to offer the ability to trade items for sizable sums of real money, either through Paypal or Bitcoin. This also had the effect of bypassing Valve’s 15% transaction fee, these sites often taking a smaller but still profitable cut. What happened to CS:GO, which hadn’t taken off quite so much with Valve’s other titles, was the rise of popular gambling sites where these skins were used as casino chips or markers.
These sites themselves presented an amazing financial opportunity within a loophole. While America’s somewhat draconian laws about gambling mean it is illegal in 46 states, it has also been ruled that using virtual goods or currencies to place bets doesn’t count. With everyone clamoring to get a piece of this unregulated license to print money, a spate of sites flooded the market, many of them with poor age checking tools and giving access to the owners to potentially rig outcomes. As the owners of these sites became more and more greedy it was inevitable that skeletons would start tumbling out of the closet and when Trevor “Tmartn” Martin and Thomas Cassell were caught promoting CSGO Lotto without disclosing that they owned it, that lit the torch paper for a series of scandals that meant they had the undivided attention of the media and lawyers. Next came Mohamad “m0E” Assad coming out and admitting the site he publicly endorsed, CSGO Diamonds, used their coder’s privilege to rig outcomes so he would know how to bet. Then leaked Skype logs showed James “Phantoml0rd” Varga asking the coder of a website he’d not disclosed he owned, CS:GO Shuffle, for percentages on future rolls so he could also rig outcomes. People were starting to realise just how dirty the seemingly friendly and harmless world of skins gambling had become. These were just some of the grotesque realities in the newly established $5 billion industry.
With several class action suits being compiled and a slew of negative media coverage about how underage kids had been turned into hardcore gambling addicts, Valve were compelled to intervene. They issued a cease and desist letter to any site that was using their API for commercial purposes informing them they would have to shut down or face the consequences. This led to some sites closing, in some cases even pocketing their customer’s skins on the way out of business. Other sites repurposed themselves and found workarounds. It didn’t shut down gambling entirely by any means but it dealt it a blow and forced some of the more popular sites to enter into the more regulated world of gambling. It also led to a spike of people who wanted to bet on the outcome of competitive matches using cash betting sites.
Lost in all of the noise were “case opening” sites. These supposedly offered the same experience as a Valve case opening at a reduced price. Free from the stigma and sudden attention the gambling sites were getting, case-opening sites started to gain in popularity and were filling the economic void for streamers and e-celebrities that lack of gambling sponsorships had left in their absence. Given that they emulate a service Valve themselves offer, many have accepted that not only is this not gambling in any traditional sense but also that the grounds for dishonesty are greatly reduced. These sites have gone on to become million dollar enterprises in plain sight, free from any of the scrutiny or criticism that toppled popular skins gambling portals. It is quite telling that there are numerous examples of case-opening sites that are owned by the same entities that profited from the skins gambling boom. What could go wrong?
Enter our source, a coder who had been commissioned to code many of these case-opening sites. The ones he didn’t code were often stolen from one he did and he’s consulted with others on best practices. Unsurprisingly skilled with computers, we’ll refer to him as David for the rest of this piece, a reference to Matthew Broderick’s character in the 80’s film “War Games” and my idea of humour. He contacted us out of the blue saying he couldn’t any longer sit idle while the people commissioning him to code these sites were increasing their requests for features that were inherently dishonest and deceptive. While he acknowledges the part he has played in what we are about to report, it’s also true to say that his level of insight and knowledge of the inner workings of these sites would be limited to a handful of people, the majority of whom certainly have no desire for the truth to be known. While we won’t name any specific websites in our report David says it best. “They all operate this way.” This might be hyperbole on his part. From what we’ve seen if you happen to know the name of one of these sites, then yes, there’s a good chance we are talking about that one, although we couldn’t say that we agree with David’s assessment with any certainty.
So, just to state the obvious Valve’s case-openings are obviously regulated and there’s no implication that their case openings are in any way dubious. As of May this year a new law was introduced in China made it mandatory to show the chance of winning every item in online games that have such “drops.” Valve has complied with this for this region and it is likely that other parts of the world will follow this more consumer friendly practice. Currently however, while you can trust in the legitimacy of opening a case purchased on the Steam Market the same cannot be said for these virtual cases that third party case-opening sites offer.
First for the revelation that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has used these sites or has any worldly experience. The rate at which users on the site won could all be manually chosen. In short, the house can change the odds to a point where literally no-one wins if they so wish. David showed us that the panel for the site had two separate set of odds for rolling high value or rare items, one for the customers who actually deposit money on to the site and another for the “free spins” that potential customers can use ahead of committing their money. In the example we were shown that the odds for desirable items were the same as any other item on the free spin service but for customers who had deposited their items the win percentage was set to a flat “0,” meaning there was exactly no chance that they could ever win these items.
Internally the person who commissioned the site had a name for the setting where odds can be set so as to make winning anything other than the cheapest available items impossible or close to it. Apparently he isn’t the only one to use the term…
“Rape mode” David said.
“Rape mode?” We asked.
“Yeah… That was when I decided to stop working because it’s like ‘what the fuck are you even talking about?’ He literally called this setting ‘rape mode’ and he could turn it on and off. When it was on you could only land the cheapest two skins from any case. Always.”
When we looked at the value of these skins across each of the cases offered the average “sell back” price to the customer (this is the amount the skin was valued at if the customer converted it to credit for more openings) was approximately $1.20, with the lowest being 76 cents. This meant that, at $2 per opening, when this mode was on the site could only make a profit. It’s also worth noting that the buy back price was marginally inflated over that the skin would command on the Steam market, a mechanic designed to encourage players to continually convert low level earnings back into openings.
“There has to be something wrong with that” David said exasperated. “On the front of the site it says you can win a knife, or an expensive item… Meanwhile the site has it set to zero so you literally can’t. Every site I’ve worked on does it this way and requests these features.”
In addition to this the owners of these sites can manually set the “recently won” feed to display anything they want. This can give the appearance that a site is being more generous than it actually is, encouraging people to purchase more cases only to be disappointed with the results. “One site I worked on even had it coded so it automatically removed all the lower items from the recent wins, so it appeared that it was only giving out premium items” David added.
If this isn’t shocking enough, things become even more dishonest when it comes to the matter of promotion deals that are negotiated with the people who these sites sponsor. Youtube and streaming sponsorships have been constantly in the headlines the past few years, typically for non-disclosure or because the personalities are accused of endorsing products or services that make dubious claims or engage in unethical practices. What we were shown gives us little doubt that the people who publicly endorse these sites can easily often benefit directly from deceiving the site’s customers.
These sponsorships are already lucrative. For someone with the right number of followers and social media reach they can reach tens of thousands of dollars every month, in a combination of cash and skins. However, in addition to this these streamers will enjoy a higher rate of winning than the average customer, one determined by their status and programmed by people with access to the site back-end. This is called the “soak system,” which David again explained in layman’s terms.
“When a Youtuber or some other personality signs up to promote the site, they make a note of their email address linked to their account and assign two special settings to it. The first is the number of times they win out of every ten openings. The second is a total value of skins they can win in this manner, up to any limit. So, let’s say it is set to 2 times out ten that they win and the value is $2000, the sponsored party will win premium items 2 times every ten spins to a total value of $2000, at which point the spinning reverts to normal. For heavy users, people who would stream for hours at a time just spinning, there is even a setting to incrementally increase the total soak value every ten spins to ensure they keep winning premium items over long settings.”
It is also possible for someone with the highest level of access to the website’s panel to simply hit a big win for a sponsored content creator. “If they know what time the person is streaming or making the video they can just hit the button and have them win big. If they’re not that smart they just raise the weights of big wins site wide for the duration of the streamer making the promotional video and this is probably why so many people who use these sites complain about them claiming to have ‘lost’ their inventory when they go to cash out.”
In case anyone is wondering it should be made clear that these sites do not stock the items. “When you hear about people waiting for item payouts for up to seven days it’s usually because of Steam Market restrictions” David explained. “30 days or more and I’d probably say, yeah, it’s a scam. Same goes for any site that uses PhP and has tokens… These sites cannot “lose” inventory items, especially when working in conjunction with the provably fair system, because each win has a token. If they claim they can’t find it in their history or the item has disappeared they are lying.”
Many of these sites advertise that they are using a “Provably Fair” system. In simple terms this is an algorithm that is generated for every “spin” on an online gambling site that shows the interaction between bettor and service operator and can also be assessed for fairness. They are encrypted so neither a bettor nor a service provider can know the outcome in advance. However, as we’ve seen with some of the previously mentioned skin gambling sites, the provably fair system can be gamed to rig outcomes for both the site owner and those who are sponsored by the site. It seems that a case opening site has the same vulnerabilities.
“The site’s “Provably Fair” system gives you a unique token for every spin that is made but what it wouldn’t reveal is the weight that the site owner can manually input” David states. “It also wouldn’t reveal any spins that were not on that system… And yes, people with the right level of access can make spins that don’t show on the system. The system also cleans itself of records after either 10 or 14 days, so it’s going to be almost impossible for people to check up on this. It’s just a bullshit system to pretend that something is fair basically.”
What we saw that these sites operate like the personal playthings of their owners, filled with features that enable them to maximise profits and even outright steal from their customers at the touch of a button. All the protections and guarantees you get from the Valve cases are gone and even though online is filled with hundreds of complaints as long as the majority avoid having a negative experience there will be plenty of people who vouch for the legitimacy of these case opening sites. The majority of them won’t ever be aware of the measures that were taken against them.
David did say that he felt this industry wouldn’t last long, especially once people knew how the sites worked. We’ll certainly be forwarding all of our information to any legal entities that will be interested. Regardless though, David insists that these sites can only continue to exist due to two things, and if either were to go away, their business models would be fatally compromised. “G2A Pay is one of these essential components” he says “because they deal directly in skins, which is something no other financial service does… Not banks, not Paypal, none of the companies like Paypal. They offer a unique service when it comes to offloading skins quickly for money.”
Of course the other one is the Steam API itself. People having open access to it has been instrumental in so many amazing third party features and services coming into existence, many of which have now become part of the CS:GO landscape. When it also enables sites such as these though, Valve may want to step in and treat them in the same manner they did with the skin casinos. No pun intended, but there might just be a solid case for it.