Reece Rogers on gamers buying their way to skill, success, and swag in the economies of online multiplayer games like Fortnite and Apex Legends.
Last month, I received a Gmail advertisement for something called “boosting services” in Apex Legends, a free-to-play multiplayer game with over 100 million unique players (it’s similar to Fortnite). The ad copy read, “Shop Now to Discover all Boosting Services from Badges, Ranked, Coaching and More!” Curiosity piqued, I clicked through and browsed the storefront. “Boosting” is the term for the new mode of cheating at online games: buying your way to more in-game clout.
Coaching services were offered at basic ($25), intermediate ($50), and advanced ($75) skill levels — literally teaching players to play better — but the direct selling of achievement badges and kill counts sounded more compelling. Before a match begins in Apex Legends, your badges and accumulated kill count are displayed to your teammates (and the all competing teams, if you’re the reigning champion). Two examples of coveted and difficult to achieve badges are earned by killing 20 enemies during a single match or administering 4,000 in damage.
Can’t earn those badges on your own? Boosting services are here to help.
What are boosting services?
Many core examples of boosting services, like unlocking achievements or increasing your competitive rank in a multiplayer game, involve handing over personal account information to a more skilled player. The player embodies your digital presence for a designated period of time, playing as you and completing a task you lack the ability to accomplish.
Boosting services appear to be prevalent in multiplayer games like Apex Legends, Valorant, League of Legends, and Call of Duty. On the Apex Legends boosting services website promoted in my inbox, the 20 kill and the 4K damage badges are sold individually for $25 or as a package deal for $40. If you want to boost your kill count, 100 kills will set you back $30, or 500 kills are $125.
Video game streamers who quickly rise through competitive ranks are sometimes accused by the community of boosting themselves to the top.
In general, I would consider gameplay coaching to be less dubious than boosting services, but the practice delves into a morally grey area when you’re spending money for a talented gamer to play as a member of your team, a service that is offered for $15 an hour on this storefront.
The companies behind these video games claim to be very against the practice of boosting. In the user agreement from Electronic Arts, the publisher of Apex Legends, boosting is specifically banned as an example of “anticompetitive behavior.” The nebulous acts of “collusion” and “matchmaking manipulation” are also forbidden. In fact, boosting services are illegal in South Korea — offenders can face a fine and two-year suspended prison sentence.
Still wondering why anyone would pay for this? The boosting service I stumbled across tries to address your concern on their FAQ page:
“Getting that...20/4k badge boosts your confidence. We can guarantee once you put that badge on and go into a game you will feel 20 times better. Maybe it's because you don't find yourself being as passive anymore and you just go out and slay the lobby, either way this can really benefit you.”
It’s like getting a blue checkmark on Twitter: just hits different, bro.
How does this compare to gacha mechanics?
When gamers pay for clout, it's not always illicit. The booming genre of “gacha games” make this transaction central to the experience. In Genshin Impact, a popular gacha game from Chinese developer miHoYo, players exchange real money for a chance to win digital items like characters and weapons.
The game is free-to-play, at first, but then the pay-to-play mechanics become all but insurmountable, driving tons of revenue from addicted players. Washington Post reporter Gene Park drew comparisons between the gacha mechanics in Genshin Impact and gambling. He documented just how easy it is to burn through cash while grasping for an enviable character:
“About $90 into my spending spree, I finally landed Venti. It was a huge sigh of relief, after spending the last three minutes groaning and slapping my head. You can easily spend $90 in Genshin Impact very quickly, and have very little, if anything, to show for it.”
Not all games that include gambling for digital items are considered to be gacha games. In Apex Legends and Overwatch, randomized loot boxes are available to purchase and contain cosmetic items like character skins and voice lines, rewards that don’t explicitly improve your competitive abilities. In recent years, loot boxes have been mired in controversies and many free-to-play games (Fortnite, Valorant, Dota 2) instead use a seasonal battle pass system for unlocking cosmetic items.
Why are boosting services so prevalent?
Boosting services for video games appear to be a natural outgrowth of our austere gig economy and digitally commodified interactions. Adults who can elicit strong erotic responses with an online presence can make money on OnlyFans; if you can gather other people’s groceries with speed, you can make money on Instacart; if your life is compelling and glossy enough you can sell ads on Instagram. If you are good at a popular, competitive game, why wouldn’t you attempt to monetize those abilities and make money off the less skilled?
Even though the allure of entering esports competitions can be a tempting option for talented players looking to make money, the road to esports stardom is exclusionary and not always what it seems. Boosting is a way to profit from the cultural clout of video games without needing to become a Twitch streamer.
My initial reaction was to lump boosting services in with the general glut of digital scams, but was my mindset regressive? Idk. In a year where Elon Musk hosts Saturday Night Live, maybe we should consider people offering boosting services simply as individual entrepreneurs shirking regulations and employing a direct-to-consumer business model for selling their gameplay skills. — By Reece Rogers