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Crafty Mining: Esports League's Secret Bitcoin Slaves

Much like Bobby Kotick's Flickr account, this is simultaneously sinister and hilarious. Esports league ESEA, also creator of an anti-cheating tool for assorted online games such as CSGO and Team Fortress 2, has been caught in a spot of apparent cheating itself. Specifically, by secretly having its users' PCs mine for Bitcoins while it runs. (And if you don't understand what that means, you really need to read yourself some more internet, kiddo). Wuh-oh. The people behind it, however, tried to explain it as an April Fool's stunt gone wrong. Then, after undaunted internet detectives kept on digging, later admitted that wasn't the case.

Most of this happened on ESEA forums and has already been collated on Reddit, and I primarily re-summarise here just to try and understand the whole damn business myself. ESEA is a popular esports league which also provides an anti-cheating tool for the e-sports community, but this week it found itself fighting to still be considered on the side of the angels. In the wake of a whole bunch of speculation about what was going on with the client, one ESEA user, unisolv, established that his - and other players' - GPUs were frantically crunching data to mine BitCoins when the ESEA client was running. It's a little bit like Folding@home, but a) without the user's knowledge and b) to earn phantom yet somehow valuable money rather than find aliens or cure cancer.

This didn't cost anyone any money, but it did put their graphics cards under unhappy strain by having them run at essentially full pelt at times when they should have been idle. Which can be pretty bad news for the components in question, not to mention their owners' electrity bills. Also, this clandestine program continually earned money for someone else without users' knowledge. That is very much Not A Good Thing. Unless you are that Someone Else, of course. The ESEA did eventually 'fess up to the inclusion of this malware (for lack of a better term), but offered the remarkable claim it was nothing more than a prank gone wrong.

Wrote ESEA's 'lpkane', in a message which perhaps unwisely starts with 'lol':

Back towards the end of march, as btc was skyrocketing, jaguar and i were talking about how cool it would be if we could use massive amounts of gpus logged into the client to mine. We went back and forth about it, considered doing something for april fools, didn't get it done in time, and eventually elected to put some test code in the client and try it on a few admin accounts, ours included. We ran the test for a few days on our accounts, decided it wasn't worth the potential drama, and pulled the plug, or so we thought.

Fast forward to 48 hours ago, a fuck up in the client server results in a restart which results in a setting getting changed which enables it for all idle users, and here we are."

Initially, he claimed the thing only ran for 48 hours, earning 2 btc, worth around $280. He later returned with a slightly less flippant second response, acknowledging that the mining had in fact been running for two weeks, earning just shy of 30 btc - or $3,602.21. Not exactly infinite riches, but still dodgy as all hell. What next, then?

"So first the bad news, this is way more shady than I originally thought, and as the person who is ultimately responsible for everything it's 100% my fault." By way of recompense and "in a blatant attempt to buy back your love (and less likely your trust)" they've decided that all the btc earnings will go into the prize pot for Season 14 of the ESEA esports league, and "every user who was premium this month will get a free one month premium code which they can use whenever and for whomever they like."

You could argue that putting the earnings into the prizepot isn't really to the benefit of the people who earned it, of course. And, in fact, is further to the benefit of ESEA. Many thought that, so the spotlight was yet to turn away from ESEA.

A Reddit thread (natch) has been monitoring the ongoing story, and collates discrepancies (including earlier references to Bitcoin mining, rapid locking of threads which mentioned it and suggestion that some of the mined Bitcoins remain unaccounted for) in ESEA's initial claims. Particularly curious is this recording of a conversation with an alleged ESEA admin in which the Bitcoin stuff gets mentioned, requests are made to not make the discussion public and there's a general attitude that the whole thing's just a bit of a lark.

And so, in the wake of ongoing criticism, the story changed again last night, when ESEA owner Craig 'Torball' Levine issued a rather more formal statement than lpkane's somewhat louche declarations. Rather than the initial April Fool's defence, ESEA now claim that they had been internally experimenting with Bitcoin mining as a possible new (hopefully optional, from the user's point of view) feature for their software, but "an employee who was involved in the test has been using the test code for his own personal gain since April 13, 2013. What transpired the past two weeks is a case of an employee acting on his own and without authorization to access our community through our company’s resources." Apologies are issued, unhappiness about the damage to ESEA's reputation is made clear, that sort of thing. Is this illicit individual someone we've heard from already, or someone else entirely? Do they still have their job?

Curiouser and curiouser. As for what's been doing about it now, "In an effort to maintain complete transparency, we have released all of the Bitcoin wallet addresses as well as data dumps of the wallets themselves. The value of the mined Bitcoins was $3,713.50 and ESEA will be donating 100% of the $3,713.55 to the American Cancer Society. ESEA will also match 100% of this amount for a total of $7,427.10 donated. ESEA is also increasing the Season 14 League prize pot by $3,713.50."

You'll notice that the quantity of ill-gotten BitCoins has once again gone up there, though the upside of that is more money for charity. That, for now, is that, but I won't be surprised if there are further developments. This is an exceedingly strange affair, as so many things related to this exceedingly strange new currency tend to be.

What a palaver! Instead of all this farting around with graphics cards, they should have just done what Australia did and made the biggest coin in the world.


Well done, Australia.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.