It seems every time sci-fi MMO EVE Online [official site] is in the news, it's because someone has been screwed over in the most spectacular way imaginable. From record-breaking heists and scams to public assassinations and spy infiltrations, New Eden has been home to some incredible tales of espionage, theft, and political intrigue. This month another chapter in EVE's long and bloody history came to an abrupt end as two players conspired to pull off the biggest political betrayal and theft of assets in the game's history.
But the real story began over a year earlier, with clandestine discussions between a thief and his spymaster at a restaurant in the capital of Iceland, and it finishes far outside the game world, with threats of real life violence. Depending on who you ask, this is the story of a greedy individual who robbed his friends and ran away, or the spy handler who manipulated his enemy into destroying an alliance, or even the tale of a player trapped with an abusive leader and finally finding a way out.
The biggest theft in EVE history
In the early hours of the morning of September 12th, a player named The Judge bankrupted the massive military alliance Circle of Two (otherwise known as CO2) and betrayed its 4,000 members to their worst enemies. After stealing over a trillion ISK in assets from the alliance wallet and supply hangars, The Judge then used his authority as CO2's lead diplomat to seize control of the alliance's space stations throughout its territory. In possibly the biggest single moment of betrayal in EVE history, the colossal 300 billion ISK Keepstar class station, where most of the alliance's 4,000 members stashed their ships and valuable assets, was sold to its most hated enemy, the infamous Goonswarm Federation.
The total value of the theft clocked in at over 1.5 trillion ISK , making it the single biggest theft in EVE history in terms of raw ISK (I got reports from both sides and this figure wasn't disputed by anyone), which gives it an estimated equivalent value of over $20,000 USD in real money. The actual scale of the damage was far greater, as Goonswarm and TEST Alliance then surrounded the station and prevented players from evacuating their ships and other assets. Many players panicked and sold their trapped ships and items to the attackers for a fraction of the real value, while others used the game's “Asset Safety” system to pay NPCs to safely evacuate their ships and equipment for a fee. The final tally of ISK stolen or lost through tax and firesales in this betrayal has been estimated by the perpetrators to be 5 trillion ISK - worth over $60,000 - and the incident has completely dismantled one of the game's largest military alliances.
Sowing the seeds of betrayal
The planning for this record-breaking theft began over a year earlier in the midst of EVE's most famous war to date, last year's conflict that came to be known as World War Bee or the Casino War. A large group of alliances known collectively as The Moneybadger Coalition was paid by incredibly wealthy gambling kingpins Lenny Kravitz2 and IronBank to wage a war of annihilation. The target was the game's largest and probably most hated military organisation, The Imperium, led by Goonswarm Federation.
Circle of Two found itself on the wrong end of that conflict, and its territories in the Deklein region in the north of EVE were swiftly overrun by thousands of Moneybadger vessels. CO2 left The Imperium early in the war and thoroughly burned its bridges on the way out, releasing an angry announcement blaming Goonswarm for not coming to its aid:
“Over the past few months it has become increasingly clear that we have served (only) as a meatshield. Circle-Of-Two is NOT a meatshield. We will not stand as the wall that defends Deklein from the angry hordes for the benefit of Goons. We will no longer subject our pilots to the indecency of watching their hard work burn while Goons sit in their ivory tower. We will no longer stand as an unequal partner in The Imperium.” - CO2 Leadership
It was in the throes of this war that the seeds of betrayal were ultimately planted, with tensions mounting within Circle of Two's leadership and cracks beginning to form. Many alliance members weren't happy with how the leadership had handled things with Goonswarm Federation, and some didn't want to make enemies of them for fear of reprisal. It now seems that those fears were justified, as it was shortly after this split that Goonswarm's economic expert and spymaster Aryth set his sights on destroying CO2 from the inside.
“When we started talking to The Judge initially, we wanted to hurt CO2,” Aryth explained to me. “And then as the relationship developed and I saw more of what could happen, we wanted to kill CO2.”
It's tempting to imagine that EVE’s machiavellian politics and brutal betrayals all emerge from clandestine conversations between agents in darkly lit rooms filled with cigar smoke, and that's actually not too far from the truth. Many of the high-level political moves and wars that go on inside EVE Online each year can be traced back to events such as EVE Fanfest or EVE Vegas, though the conversations are usually more like casual chats over a few beers and I'm pretty sure nobody has a gun.
For The Judge, the conversations began when both he and Aryth were voted into the Council of Stellar Management (the CSM), a player-elected panel of experts who are flown to a summit in Iceland twice per year to advise CCP on player concerns and future developments with the game. The Judge had considered leaving CO2 for quite some time before joining the CSM, citing a lack of respect and equality shown to him and other members of the alliance, but he initially had no plans to betray anyone.
“I hadn't decided to move or do anything until after this latest CSM summit,” he told me, saying that “emptying the hangars and flipping a Keepstar didn't even enter my thoughts.”
On the other hand, spymaster Aryth of the Goonswarm began planning the downfall of CO2 the moment the pair of players were voted into office together.
“He knew right away that we viewed him as a mark from the very first summit,” Aryth admitted, “and this was the third summit where we finally sealed the deal.”
The final move was made in an unassuming restaurant in downtown Reykjavik on the final day of the latest CSM summit, when Aryth suggested the plan to The Judge and offered Goonswarm's help to pull it off. The Judge had a long time to think about that offer on the 31-hour plane journey back to Australia. He started running through plans in his head, thinking about exactly how he would pull it off and weighing up the collateral damage it would cause. By the time he arrived in his home country, he had decided to pull the plug on Circle of Two and the reign of it’s leader, gigX.
The threat of violence
As the story of The Judge's betrayal began to ripple throughout the EVE community, CO2's alliance leader gigX logged in and the tale began to take an ugly turn. On seeing his alliance's assets stolen and its space stations in the hands of enemies, gigX went into something of a blind rage. He asked people for The Judge's real life name and address and began writing threatening messages such as “The Judge you gonna die,” “you will lose both hands,” and “feel free to use your hands by typing here while you can.” EVE developer CCP Games took a dismal view of the real life threats, and gigX was soon permanently banned on all of his accounts.
“Anyone that's dealt with gigX knows he's a loose cannon,” The Judge explained during our interview. “He would almost flip a switch and go from being your best friend to a raging maniac on comms, swearing at everyone when anything went wrong.”
Goonswarm's Aryth claims that he actually planned for the possibility that gigX would get himself banned in this manner but thought there was only about a 30% chance of it actually happening.
“We knew 100% he would rage and say crazy shit,” he told me, “but we had no way to know he would say it in such a public and logged manner across 7 hours. If that's not the line, then where's the line? Does someone have to actually get stabbed in real life?”
That ban wasn't the end of the threats against The Judge, however, as his actions screwed over the 4,000 members of the Circle of Two alliance. Some of them were furious.
“There have been a number of relatively credible threats toward me at EVE Vegas,” The Judge said. “I've shown those to CCP and they are willing to cancel people's tickets to the event itself if the threats are bad enough. CCP is upping the security quite a bit, not just for the threats to me but also any threats to developers in the wake of this. What impressed me the most is that the company takes it seriously.”
The future for CO2 and EVE
The betrayal of CO2 has gone down in EVE history as both the single largest sum of ISK stolen by a player and possibly the biggest political middle finger ever given. On top of the immense financial damage, Circle of Two as an alliance has been effectively dismantled from the inside. CO2's new de-facto leader Quentin Decker promises that the alliance will return, but over 3,500 members have jumped ship since the betrayal and only 441 (and falling) remain at the time of writing. Thousands of players lost assets and their homes when The Judge switched sides, and thousands more who were looking forward to war in the south of New Eden have been left disappointed.
CO2's space was about to become the stage for a massive war, and the battle for the colossal Keepstar class space station that was stolen could have precipitated the biggest fights of the year involving thousands of players, but none of that will happen now. Several players I've spoken to about the incident were understandably annoyed at the loss of an upcoming territorial conflict, but spymaster Aryth believes that this outcome is actually far better for EVE as a whole.
“We were going to have a little PvP content for the next few months that no-one outside of EVE was going to care about or hear about, but the whole world heard about this. That helps EVE.”
He may be right, as we're already seeing more ex-players coming back to EVE and a rise in new free-to-play characters being created.
The future also looks pretty cosy for The Judge, who has now joined Goonswarm Federation and has been enjoying a break from the soul-sapping work of helping to run an alliance. He also claims to be using some of his ill-gotten gains to help those who stood against the poor treatment of alliance members by their reportedly abusive former leader gigX. Looking back on the theft now that the dust is finally settling, The Judge still believes his actions were justified.
“You can't really hurt the leadership and try to take down a goliath of an alliance without hurting people,” he explained. “The fact that everyone has left that alliance and the toxic environment that I saw, and moved to arguably better alliances with better leadership, I definitely think it was worth it.”
There are many sides to any story, perhaps moreso with the political machinations and propaganda of EVE Online than with any other online game. One player's record-breaking heist is another's lost home, one player's shifted allegiance is another's broken friendship, and one player's elimination of an abusive leader can be pain and loss for thousands.
Whether you think of this as the tale of The Judge who robbed his friends and ran away, spymaster Aryth plotting to burn Circle of Two to the ground from the inside, or the raging tyrant gigX who had to be stopped, one thing is for sure: this will go down as one of the most famous incidents in EVE Online's long and blood-soaked living history.