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G2A: How the controversial Steam key marketplace got so big

By Julio Franco
Aug 2, 2016
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  1. There’s a few reasons you might have heard of G2A, one of the Internet’s most popular spots to sell an extra Steam key. One, it’s been the subject of intense criticism for not doing enough about fraud. Two, you can’t watch a YouTube video or a Twitch stream without running into someone who’s taking money to promote them. From PewDiePie down, G2A is everywhere.

    G2A is not the only key-selling marketplace on the Internet, but it has locked up many of the Internet’s most popular personalities, who include links to G2A on their videos and streams.

    Few advertisers seem to divide streamers more than G2A. And when I went looking for people to speak with about what goes into picking and choosing advertisers to partner with, emails to video creators currently partnered with G2A went unanswered. I regularly heard back from those who’d moved on, folks who often had pointed and passionate feelings about the company.

    “[They’ve] always been shady in my eyes,” said a popular streamer, who asked to remain anonymous and has explicitly decided to never run ads by G2A. “With streaming, there’s a question of morality everyone has to make. Do you want to just say, ‘**** it,’ and say yes to every sponsor, or do you want to have some morality in what you do?”

    A list of Overwatch key sellers on G2A.

    It’s understandable why a lot of people who play video games like G2A: cheap prices. Overwatch: Origins Edition costs $59.99 through Blizzard, but it’s as low as $46 on G2A. It’s cheaper because individuals are selling the keys, not Blizzard. But it also means you don’t know where the keys came from. Did someone simply have an extra key, or did they use stolen credit cards to defraud a game developer? There’s no way to know, and unlike other prominent marketplaces, G2A doesn’t automatically provide consumers with insurance for their purchases. To get covered, you need to pay for a $1 per month service called G2A Shield. All of this has created an air of distrust around the popular marketplace.

    “We welcome this opportunity to further educate people on G2A,” said a company spokesperson to Kotaku over email, “what we have to offer and the tools we have in place to ensure a safe and secure marketplace experience. G2A is open [sic] appreciates and welcomes input and feedback from buyers and sellers in the marketplace—we listen and want to make the G2A marketplace better each day. We invite those people to meet us, and maintain an open door attitude for co-operation.”

    On the company’s website, G2A boasts about a number of high-profile YouTube and Twitch partners:

    • PewDiePie: 46 million subscribers on YouTube
    • Lirik: 1.4 million followers on Twitch
    • Matroix: 8.3 million subscribers on one YouTube channel, 3.5 million on another.
    • PhantomL0rd: 1.4 million followers on Twitch. (He was recently banned over the Counter-Strike ongoing gambling scandal, but at the time, was still promoting G2A.)
    • KSIOlajidebtHD: 4.4 million subscribers on YouTube
    • JackFrags: 1.7 million subscribers on YouTube

    PewDiePie is far and away the most popular video personality on YouTube, Twitch, or otherwise. Several of PewDiePie’s most recent videos have a G2A promotion to win a gift card. When asked about how he chooses his promotions, PewDiePie declined to comment. I contacted more than a dozen video creators currently running G2A promotions, but my questions went unanswered.

    In the last month or so, however, two heavy-hitters—JackFrags and LIRIK—have dropped G2A for various reasons. One of those heavy-hitters cited a recent string of controversies surrounding the key retailer.

    “G2A is working successfully with over 500 partners including 70 e-Sport teams and 100 events,” a G2A spokesperson told me over email. “A few partners, ten in total, took a break, some to renegotiate their contracts, some for various other reasons. The real story here however is that 490 partners chose to stick with us.”

    Update 6:35pm: Some video creators seen and featured on G2a’s website—including Spamfish—have informed me they’re no longer partnered with the company.

    “With streaming, there’s a question of morality everyone has to make. Do you want to just say, ‘**** it,’ and say yes to every sponsor, or do you want to have some morality in what you do?”

    JackFrags didn’t publicly comment on why he was moving away from G2A, only saying he was “parting ways” in the next month. LIRIK was more explicit during one of his streams.

    “I’ve been with them for a long time, because they were ****ing cool-*** people, and everything worked out,” said LIRIK in a somewhat rambling explanation on Twitch about moving on from G2A. “I kept chilling with them and never changed it up. As you guys know, some...stuff happened. There’s so much news. There’s been like 10 different things that happened this week.”

    That “stuff” was a public fight that indie developer TinyBuild picked with G2A in late June. The Punch Club studio published a blog alleging the so-called eBay of game keys was “facilitating a fraud-fueled economy.” TinyBuild argued G2A made it easy to sell fraudulent keys obtained with stolen credit cards. In a story last week, I outlined how a hacker allegedly used stolen credit cards to run off with keys that he quickly turned into hundreds of dollars by selling them through G2A.

    While G2A admitted it was working on providing new tools for developers concerned about fraud, the company pointed to ongoing security issues with developer payment processors—the financial institutions that handle online transactions—as an important issue that had little to do with them. G2A itself isn’t committing the alleged fraud; the concern is how easy their business model can make it to profit off fraud committed elsewhere.

    “We’d like to be clear that the origin of fraud is not theft of the game codes themselves, but rather stolen credit cards used to purchase codes,” said a G2A spokesperson.

    What really turned heads was an influential late June video about G2A from LevelCapGaming called “Den of Thieves.” It is a 15-minute scathing critique outlining the fraud allegations against G2A and what the company has done to push back. It may not be new to anyone who’s been following the G2A story already, but for many, it was revelatory. Part of what makes the video unique is the aggressive and downright accusatory description of G2A’s practices, likening the company to being the getaway driver during a bank heist.

    In the days after LevelCapGaming’s video was published, JackFrags and LIRIK dropped G2A. Neither responded to my request for comment, but LevelCapGaming, aka Charlie Goldberg, did.

    “I blame a lot of YouTubers–myself included–for massive brand integration of G2A,” said Goldberg. “We helped create a brand that gamers associate with cheap legitimate games. Too many of us are young and easily swayed by money. We don’t have managers or a team of people seeking out advertising deals. It’s just us.”

    Goldberg used to partner with G2A, too, and cited PewDiePie being on-board as one of the primary reasons he joined up. PewDiePie’s name meant legitimacy. “That had a large impact for me personally since I have always associated PewDiePie with being a decent guy,” he said.

    Choosing to partner with G2A doesn’t mean PewDiePie is suddenly not a decent guy, though. It’s understandable why so many choose to partner with G2A: it turns a decent profit for the video creator and the viewer can buy games for cheap. That sounds like a win-win situation, and given that G2A sells plenty of legitimate keys, too, it’d be unfair to say the service isn’t without positives. Ultimately, it’s providing a service for people who want to pay for games, not pirate them.

    How much a video creator makes off G2A varies, depending on two variables: popularity and their ability to push viewers to use a unique referral code. A smaller streamer—we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands of subscribers—told me they were offered $400 per month, which was compelling because it could “pay various bills in a household, so it’s one less headache.”

    PewDiePie is one of several large video creators who regularly work with G2A. He’s hardly alone, however; he’s merely the biggest.

    A larger streamer, pulling in millions of viewers, briefly partnered with G2A and was guaranteed $1,500 per month and, on average, made another $1,500-$2,000 from their referral code.

    “This income would have grown exponentially had I stayed with them longer or promoted them harder,” said the anonymous streamer. “Four video mentions a month and four social posts is all it took to get that much money coming in and those who promoted harder earned more.”

    It’s easy to see how that money might scale with video creators commanding tens of millions of viewers.

    Pushing back on G2A isn’t new, and other voices have been saying it for a while. So far as I can tell, no other advertising partner has caused as much division among creators as G2A.

    “I’m ending my partnership with G2A due to the confusion and controversy over their Marketplace system,” said streamer Cohh Carnage in 2015. “Our dropping of G2A does not reflect on other streamers. Good friends of mine still use G2A.”

    And it’s not like consumers are running away, either; G2A says they’re still growing rapidly.

    “We are always looking to improve our processes,” said the company in a statement. “Every day we get better. Every day we get faster. Every day we serve more customers. Every month 250,000 new customers arrive on the G2A Marketplace.”

    While reporting this story, I found it difficult to get streamers on the record defending G2A.

    “G2A and their ilk are unauthorized key resellers who at best source from cheaper regional markets,” said John “Total Biscuit” Bain on Twitter in 2014. “Use them at your own risk.”

    “We are always looking to improve our processes. Every day we get faster. Every day we serve more customers. Every month 250,000 new customers arrive on the G2A Marketplace.”

    “Please do not believe that just because G2A threw out a bunch of sponsorships to streamers that they are above board,” he said in 2015. “They are not.”

    Bain also claimed he received “10 emails from them before I told them to **** off.”

    There’s no smoking gun with G2A. Though the website may have facilitated the selling of fraudulent keys, G2A is not alone; fraud is part of selling goods on the Internet. But for some, G2A has an unmistakable stink.

    Several streamers I talked to cited the recent Counter-Strike gambling controversy as a reason to be incredibly cautious about who you partner with. In a moment, your credibility can vanish.

    Phantoml0rd, a top Counter-Strike gambling streamers, was recently banned from Twitch. The incident has put some video creators on edge.

    IIJERiiCHOII, whose real name is Tucker Boner (yes, really), has nearly 900,000 followers on Twitch and 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube. In 2015, Jericho joined Bain in shunning and criticizing G2A.

    “Key resellers are very rarely fun to work with,” said Jericho in an interview with me recently. “Most people knew or at least were pretty sure of G2A and other key sellers’ involvement with fraud/illegal keys, etc.”

    Jericho says G2A still reaches out several times a month, asking if he would like to join again. And though he won’t work with G2A, he doesn’t blame people looking for cheap games.

    “I mean, their success is because they are a platform where you never pay full price for a game or keys,” he said. “It’s filling a space where there was demand. I don’t think that key reselling is inherently bad, nor do I think that all key selling sites are bad. That said, G2A and other notable sites have done a good job to tarnish the rest of them, and while I agree that promotion from top personalities helped growth, there’s really nothing to blame them for. G2A gave me a bad vibe.”

    MrMattyPlays, a YouTube creator with nearly 300,000 subscribers, dropped G2A as a sponsor in late June “because of the negative association,” as his channel focuses on a “love for games.”

    “When I have a sponsor that is being accused and essentially proven of hurting developers; that contradicts what I believe in,” he said. “ [...] It was very hard to walk away from G2A. They were easy to work with, paid me well for 10 five-second promotions a month, and removed a lot of financial concerns in my life. The deal allowed me to experiment more on my YouTube channel because I was receiving revenue from another source which was also quite liberating.”

    Even after G2A rolled out some of their changes, he still walked away. It wasn’t enough.

    MrMattyPlays says he gets “thousands of dollars worth of offers each month” but passes on most opportunities. Viewers are conceptually skeptical of promotions, so he chooses partners carefully.

    “For me, when I actually go through with a paid promotion,” he said, “it is only because I can legitimately get behind that product I’m talking about or it’s something I know that my audience will appreciate.”

    For G2A, the company says all of this is merely “feedback that makes us stronger and better.”

    Permalink to story.

     
  2. Axle Grease

    Axle Grease TS Booster Posts: 69   +20

    Patrick... Did you get LevelCap's permission to publish is his name? I've known him since soon after the launch of Battlefield 3 and he's never wanted his real name published.

    BTW, that was a riveting article. Good job.
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2016
    mbrowne5061 likes this.
  3. indiangamer

    indiangamer TS Enthusiast Posts: 57   +9

    They are doing something which is very wrong but the only reason they are doing well because of huge game companies selling games at $60+. An end user want to buy games at lesser price. When I didn't knew about G2A wrong practices I bought 2 or 3 games from them because they were cheaper.
    Companies like valve and Riot has shown that a lot of revenue can be generated for free2play games which are not pay2win. I don't want every other company to give their games for free but this kind of free2play business model show that its possible to generate good revenues with great profit by selling the at much lower price.
    This kind of business is going good just because of greed of big companies like EA, Ubisoft who sell their games with no more that 100 hours of content for more than $60+.
    If people would be getting their games for low prices then there would be a very less chance of people trying to find websites which is selling same game in their budget.
     
    Reehahs likes this.
  4. Evernessince

    Evernessince TS Evangelist Posts: 1,202   +596

    While I agree that many AAA games are not worth $60 I also believe that others are worth more than $60. Good Modern AAA games are very expensive to make and for really awesome games like the Witcher 3 I wouldn't mind paying $100 for.

    Ubisoft games have usually 40 hours at most and they have recently been adding micro-transactions to their games. They are a prime example of a company that makes games that are not worth what they charge.

    The problem with G2A is two-fold. Not only do devs not get sales but your money goes towards stealing even more keys. The steps G2A have taken aren't enough. It's obvious they are holding back because they know these fraudulent game sales contribute to their bottom line.
     
    Reehahs likes this.
  5. Emexrulsier

    Emexrulsier TS Guru Posts: 513   +46

    I have looked at the prices before on G2A but have NEVER gone on to purchase a game from them. Every single time the prices quoted is not the price they want you to pay. On top of that they want you to then pay more money to ensure that you get what you pay for. Some silly G2A protection that promises you key works or your money back... errr I'm sorry If I buy something and it doesn't work you give me my money back regardless of having some made up policy!

    That that reason I have always used cdkeys.com. The price you see is the price you pay, it generally is cheaper than g2a though they dont seem to offer as many games. Also support is THE BEST I have ever seen. I once logged a call at about midnight to say my elder scrolls online code wasn't working. About 10 minutes later I got an email from support saying they have issued a paypal refund and plan to investigate why the code was rejected (they said codes were bought direct from Zenith). Either way I was more than impressed.
     
  6. Experimentongod

    Experimentongod TS Addict Posts: 227   +86

    Yeah cdkeys.com trumps G2A, I've bought 3 games in there all perfect. I bought one on G2A and they're truly scammers, first of all you have to pay "Paypal fees" and second they want you to pay $1 for this "shield" nonsense. Prices are also nothing special compared to other "key" sites.
     
  7. jauffins

    jauffins TS Enthusiast Posts: 85   +24

    Don't have experience with G2A but have purchased 3 Windows CD keys on Kinguin after Microsoft decided they didn't like Windows 7 to Windows 10 migration on multiple systems (long story, I basically re-purchased Windows, but the second purchase was at the discount Kinguin affords). I had no problem with any of them.

    Then, a friend talks to me about a game he wants that was *just* on sale (from $30 down to $7 on Steam) but we missed the sale, so I figured hey, I'll buy him the key on Kinguin. $11 down the drain. It was already activated by somebody else, the key we were sent, and I have wasted 4+ hours contacting Kinguin. The multitude of screenshots they required for a refund were somehow insufficient for them so I finally had to call my credit card company to resolve the issue. Now, Kinguin is continuing to send me threatening emails attempting to extort money from me.

    Stay far away.
     
  8. Cycloid Torus

    Cycloid Torus TS Evangelist Posts: 1,667   +312

  9. mbrowne5061

    mbrowne5061 TS Evangelist Posts: 340   +133

    1) Pawn shops hold all merchandise for whatever the local holding period is, just in case it is stolen. G2A (and most keysites) do not.
    2) "Pawning" something is a loan. The idea is you pay back the money+interest, and get your item back. Not the case with Keysites
    3) Yes, you can sell to pawn shops, but this is becoming less common in the wake of eBay - and, again, they still hold the merchandise so that there is time for cops to come by in case of a stolen item - I f sold a key on eBay, and it was bad, you can bet that eBay would refund the buyers money without hesitation. They probably wouldn't even look too hard for proof beyond a single screenshot. eBay also wouldn't charge buyers extra for "protection" or attempt to hide any fees levied by PayPal (or whatever payment is used)
     
    robb213 and Cycloid Torus like this.
  10. mrjgriffin

    mrjgriffin TS Booster Posts: 136   +51

    The g2a shield doesnt have to be used monthly. you can select it with each purchase and it only costs like 3 dollars. I've never had a fake key from g2a when using g2ashield.
     
  11. EndlessWaves

    EndlessWaves TS Booster Posts: 164   +34

    We're paying too little for games right now, not too much. You only have to look at how developers are having to interrupt our gaming in order to try and get more money from us with in-game and third party storefronts and other advertising.

    I've seen people buy GTX 1070 graphics cards and fancy high end gaming peripherals then refuse to buy a game that isn't on sale.

    By all means be choosy about which games you buy, but spend as much of your gaming budget on the games themselves as you can.

    The current discounting culture certainly isn't doing the quality of games any favours.
     
  12. Emexrulsier

    Emexrulsier TS Guru Posts: 513   +46


    The problem with sites like G2A and Kinguin is that a large side of their market is for users to resell keys, this is why you potentially end up being used keys. CDKeys maybe more expensive on some keys but because they just sell distributor keys they should always work and if they don't as mentioned above I got a full refund in less than 10 minutes.
     
  13. mbrowne5061

    mbrowne5061 TS Evangelist Posts: 340   +133

    While I agree in principle, a $500 GPU will get thousands - if not tens of thousands - of hours of use, compared to a $60 that you might get a couple hundred hours out of.

    The video game funding system is pretty f-ed up right now. Games are expensive to make, but they shouldn't cost the customer $60 - probably somewhere around $30-40 for a AAA title. However, filling that 30-50% difference is a tricky problem. First person to figure that out and apply it to a AAA game is going to become very rich.
     
  14. vektorDex

    vektorDex TS Rookie

    Well done Article.

    I'm an Indie Dev that has been ruined by G2As shady practices and refusal to do anything because I'm not a big player like *TInyBuild*. I can basically close shop from my lifelong work. Even with Proof of a massive stolen key batch being sold there, all I get is closed tickets and accusations that I released these keys for free to stir up trouble.
     
  15. Emexrulsier

    Emexrulsier TS Guru Posts: 513   +46

    I don't think we are paying too little for games right now, if anything we are paying way too much! Yes AAA list games can cost as much as top movies to make with voice actors and all the time developing etc etc but when AAA games are selling in excess of 60 million copies such as GTA V for example it shows that a large percentage of a games retail value is all going directly to the bottom line. Still using GTA V as an example, It is estimated that it cost around 265 million $ to make. Now lets say if everyone bought the game at full price that would net the studio 3.6... billion $! Of course everyone didn't pay full price, and there would have been taxes to pay and other hidden fee so lets go to a nice conservative 1 billion $ that leaves a nice tidy sum of pure profits of 735 million $ (the number was probably more like double if not triple that as fees etc would not have been 2.2 billion $ I was being extra conservative)
     

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