Giving a boost: how top-level gamers are selling their skills online
‘Boosters’ artificially increasing the skill level of fellow players generated approximately $170 million Cdn in 2019
As the esports industry continues to expand at a blistering rate around the world, so too does one of the community’s most divisive offerings: ELO boosting.
This rarely-talked-about service is provided by highly skilled players, who, in exchange for a fee, will log into a lower-level player’s account and play on it, causing their skill ranking to climb.
A report from the University of Limerick recently approximated that ELO boosting, in three team-based games (Overwatch, Dota 2, and League of Legends), made over $170 million in 2019. The global esports market generated nearly $1.2 billion worth of revenue that same year.
As a result, plenty of players have illegitimately barged their way into these games’ top flights. This volume of rank manipulation doesn’t sit well with members of the esports community.
“The impact is really high,” said Peter Anders, competitive team director for the UBC ESports Association. “Good for the individual, bad for the ecosystem.”
The community suffers
With regards to community impact, Eoin Conroy and his team from the University of Limerick note that competitive games are hardwired to maintain regular skill-level distributions as best they can. That means boosted players bloat upper-level ranking tiers and effectively “gatekeep” other players looking to climb legitimately.
Furthermore, the researchers observed that boosted players can flood tournaments, with the result that individuals looking to place well and attract professional teams might face watered-down competition. Outside of tournament settings, high-level players are unable to properly hone their skills when playing with or against those with inflated ranks.
Anders feels the biggest issue with ELO boosting is scapegoating. Since boosting exists, players can throw the term around when they lost to cast blame on their teammates, who are usually assigned on a game-by-game basis with little input from the players.
“If someone on my team played badly, it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, this person is horrible. They don’t belong here, they probably bought their account.’ Just the concept of boosting means that it’s really easy to dehumanize your teammates. And if I see them in a second game, and they’re on my team again, I’ve given up from minute zero. This defeatist mentality or toxicity becomes a loop.”
While those that pay for boosting services are rarely open to talking about their activities, those who offer the services have to put themselves out there. Some companies have dedicated websites, but others advertise on Reddit and utilize Discord, an instant-messaging and voice-call platform, to communicate with customers.
ELO Dragon is one such small-scale boosting service from Ontario. The company offers solo and duo boosting. Duo boosting is a variant of the service where both the booster and the boostee play together.
Jake Rice and Marshal Agius, the co-owners of ELO Dragon, don’t feel that their clients are hurting the community or cheating. Rather, they believe boosting is the slight push many players need to improve.
“Some of them still watch the games that we play on their accounts,” said Rice. “A lot of coaching comes out of it, they ask a lot of questions and they try to get better themselves as well.”
Boostees want the glory
The University of Limerick researchers believe players boost for the sake of “the perceived social status of these ranks, along with rank-associated rewards such as in-game cosmetics, ability to enter tournaments and join prestigious teams.”
Anders agrees on social status but notes another reason, the “trench” that players can get stuck in, where they believe they are better than their rank suggests, but that they are held back by their teammates. This “trench” mentality doesn’t go away once a player is boosted — the service can’t solve an attitude problem.
“The silver player (low-rank) that is all of a sudden handed a platinum account (relatively higher) still has the mentality of ‘I’m really good, I belong here, I don’t want to deal with the fact that I’m bad, I’m going to blame everyone else.’ It’s just a higher trench.”
Rice and Agius have their own thoughts on why boostees come to them. Agius mentioned in-game rewards, while both also feel the “trench” is a big influence.
“They have a mental blockade,” said Rice. “They get too frustrated with being in that rank and it takes a toll on them.”
ELO Dragon also offers coaching services as an alternative to boosting for those looking to improve, but rank frustration and feelings of superiority stop many from going down that route. The collaborative nature of these games plays a part too.
“A lot of people think, ‘If I get to this rank I’ll be able to play at a better level’,” said Rice. “‘Because my team will know what they’re doing, my team will actually play around me.'”
Boosters can’t be ostracized
In legal terms, boosting sits in a grey area. Generally, competitive games will forbid boosting in their terms-of-service agreements but, without actual legal action on the table, it is difficult to weed out. South Korea has formally criminalized boosting but, in other jurisdictions, there are no such laws.
Rice and Agius have no qualms with the under-the-radar status quo — they’ve reached the “never work a day in your life” ideal.
“It’s like any job that you enjoy,” said Agius, “If you can make money out of it, might as well do it.”
Anders is in favour of the South Korean route, but he thinks it’s equally important that esports communities address the reasons players start selling their services as boosters in the first place.
“You have a specific group of people who have a specific talent. They’re very good at the game,” he noted. “They are looking to make money using that talent, because the lower-level competitive environment doesn’t usually pay out that well. That’s kind of why boosting exists.”
These high-skill players need avenues to succeed within the esports industry, he said.
“Make boosting illegal, but then put more money into supporting tier-two, tier-three players,” said Anders. “So that if I’m a really good player and I want to be making money playing my game, rather than giving up on my game and working at a grocery store, I can actually do that.”