When one of Eve Online’s famously big wars kicked off earlier this year it eventually drove one of the game’s most powerful factions, The Imperium, from the northern part of the map. What made the so-called World War Bee so interesting was that one side, composed almost entirely of players acting as mercenaries, was being funded by bankers from an in-game casino called I Want ISK.
Polygon talked to one of those gambling kingpins, who said that every week he was pumping hundreds of billions of ISK — Eve online’s primary in-game currency — into paying his mercenary fleet. That currency came from other players in Eve, who were spending their in-game cash to play slots and other games of chance at I Want ISK.
But, now that hostilities have cooled, Eve developer CCP Games has stepped in with proposed changes to the game’s end user license agreement. Those changes would end the proliferation of in-game gambling going forward. As part of that announcement, CCP also stated that it had banned multiple player accounts involved in I Want Isk and another casino, and seized related in-game assets.
Polygon reached out to both sides of the issue. Over the last several weeks we’ve spoken to the owner of I Want ISK and the leader of The Imperium. Both confirmed to Polygon that at least 30 trillion ISK has been seized by CCP, and that the number could be as high as 40 trillion.
In real-world currency, 40 trillion ISK is valued at about $620,000.
For more on how we calculated that value, see our sidebar.
To put that staggering number into perspective, reference one of the largest battles ever fought in Eve Online. It took place in the Delve region in 2014, and reports at the time valued the cumulative losses on both sides at $300,000 in real-world money — less than half what was seized by CCP this month.
Reached about the figure, CCP declined to confirm it.
Eve Online is an MMO that’s unique for several reasons. First, virtually the entire world plays on the same server together in the same shared galaxy. The game allows players to band together and form alliances on a grand scale, making the game a political and an economic simulation as well as a tactical one. The game has been live since 2003, and the rise of in-game gambling is only a recent event. Some felt that it had the potential to upset the balance of power in the game or, worse yet, bring legal action against CCP — the company that publishes and maintains it.
"I want to applaud CCP here," Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco, the leader of The Imperium, told Polygon.
"When they took the step of banning gambling — which is something that legal pressures no doubt had a hand in forcing them to do, as you see the Washington state government going after Valve for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive gambling — CCP could have simply said that gambling is going to be banned, and not taken any particular action. Or they could have taken action against I Want Isk but kept it quiet.
"It is extremely unusual — unprecedented even — for CCP to make a public statement about the guilt of an entity and announcing the reason for a ban. This is simply not done."
While the EULA banning gambling isn’t yet in effect, CCP stated in its post that the the reason it was banning those involved with I Want ISK was because of real-money trading, or the conversion of in-game currency into real-world cash. The practice has been against CCP’s EULA from the inception of the game in 2003.
I Want ISK’s owner, Gonzalo "Eep Eep" Leon, says that the bans are completely unjust and unfounded.
"I never sold ISK once. Not even to friends," Leon said via email. "I know for sure they have no proof as there is none. But [CCP doesn’t] have to present it because it's their game. Simple as that.
"I can say they are lying but does it matter in the end? Even if they are, they have the right of way without the need for a turn signal. I really wouldn't have minded if they decided to close down gambling sites all together. As a matter of fact, I expected and welcomed it. IWI has been a pain the ass from the start and I've even had to pay out of my own pocket at times for the server costs. I'm not going to miss dealing with these accusations of real-money trading and having to worry if one of my bankers decided to sell his account.
"In the end, I feel more relieved than burdened that IWI was banned from Eve. No more coding for free!"
The Imperium’s Gianturco sees the banning of in-game gambling as a watershed moment for Eve, and a turning point for the community. He says that it is the end to a period of economic warfare for which there was no logical conclusion other than to break the rules of the game.
"What was created by the distortion of I Want Isk ... is an arms race where everyone had to attempt to compete in this way," Gianturco said. "You could stand on principle, or you could be swept aside."
The Imperium itself attempted to launch an in-game casino in 2014. Called The Evening Games Club, the effort didn’t last more than six months before it was wound down, Gianturco said. It’s not something that he is proud of, but a necessary part of closing its own casino down required The Imperium to supplement its income in other ways to remain competitive.
"As it happened, we ended up creating another system of economic solutions that turned out to be far smaller than we ever imagined compared to what I Want Isk ... were doing, and we ditched the casino," Gianturco said. But even he was shocked by the amount of in-game currency I Want ISK was generating.
"Until CCP released this blog and started confiscating all the dirty ISK," Gianturco said, "we had estimated that I Want ISK was bringing in ... possibly five trillion ISK a month, which is still just a massive amount. For perspective’s sake here, the total hard assets of The Goonswarm Federation [which accounts for a large portion of The Imperium’s assets as a whole] probably only come to about two trillion ISK.
What's it all worth?
Eve Online actually has two currencies, called Plex and ISK. Players can use ISK to purchase Plex, and one Plex is good for a month’s subscription to the game.
But you can also purchase Plex from developer CCP for about $20 real-world dollars.
Today, the going rate for one Plex is approximately 1.29 billion ISK. So, while converting ISK into real-world money is forbidden by Eve’s EULA, it nonetheless has a real-world value.
Therefore, if CCP seized 40 trillion ISK, that’s worth approximately 31,000 Plex — or around $620,000.
"So, when we were dealing with I Want ISK during [World War Bee], and we were thinking that these people were turning around five trillion ISK of income a month and using it to fund this war, we were wrong. We thought it was a severe threat, but we had no idea. ... We just utterly underestimated the impact that gambling addiction has on humans."
To emphasize the nature of the forces allied against him, Gianturco has taken to calling World War Bee the Casino War instead. Now that it’s over, we asked him what the effects have been on The Imperium.
He more or less shrugged it off.
"It cost us a couple of trillion ISK in losses over and above what we inflicted on our enemies," Gianturco said. "We have more income, and our enemies are very publicly tearing themselves apart and have been for a couple of months now. ... You’ll find that, upon investigation, essentially everything that The Imperium stated would happen over the course of the conflict did in fact happen, from us preserving our strategic weaponry, in the form of our super capital fleet, to sheltering our assets. We relocated to the southwest quadrant of the galaxy, which under the modern system of Eve geography ... is superior space to what we had before. So things are pretty chill, all the way around."
Leon, the owner of I Want ISK, says he’s moving on from Eve entirely. He said he’s not actually played the game for more than two years. Recently, Leon has stripped all references to Eve from his gambling website and has plans to fully convert it over into its own game, with its own lore.
"Yes, I am pretty much creating a game that is space-themed and casino-themed. Own your own ships, craft things and become ruler of your space casino empire! ... After launching the ‘Buy Koins’ feature on I Want ISK ... I have made $342!"
When pressed for details, Leon declined to say where I Want ISK would be registered.
"We only allow U.S.-based players," he said. "For the most part of the world, amusement gaming is allowed."