“It’s not going to be here for another couple weeks, but the fact that I know that my fight is over is liberating.”
Reddit user MafaMoon had been trying to get a hold of a PlayStation 5 for around three months. He recalls staying up all night several times waiting for early restock drops. According to his wife, he spent about a week’s worth of collective time attempting to purchase one since its release back in November.
Every day on the internet, new micro-trends emerge, only to become old news five minutes later. In Polygon’s new series The Next Generation of Everything, we’re looking at what’s blowing up in the worlds and fandoms we follow, and what the latest shifts say about where Extremely Online life is going next.
After finally obtaining one during a recent 10-minute stock burst from Walmart, MafaMoon reflects on the activity that took over his schedule. “The thrill of seeing whether or not you get the console when retail stores are releasing is quite contagious. It was almost like gambling. Except the loss was that someone was luckier than you or the bots got there first.”
Many see this as a grind that has no end in sight. Some even go as far as not being able to abandon the search once they’ve actually secured a console. Owners continue to stick around increasingly bigger Reddit posts, creating long lists of tips and updating others about their experiences after big restocks. Others feel so invigorated after the first purchase that they immediately start looking for a second or third console for friends and family, only to prove it can be done again. It’s what many have taken to calling “the hunt.”
The current landscape around Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Series S couldn’t be less favorable. Tens of thousands of people all over the world remain desperate for the next-gen consoles, refreshing retail sites day and night, following Twitter accounts that do nothing but share restock alerts, and relying on third-party livestreams and sites to automatically refresh online shops. But that demand still can’t be met. The coronavirus pandemic continues rampant, with global microprocessor shortages affecting not only cars and TVs but consoles as well.
And yet, searchers’ drive to purchase the elusive hardware has only grown more intense. I’ve spent several days chatting and reading replies from around a hundred users across Reddit, Discord, Facebook and Telegram. But those only account for the ones that responded to my general call for comments — I also inquired privately with 16 of them. The Telegram group I joined had over 7,000 members and permanent activity, while a Discord server had so many messages at once that it became a monumental chore to keep up with.
Up until two days before I started this report, I was also on the lookout for a PS5 here in Argentina, and my experience unfolded with its own share of obstacles. Doomscrolling through groups had become a habit. I had several tabs open for local retailers at all times, a column on Tweetdeck tracking any new mentions about possible stock, and push notifications enabled on my phone for multiple accounts.
This all culminated in traveling 22 miles outside of my city by bus and train to one of the few local resellers that weren’t asking for double the usual price. Like MafaMoon, I also have to wait a couple weeks to actually have the PS5 with me. But now I can sympathize with his relief.
Those who remain hopeful about obtaining a console from a retailer instead of paying extra to intermediaries have turned to the community for help. There are dozens of posts from people explaining their methods: which retailers to avoid and the ideal time and day of the week to start smashing the F5 button.
“My inspiration for @PS5Drop originally came from my following of sports,” said the user behind the Twitter account, who asked to remain anonymous, over DMs. “Having followed the NBA for so long, the [ESPN] reporter Adrian Wojnarowski had always been the one who broke NBA news. One afternoon, I randomly decided to try to do what Wojnarowski does, but for the next generation of consoles. Originally I didn’t see much growth, and almost deleted my Twitter around 100 followers. Something told me not to delete, and over the last 3 months, I have amassed a great following.”
The account has 146,000 followers as of this publication, and despite having such constant activity, it’s still being run by just one person. The source mentioned putting “countless hours” of their time into the account.
“The constant lookout for PS5 drops at first did take a huge demand of time,” they said. “Since no one knew when PS5 consoles would come out, and there was no pattern, I was constantly checking my phone. It got to the point that I was averaging 5 hours of sleep, which was very unhealthy on my part.”
I was surprised to find out that @PS5Drop doesn’t have affiliate links, despite the owner recognizing that they could make a huge profit. But they do occasionally share Venmo and PayPal links for anyone who would like to donate.
I chatted with two other accounts and found similar situations. The user behind @ps5ukalerts isn’t affiliated with any retailer but runs raffle competitions using UK-based site Prize Spot instead, offering tickets at around £1.99 GBP for a chance to win a PS5. In addition, they mentioned that while the community is often supportive, the reception for stock alert groups can be “very black and white.” Some people are quick to be hateful if the account happens to be a second late for a drop. Others respond with vitriol to tweets unrelated to alerts, as they create unintentional false alarms for folks who have notifications enabled.
An Argentinian blog called Vidas Infinitas (Infinite Lives) first shared the news of the official pre-order dates back in November. The team has been keeping an eye on restocks ever since, despite the fact that only one of the members has a next-gen console and the rest aren’t interested. Nowadays they often receive tips privately, and followers then spread the news on Facebook and WhatsApp groups once Vidas Infinitas tweets them out.
Outside of these channels, people recommended two additional sources for alerts. One is a site called Stock Informer that automatically refreshes itself and can also ring an alarm. I did not hear back from them by the time of publication, but I was astounded to find out their Discord server has almost 50,000 members. The other I stumbled into on Reddit; it’s a livestream from the channel MSTV that runs 24/7 and automatically refreshes UK online shops.
After letting them know about my report, one of the admins went ahead and created a private channel where I could talk to the team without the constant buzz of the main channel’s 2,600 members. User Rodney Copperbottom explained that they’ve come together as a community of their own, driven by their passion for games and their desire to help others. While there are people who usually just stay in the server until they manage to grab a console, many stick around sharing advice or just chatting in off-topic channels, about everything from games to mental health.
“Generally we get bits of information from different places,” Copperbottom said. “I work at one of the retailers that sells the console, and keep people updated on when and how to buy one. There are other people in here that work for other retailers and do the same.” Another admin called Hazzer confirmed this, telling me that they’re a “higher-up manager of a retailer” and often have insider information to share.
New members automatically obtain the “Hopefuls” role, while others wear the “PS5 OWNERS” badge with pride. But this classification isn’t supposed to be divisive — rather, it’s there to help with the group’s morale after people miss a drop or an alert. “Despite that we have always found a way to bounce back quickly,” user Adil1812 said, “and the people who did get one we gave separate [channels] to depending on which retailer they got it from, and then a separate chat for PS5 owners.”
One sentiment resonated loudly throughout the course of my reporting: the effort to fight back against scalpers. They purchase consoles in bulk only to resell them at higher prices, ranging from $800 USD to $1500 USD on eBay alone. Some offers populate Facebook Marketplace and Instagram as well. Other groups claim to have obtained 2,000 PS5s in one day from UK retailer GAME, while UK retailer Argos lost an entire restock batch before it was even put on sale.
There’s no way of knowing how many of these groups have insider info, either directly or indirectly from close sources, but bots have been in the spotlight as the most common and often most successful way of getting ahead of everybody else.
A Reddit user who asked for anonymity decided to develop their own bot. The user is currently a college student studying software development and thought it would be a “fun and rewarding project,” on top of not wanting to “waste time sitting around watching Twitter feeds or streams either.” It only took an afternoon to “get it up and running from scratch.”
The bot then waited two and a half weeks for a restock, but the following steps were lighting fast. “It worked really well,” the source told me. “It responded in about 8 seconds, and bought my PS5 disc edition from Amazon at a little after 3 a.m. I received the system 2 days later.” The student didn’t have to do anything as the bot automatically made the purchase, having access to credit card and shipping information to operate autonomously. It took 10 seconds altogether from the moment it detected stock to the order being confirmed.
When asked whether they would continue using the bot to make a profit, the source said they had considered it, adding that there’s a lot of money to be made from scalping. “I could easily point the bot at graphics cards, or anything else in demand. I don’t because honestly, it’s too much hassle. Between the animosity people have towards scalpers, legislators’ constant threats, and companies making it harder to offload scalped goods, it’s just not worth it. At the end of the day, I just wanted the new console, not to rip anyone off or get rich.”
Another Reddit user called ThisIsMySwanSong said they had “copped” a total of 11 consoles from different US retailers. After successfully purchasing a Nintendo Switch for their nephew using a stock watcher before Christmas, they decided to try their luck with a PS5. By the time they got one, they were selling for over $1,500 on eBay.
“I’ve got a toddler at home,” the user said, “so not a ton of time for video games. Selling it to make some extra holiday cash made so much sense. I sold it for $1000 on eBay, but after fees and shipping, I made about $300. Still a decent profit for about an hour’s work.” Since then, all future transactions were made at a “local [police] precinct” to deter people who might “try and do something shady.” These went for “about $750 to $800,” with the exception of one they sold to a friend at cost, and another for themselves.
They claimed the “money grab was too easy” and will probably keep doing it until “the resale market collapses.” In their experience, there are plenty of potential buyers on the lookout for consoles in the $800 range, and some people have even thanked the user for not trying to charge more. I asked if they would consider themselves a scalper, or if they thought there was a distinction compared to bigger groups doing the same on a major scale. “Yes, I’d consider myself a scalper,” they answered. “And I’m fine with people not liking it. I’m not doing it to make friends, I’m doing it to make money.”
But amidst the scalpers and developers creating or perfecting their bots to counter anti-bot measures, there are plenty of people who serve as unsung helpers in the community. Many I spoke with shared the sentiment of sticking around only to lend a hand to others, or being so excited to finally beat the system that they wanted to do it again, just to prove it wasn’t a lucky strike.
It took about a month for Reddit user Puzzleheaded_Log_398 to obtain a PS5, including staying up until 4 a.m. on Black Friday only to find out there were none, and then grabbing a second console for a friend in January.
“I wanted to find more people that needed one because I enjoy the thrill of the hunt,” they said, adding that the search felt like gambling. “When I scored that first PS5, I felt euphoric all day.” Multiple users agreed that the activity has become a game in and of itself — one of them told me that succeeding in “the hunt” felt as “good as beating a tough boss in Dark Souls.” Another told me that it’s frustrating until you finally score the first console, followed by a period where “the fun kicks in,” although bots and scalpers often make it an unfair game.
All the while, resellers are still making a profit and worsening the situation for the common customer, to the point where UK government minister Caroline Dinenage is discussing a potential action against console scalpers, according to reports. What’s more, whether or not console stock will be able to start meeting demands by the latter half of 2021 isn’t clear for the time being — as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, it’s likely that production will still be hampered.
The hunt for the new video game consoles is a looming worry. Long or altogether sleepless nights are a constant for many. But enduring overwhelming odds isn’t unique to this community. People everywhere continue waiting for the chance to obtain the coronavirus vaccine, and this search is as much of a game to some of them.
“I was ready for the vaccine appointment to be similarly frustrating, but I was kind of floored to discover it was only mildly annoying to navigate,” Reddit user John told me.
“I have co-morbidities, which means I qualified under New York State’s system. I looked at the state’s appointment tool when I woke up and couldn’t get anything to work. Figured that would be the story for a while, but I kept trying and reloading pages all day and snagged one that wasn’t until April 3rd.” While relieved, he was disappointed by the appointment being so far out, so he decided to keep looking. One Twitter account called TurboVax, which aggregates all the appointments in the state and updates them in real time, was the key to obtaining a much earlier appointment.
“I think it’s interesting how the two… subcultures, for lack of a better word, are so similar,” John concluded. “I still follow the TurboVax account and keep seeing them post ‘appointment drops’ and then see a long thread of commenters who are pissed off they didn’t get one. The joke I made to my girlfriend a few weeks back was ‘which will I get first, a PS5 or a vaccine appointment?’”