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It's a little like being on the Truman Show except here, there's less suburbia and more Shadowrun."
"Yeah. I'm a fixer of some sort."
J makes stuff happen for people. Specifically, he operates as an intermediary for those looking to purchase a Golden Baby Roshan from one of his associates. We started talking after I put an open call on Reddit, asking if anyone has ever turned a profit selling Dota 2 cosmetics. He replied in private with a message fronted by dollar signs. /Hey man. I've sold some Golden Roshans for some friends and myself./
"I get things done," J is one part Russian mafia, one part businessman from Blade Runner.
For those who missed the black market memo, Golden Baby Roshans aren't just collectible vanity items. They're collectibles, the kind that italicize themselves in the human mind without much prompting. There are less than a hundred of the infant monsters on the market and even the least valuable specimen is worth a staggering 5500 dollars of cold hard cash.
Like street peddlers at some dystopian cyberpunk bazaar, the denizens of the Dota 2 trade channels are relentless. At all times of the day, you'll be able to find people hawking wares of indeterminable value, promising keys for virtual cosmetics, a storm of common goods for items of moderately greater rarity. Have this. Want that. The surface level is a barter economy made up of the impatient and the savvy but underneath that? Collectors, day-traders and, just maybe, a dash of the Illuminati.
"The first time it was in the game, one [Golden Baby Roshan] was sold for $2000. Now, sellers are looking for $10, 000 each," Reddit user crimsom859 remarks.
As stupefying as the idea of spending so much cash on a virtual item might be, many see it in a different light. Wuvs, an administrator at Dota2traders.com and owner of a near invaluable collection of out-of-print couriers, calls it's a matter of perspective.
"All of us folk who are a little bit, and I say this with the utmost affection, on the nerdy side tend to be fanboys of the things we like. Some of us collect old comics, some of us hunt down actors who portray superheroes for signatures. And those of us who are fans of virtual things like video games also have the propensity to be fans of the virtual items within those games." She tells me over Steam chat.
"I guess it's similar to spending thousands on a first edition mint comic book, eh?" I reply.
"Yeah! People make the distinction between the fact that at least a comic book is a tangible item but in a world where technology is such a huge aspect of all our lives, it seems insane to me that people still make that argument."
Though such motivations are easy to romanticize, the DOTA 2 market is similar to any environment where large sums of money circulate. Sharks are everywhere. Interestingly, the grifters and scammers and the snakes' oil salesmen of the community have even been labeled as such. And while efforts are being made to keep tabs on the more disreputable members of the economy, Wuvs advises the public to remember a definition of a 'shark' is still, by and large, an amorphous one.
"Is sharking just someone who gets too good of a lowball on an item or does a shark have to lie to get that low price? Do they have to convince someone that that low price is actually what the item is worth or do they just not correct a person who thinks that is the value on their own? Can any trader who is putting an item up for auction really be sharked? If you are selling an item, the onus is on you to check what it's worth anyway and do your research?"
Cutthroat but not necessarily unethical. Dota 2 trading isn't for the faint-hearted. D, who has been a part of the scene since its very conception, shares an example of how costly ignorance can be. Someone once approached the owner of a Legacy Ethereal Flames War Dog, one currently worth anywhere between $4000 to $6000 on the market, and offered a dismal $230 in exchange. The owner said yes and the buyer went on to sell his new acquisition for a princely sum.
"Would you have offered him more?"
He balks. "Well, more than $400.."
"Nobody wants to admit to sharking but most people have done it. Myself included," Vyrie, another reddit-bound trader, remarks off-handedly. "The slower ways do yield profit but it's, well, much slower. Sharking, however, could yield up to 50-100 keys a day back then."
(Keys, for the uninitiated, are used to open the chests that sporadically drop after a match. While most will yield only garden-variety goods, each chest is still a promise; if you get lucky, this one might drop a thousand dollar prize.)
A guy hijacks my thread: "What is the best place to find concrete values on items? I would like to get into trading but I have no clue how,"
The answer is unanimous: no one place.
Prices rise and fall depending on whim and demand. The disreputable steal identities and phish accounts. The ignorant are courted by the informed, their items taken without preamble. And in between, the most brazen will attempt to trick Valve itself. What complicates things even further is the fact that there is no reliable way to gauge an item's worth. Sharking extends beyond the individual. Websites like Dota2Prices stand accused of adjusting prices in the name of personal profit. To put a final nail in the hypothetical coffin, the market itself is also prey to human manipulation.
"It's not only that," Mad-Matt, a moderator from the Dota2Trade subreddit, explains after I ask if there has been a history of folk purchasing goods to instigate price hikes. "People are posting fake offers as well."
"Fake offers?" I ask.
"Yeah. Like, saying they will pay more for an item than what is normal. They never actually buy it, of course. It just sits there being seen by people. When people add them, they say they already have it but when you check their inventories? Nothing. These people are just trying to shift the market into thinking that something is becoming popular or that demand for it is increasing. Make other people list the item at that price when selling and bam! You have changed market prices."
"...you people are scary."
Not everyone is a crook, though.
"The community is always asking for a price list and these are wonderful things in theory. However, the problem is, in practice, people abuse these things." Wuvs says. "They manipulate the prices when they want to trade items. They don't update it enough so it isn't an accurate reflection of current prices or it isn't even moderated at all and people put in their own prices by creating multiple accounts to make fake posts. That's why we at Dota2Traders don't even allow our administrators or mods to offer suggestions in our price checks. It's only community members answering each other."
Of course, this isn't to say that the moderators do not step in when necessary. "Our mods do check the section to make sure people who are marked scammers are not posting in there and manipulating prices."
She adds, "Anyone in a position of authority has their opinion held to a higher standard. So, if a staff of a trading site says what a price is, it holds more weight. And while we trust our staff to be 100% honest.."
A break in the conversation.
"There's always a risk?"
"Yes. We do not want to start a trend. It's just a bad slippery slope we want no part of. If people want to trade, that's wonderful, we welcome it with open arms and we try to help out where we can. We do not want to risk influencing the market in any way while doing so."
It's an understandable stance. The Dota 2 market is as disconcertingly volatile as the fancies of its populace. A Western-themed outfit for Ursa, as awkward and inappropriate as it might be for the Hero, can still fetch hundreds while a long-desired hook for Pudge goes into sudden decline. Like the stock markets in the real world, trading in Dota 2 demands luck, intense research, no small amount of guile and an initial investment. With the trend now moving towards discontinued items ('legacy' couriers, Golden Baby Roshans, Timebreakers and more), the halcyon days of simply 'lucking out' are fading. If you want to get something, you must give something first.
Still, this doesn't mean that it's impossible to turn a profit.
"Buy low, sell high," Mad Matt tells me, his approach to trading almost disappointingly level-headed given his chosen appellation. "Buy backpacks for cheap then split it apart and sell it."
"The trick is to move as early as possible on the new items. Rich people are willing to throw money at whoever has what they want," PapaCody, another Redditor, supplies. "A lot of younger people are willing to gamble on crates early on as well. For TF2 new crates don't sell very well for long. DotA 2 is a little better, I can usually sell a brand new crate for $4-$5 but the price drops rapidly. CS:GO crates are much more rare, I was selling them on the first day for $16 but the price dropped to $10 by the end of the day. I think they're selling for ~$1.50 which is still decent enough."
The sentiment is echoed by J. "Everytime, a new chest comes out, the prices of the content is always higher, considering not that many people have opened the chests yet. Every limited item or such usually stays at around the same price.But it's like the stock market. Some days shit rises in value, others not."
Being unconventional also helps. A reddit user named goSoada expounds on how he functions as a go-between for those interested in purchasing merchandise but not the shipping costs involved. "What I would do was buy like 15 shirts or so from the valve store (that came with unlocks for in-game cosmetics) at a time using 1 day shipping and sell the codes through paypal. This worked because shipping to Europe was/is like 30 dollars or more and most Dota 2 players are EU. I would make about $140-170 each time I did this."
Dota 2 might still be an infant in the eyes of the industry, an 'underground hit' looking to take its place with the big dogs. But if the trading scene is any indication of things, Valve is sitting on a veritable gold mine (albeit the kind that can walk, fly and deliver goodies).