Four years ago the most expensive single fight ever in a video game took place. It broke all records, and even attracted attention from the mass media: Wired, CBS, and the BBC all turned out to comment on the fact that a video game managed to cost the losers about $300,000 in real world money. About a month ago, the Captains of two fleets in EVE Online managed to top that. EVE is a huge Sci-Fi universe that never shuts down. The game is unique in the sense that its entire economy and game environment are controlled by its huge player-run community: the cities, the stories, the wars: all are out of the hands of the developer. One player described the game as ‘half a million rats trapped in one cage.’ It’s a sandbox that’s been studied by banks and academics for its economic complexity, and it has just surpassed its own blood-spattered record.
To understand how, I want to begin with a bit of context. The last world-record-holding battle was won by the Clusterf*** Coalition (CFC), who grew to be the largest community in EVE Online’s History, eventually numbering 15,000 players. Their leader, Mitanni, became an internet celebrity, with a following that by his own admission, was already a ‘cult’. He started a news site (named after himself, of course,) and started branching out into other games like Planetside 2 and H1Z1. His dominance over EVE was unparalleled, but that dominance hit its peak in late 2015 when Mittani asked author Jeff Edwards to write a work of Sci-Fi non-fiction about his organisation’s exploits. He even renamed the coalition to ‘The Imperium’ to make it more advertiser-friendly. For the rest of the rats trapped in EVE’s cage, this was the last straw.
Funded by EVE’s biggest gambling mogul, ‘Lenny’, the Moneybadger Coalition was formed. The Imperium was pushed off the territory they had previously controlled, and began preparing for the largest battle in EVE’s history. 6,100 player piled into the same star system to battle using hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of in-game starships. Many of these massive ships take large coalitions of players months to complete. Bearing in mind EVE currency can and is converted to real-world money, the cost of a Titan, one of the largest ships, is around $1,300. Due to the huge cost of committing these resources, EVE battles play out like a poker game: each side commits greater and greater ships to the point where they have no choice but to send in their Titans. The total value of the forces for the Moneybadgers and the Imperium was around $1 million: the largest number of players and resources ever committed to a single battle.
As a result, the demands on EVE’s in-game systems stretched to breaking point. The game’s servers are powered by a legitimate supercomputer, but it strained under the pressure of so many players making so many commands. The game automatically slows down in large fights, but even so, many players were unable to do so much as fire a weapon for minutes on end. At the same time, players’ computers struggled to cope under the pressure of showing thousands of players and ships simultaneously. Spectators to the fight couldn’t move their camera for fear of an outright crash, and still other players found themselves unable to log in.
EVE’s players were ready: complex command structures relay instructions down lines in multiple different languages, and publicity machines stirred pilots into a frenzy before the big day. The actual fight, however, threw preparation and convention out the window to deliver in the only way EVE knows how: utter chaos. As one pilot put it: ‘there’s nothing like this happening in other games’. EVE is probably the only medium in existence for humanity to play out the full extent of their pettiness and disputes: what Mittani later called a ‘semi-toxic mix of risk, identity, and realness.’ The chaos created by the game reflects the chaos created in offline when humanity’s worst aspects are made real. EVE’s simulation, in a sense, delivered.
As the dust settled, both sides found their losses to be relatively minimal. The battle might have delivered in scale, but it failed expectations for destructive impact. Both the Imperium and the Moneybadgers will want revenge on their rivals. The arms race is ongoing, the pettiness will continue. The fight for the world’s most vast social experiment is not over.