Seconds before noon Monday, Jake Randall started encouraging people watching his live stream on YouTube to start refreshing Walmart’s website on their computers.
At his request, thousands of people across the country began furiously hammering the keys, scrambling to stand in front of the retailer’s virtual line for the hottest giveaway this holiday season: a video game console. To increase their chances, Mr Randall recommended that all 8,000 viewers of his live stream also line up through Walmart’s app on their phones. Over the minutes, a lucky few sent Mr. Randall screenshots of their purchases. Some have sent him donations – about $ 2,000 in total – in thanks for his help. Others have failed. Within an hour, all consoles were exhausted.
Long queues outside retail stores turning into brawls, desperate shoppers updating websites in an attempt to outdo robots and a cottage industry of people like Mr. Randall trading tips and making money in the process – this is the state of the video game console market per year after the release of a new generation of highly coveted devices at the height of the pandemic. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, with a list price of $ 499, and Sony’s PlayStation 5, $ 399, came as the game’s popularity skyrocketed with people stuck inside, and they’ve been around for a long time since. in demand and rare.
Now, with the holiday shopping season in full swing, these same consoles remain the must-have gift on many wish lists. The result is fierce competition, both from other gamers and from people hanging onto as many devices as possible – sometimes using shopping bots to snatch them away faster than a human could. do it – then resell them for two or even three times the purchase. prices on sites like eBay or Facebook Marketplace.
âI grew up playing video games. Everyone wants to be the hero of the video game, âsaid Matt Swider, who quit his job as a reporter last month and is now sitting in his New York apartment, furiously scouring websites to send Twitter alerts to its subscribers whenever retailers have consoles for sale. . “The bad guys in this story are the dealers who employ bots both in person and online.”
Buying a game console this season is proving particularly tricky this year. By taking a page from Amazon, retailers like Best Buy, Walmart, and GameStop are, in many cases, making consoles available to those who pay to be part of their membership programs. Even so, paying Best Buy around $ 200 a year for a subscription doesn’t guarantee buyers will get the console. On top of that, customers follow people on YouTube, Twitter, Twitch, and Discord for tips and updates on which stores may have the items in stock or when a console may suddenly become available on a website. purchase. Then it becomes a race to beat the bots.
For months, Victoria Garza, a 23-year-old medical student in Harlingen, Texas, has been feverishly searching for her prize: a limited-edition Halo-themed Xbox. She follows channels on Discord and accounts on Twitter that alert her when the console is in stock. She gave her parents her credit card information, so they can buy her an Xbox if she’s at work when the console becomes available. Her dad even goes to a local GameStop every morning to check if there are any when the store opens.
Frustration with her unsuccessful pursuit of the console so far, she said, is increasing. If she had one, she said, “I would start to cry on the spot.”
While it’s fitting for consoles to be elusive when first released, the shortages seen over the past year are anything but. The problems stem from chronic problems in the global supply chain caused by the pandemic, which made the computer chips needed by many devices difficult to find.
“We are working as quickly as possible with our manufacturing and retail partners to expedite production and shipping to meet unprecedented demand,” Microsoft said in a statement. He declined to comment on the number of consoles sold so far.
Sony declined to comment on the demand issues, referring instead to a recent blog post by Jim Ryan, CEO of the company, in which he acknowledged that “inventory constraints remain a source of frustration for many of our customers. “.
“Please be assured that we are focusing on the laser to do everything in our power to ship as many units as possible,” Ryan wrote. Sony said in a September quarterly earnings report that it had sold 13.4 million PlayStation 5s since its release in November 2020.
David Gibson, senior analyst for Australian financial services firm MST Financial, estimated that by the end of the year Sony will have shipped 19 million consoles since the release of the PlayStation 5, and Microsoft around 11 million to 12 million. , grew in part by the release of its flagship game, Halo. But he said the two companies could have sold significantly more if the pandemic had not put pressure on global supply chains. The “console market will not be able to catch up with demand until the end of 2022, if at all,” he said.
Shortly after the PlayStation 5’s release, Mr. Swider, then US editor-in-chief of TechRadar, a tech review and recommendation website, was frustrated in his own attempts to purchase one. So he started following and tweeting when he found game consoles for sale.
It began receiving advice from employees of retailers like Best Buy and Walmart when a shipment of consoles arrived at individual stores or regional warehouses. At the end of last year, he had 21,000 followers on his Twitter account; now he has over a million.
He estimated that he has helped over 130,000 people get a console this year. In return, he hopes to make money by charging subscribers $ 5 per month for his new Substack newsletter, called “The Shortcut,” which will offer technology recommendations and tips on how to find a console or game. other electronic devices. When his subscribers use his links to purchase items from various retailer websites, he can earn a commission, called an âaffiliate feeâ on those sales.
Another retail detective, Mr Randall, said he doesn’t make money from commissions, but makes money from his live streams for hours on YouTube, which offer hints on when retailers can post consoles and tips and advice on how to buy one. Mr Randall, who can’t do a typical job because he has cystic fibrosis, said the feeds weren’t limited to helping frustrated parents or gamers get access to hot consoles.
âI don’t cure a disease, but with my limitations because of cystic fibrosis, helping people have a video console and be happy is something I can do and it means a lot to me,â Mr. Randall, 30, who broadcasts out of his studio in Nashua, NH “When I broadcast live, I get a lot of love and support from the whole community.”
The last week or so, including Black Friday and Cyber ââMonday, has been a blur of activity for many of these tipsters, as retailers who have been out of consoles for months suddenly put in thousands of dollars. available for sale. On Discord servers and on Twitter, messages filled with community jargon appeared around the clock, alerting buyers when there was a “drop” (more products available for sale) from an Xbox or singing in elation when someone has “copied” (bought) a PlayStation 5.
Mr Randall started broadcasting live at 6 a.m. each day, waiting for what he expected to be a big drop in consoles one morning from Target. Based on information he’s received from company employees, including screenshots from inventory scans, he believes Target is sitting on a mountain of consoles. (Target didn’t directly answer a question about its console offering, but it did make a number of consoles available Thursday morning.)
Some players have used the tips successfully.
Jeff Mahoney, 38, of Katy, Texas, said he got at least five PlayStations and two Xboxes while monitoring the Discord channel run by “Lord Restock,” who is actually a 21-year-old philosophy student at the University of Tampa who, when contacted, requested to remain anonymous because they did not want to be targeted online by resellers. After acquiring a PlayStation for himself, Mr Mahoney, who works for the accounting firm KPMG, said he was able to purchase the other devices for neighbors who wanted holiday gifts for their children.
âI’m like, ‘Hey, you’re not going to pay $ 800 to scalpers who use robots and make life miserable for everyone,'” he said. âI’m just here to help.