There's Nothing Wrong with Paying for Pixels



Tue 9th May 2017 - 7:33am

This is a guest-post written by Timothy Kimbirk for

$330,000 - That’s how much "Buzz Erik Lightyear" paid for the Crystal Palace space station in the Entropia Universe MMORPG in 2009. Eventually, Crystal Palace was sold off in parts for a profit, but it begs the question - Why would anyone pay so much for an item that only exists in cyberspace, especially one as specific as the servers of a game that will inevitably be shut down one day? To answer that question, let’s take a look at one of the leading digital platforms for buying and selling virtual goods: Valve’s Steam Community Marketplace.

Not only allowing developers an opportunity to showcase their games via the Steam platform, Valve facilitates entire economies of virtual goods across a slew of games, most notably their own flagships in Team Fortress 2, CounterStrike, and Dota 2. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the primary draw is simple and familiar: cosmetic skins. 

While higher end skins can easily cost thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars, the average skin actually ranges from a few cents to a few dollars. Valve has made way for a system of supply and demand that is its own financial beast all on its own, making it easy for players to collect tons of skins without breaking the bank, or even avoid spending money altogether thanks to the option of opening free crates and relying solely on random drops. And yet technically, the items don’t exist. So why do people buy them?

Why do people spend money on anything they enjoy? They want to, and they can. Buying, selling, and trading skins, just like any hobby, can be both rewarding and time consuming. And just like anything else, everything in moderation, whether that means going out and spending $50 or more on drinks, or staying in and spending the same amount on glorified pixels. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to enjoy yourself, as long as you keep things in check and in control. Don’t be that dude who stole his mom’s credit card to buy a pair of virtual gloves.

For some, a pricey or incredibly expensive skin represents status in the same way a Rolex or a BMW might to someone in the physical world - albeit of lesser value. It’s essentially a way of "flexin". And, hey, if that’s your thing, to each his own. Shiny things were meant to be bought - and admired.

Skins can also represent much more. For some, an item related to a specific event might hold fond memories. I myself have a Tec-9 with a Cajunb signature from the TSM era that I use solely because my brother bought it for me. I’m sure others have tied memories and moments to weapons and in-game items the same way people tie experiences to physical objects, no matter how banal or ridiculous they may seem.

Then of course, there’s money. Not only do skins provide additional income to Valve, they also offer a share of the profits to the creators. As of 2015, over $57 million had been paid out to contributors across the titles mentioned above. More recently, skin designer Chris Le of C-Le GFX commented on stream that he makes well over $40,000 per skin, an impressive number, and absolutely enough for talented digital artists to make a living, or at least some money on the side. 

Le, Chris. AK47 Horus. 2015.

Another bonus behind digital goods is the option developers have to support their games esports scene with community crowdfund events such as The Compendium for Dota 2’s The International competition, which offers players a chance to buy into varying tiers of cosmetic items, upgrades and funds the tournament directly. The largest Dota event of the year boasted an incredible prize pool of over $20 million, thanks to the additional $19,170,460 contributed by fans. The trend is starting to gain traction in other games as well, with the most recent example of League of Legends adopting a similar idea for their international competitions.

There’s also the art factor. Whether they were crafted by a Valve artist or an aspiring graphics designer, some CSGO skins truly are a work to behold. The same way someone might collect art or other items as a hobby, someone who gets most of their enjoyment from gaming and time spent playing might desire to collect skins.

And some of them just look damn cool, which is never a bad thing.