How can a university student make hundreds of pounds a month playing games, without playing in esports tournaments?
Why do you sometimes come up against obscenely strong players in competitive games at low ranks?
If you're banned and want to return to your ranked division with a new account, what's the quickest way to do so?
The answer is elo boosting. But what is it, how does it work and how seriously are developers taking it? Dominic Sacco speaks to boosters, customers and site owners like SecretElo.net's founder in this long-form feature.
Elo boosting is essentially the act of allowing a higher-skilled player to log into your account, play matches on your behalf and 'boost' your account to a stronger level, or elo.
For example, say you're a poor lowly Silver player in League of Legends like me. It might cost you several hundred pounds for someone to climb to Platinum or Diamond on your behalf.
The higher the elo or MMR, the more time it will take, and the more money you'll pay, anything from £20 or so for a rank or two, to hundreds - or even thousands - of pounds for the top-level or particularly rare accounts.
In a way it's kind of like gambling - whether you're betting on sports or looking for new casino sites at Casinostoplay.com - you don't know if the account you buy or sell will be later banned, but some take the risk for the reward.
Every now and then as a journalist you come across a topic which many people don't want to speak about in a respective industry. In computing it's the grey market, in toys it's counterfeits and in games it's gamergate, though before that happened one of the topics I covered was indie retailers buying from bigger retailers like Amazon instead of official suppliers.
In the world of competitive online games, it seems elo boosting is one of these areas that players don't like discuss openly. Not on the record anyway.
This means I have a lot of off-the-record comments in this article, which you'll just have to trust me with. I spent weeks putting together this article and put it off for months just because I knew it'd take ages to write.
"Elo boosting was fun and even makes you feel good about yourself. Having additional income from League of Legends for someone not at the top level is super nice."
Former UK League of Legends player
But it's here now, and you'll just have to trust me that all quotes here are genuine. Anonymous, but genuine.
There are several reasons why people in UK esports or elsewhere don't want to talk about elo boosting, including the following:
- It can ruin their reputation, especially if they play for an amateur or pro team.
- It breaks the terms and conditions of many online games, and could get them banned.
- Many boosted customers will not want to openly admit that they've actually paid real money to compensate for their poor playing ability.
This kind of thing is nothing new of course. Back when World of Warcraft was relatively new and growing faster than Apple's share price, there was a huge market for illegal gold farming. You could pay a tenner for 100 gold or whatever, and someone, somewhere, would be sitting playing WoW all day long, grinding gold farming spots, selling items and making loads of in-game money to sell for real life dosh.
Blizzard's answer to this was the WoW token - an official item you can buy with real money and sell for to another player for in-game credits. The token can then be redeemed for 30 days worth of game time (the equivalent of £9.99 or thereabouts). Gold farming still exists, just on a smaller scale. And accounts are still bought and sold today.
However, elo boosting is much more difficult to stamp out. Games like League of Legends and Overwatch are more popular than WoW. And do the developers really want it stamped out? I'll aim to explore that in this article.
How much do boosters make?
It's not really a question of why boosters do what they do. It's clear there is decent money be made here.
For example, when asked why he boosts, competitive UK Overwatch player Lucifer, from eloboostpros.com, ELOquently said: "Sh*t's lit, I earn bank while at uni."
He also claims to have earnt more than £600 a month boosting.
And if the booster is part of a wider boosting service, company or collective, it can be easier to boost multiple accounts and make money quicker.
"The whole market was insane a few years back. I could earn £1,000 to £3,000 a week boosting."
UK esports organisation owner
One UK org owner admitted: "The whole market was insane a few years back. I could earn £1,000 to £3,000 a week boosting.
"I'd run the operation and usually duo queue with a Turkish player I knew who was Challenger/high Diamond.
"We'd also employ a couple other people to boost but we're pretty sure they used to script on the accounts which we didn't like.
"We also had others also do it for us. We'd give them 30% and split the rest between me and my partner.
"At the time I was in year 11 so I had a lot of free time to boost accounts. It was a great business but as the game has progressed and the market saturated we had to lower prices and it was eventually just not worthwhile."
Another well-known UK League of Legends player commented anonymously: "Overall boosting translated to about £5 an hour for me with 80%+ win rates, and it will for most who aren't doing Challenger jobs."
A former UK League player said aside from the money, it also made them feel good: "I eloboosted on League a couple of years ago for a few months. It was fun and even makes you feel good about yourself. Having additional income from League for someone not at the top level is super nice."
"Usually a decent job would take a couple of days grinding and I'd make maybe £50 from it.
"If people can get clients for themselve, especially for boosting at a higher level like Master or Challenger, it could be super lucrative. If boosting was in anyway close to being allowed/legal, it's how I'd spend my days."
"Sh*t's lit, I earn bank while at uni."
Lucifer, UK Overwatch player
One US org owner concurred: "It's far more lucrative than most player contracts until you're at the pro level for sure. I'm sure for some games it could be more lucrative than even being a pro player is to be honest."
Another player said there was 'a level of detachment from the customers' and they had to be careful not being fleeced and not paid.
They said: "Once or twice I had people approach me directly to buy boosts. I asked for half money upfront and half on completion. I had one guy block me everywhere after completion, which made me reluctant to boost in the future.
"I suppose if you've got a good reputation for it you can ask for 100% upfront but otherwise you're out of luck without a middleman."
This highlights one of the potential pitfalls boosters have to be aware of.
What are the downsides of boosting?
The obvious answer is ruining the player experience for lower-ranked individuals.
Playing a match that you're winning, only for the top-laner to 1v9 and take out your entire team in the mid to late game, is crushingly deflating. That player is not a true low elo player, they are a high-tier player boosting someone's account, or smurfing on theirs.
Coming up against a smurf isn't always bad. You're still just playing a game at the end of the day, and you can learn something from the smurf or booster, but it's usually dispiriting. Imagine coming up against a booster in every match and they're on the enemy team, it's probably as enjoyable as being repeatedly poked in the eye. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it but pray and hope that it stops.
You're also taking a risk with your account. Sharing your login details usually breaks the game's terms of service, and it could mean you never see your account again. If you've spent hundreds of pounds and hours on it, this can be devastating.
One well-known UK amateur player told Esports News UK agrees that buying a boost can also be painful for your wallet - or your career.
"Overall it's not a HUGE problem or influence on games but it is a negative overall," he said.
"I would advise against buying boosts - the rank can easily be lost if you're unlucky. Get caught and your money is gone.
"I stopped boosting because unless you work for a major site who take a 30%+ cut from all of your 'jobs', you can't find customers. Also, those sites can just sell you out at any time and your career is over."
"Boosting could take quite a long time and I'd be making minimum wage or less after all was said and done. Granted, it was for playing League of Legends..."
Former UK LoL player
Another player and LAN winner said: "I think boosting impacts the elos in high Plat/low Diamond quite a lot, which is why I stopped. I thought it would be better to get into real esports where I earned legit money legit without abusing the system for easy money."
One former League player also said that boosting can be incredibly time-consuming, and you can get shafted if you work for a group who take a larger cut of the earnings.
"The downside was how time-consuming it was, and because I was finding clients through a website they took a very large cut - I believe it was 60/40 to me although I could be misremembering," he said.
"Boosting could take quite a long time and I'd be making minimum wage or less after all was said and done. Granted, it was for playing League of Legends, but to make any worthwhile cash you need to dedicate a good amount of time towards it.
"The main issue I have is it's just not sustainable alongside playing competitively. It can also reinforce bad habits such as disrespecting your opponent. Also if you're finding your clients through a boosting website they will often want you to fill a certain amount of orders to ensure a quick turnaround time for their customers.
"It's just not possible to be scrimming several hours a night, boosting, getting enough solo queue practice and have personal time, especially since a lot of people do it while studying at university or working with an actual job."
There's also oversaturation in the market. Games like League have been around for a while and there are many other boosters to compete with.
Then there's potential bans from the game developers themselves (see 'banning the boosters' further into this article).
Why buy a boost? We ask a boosted customer
When we reached out to the community for comments on elo boosting, we had no shortage of boosters stepping forward to talk anonymously.
But in terms customers, we could find just one who was willing to comment, and even then it was off the record.
This is a League of Legends coach who has been in the UK esports scene.
They said: "The only time I've done it for myself was to go from Gold 1 to Plat 5 in League of Legends. I failed my promos like six times so I just thought f*ck it, I'll get there eventually but it's not worth the headache.
"It cost me about £15 to £20 and I was very happy with the service.
"The boosters done it in two days - they lost one then won five. Live chat was good and I had a fast response time. I went straight to Plat 1 after being boosted."
"I failed my promos like six times so I just thought f*ck it, I'll get there eventually but it's not worth the headache. It cost me about £15 to £20 and I was very happy with the service."
Anonymous boosted customer
Was the boosted individual worried their account might get banned?
"I know Riot Games are pretty bad when it comes to tracking and banning sold or boosted accounts, so I wasn't too worried about being banned," they replied.
"I was more worried about my account being stolen to be honest, but I'm pretty sure I didn't even change the password afterwards and the account was fine. I have other accounts so losing it wouldn't have bothered me."
The customer has also boosted low elo accounts and sold them on themselves.
"I've probably been buying and selling accounts for like two years," they said. "I buy them unranked for about £20 and can double that once I get it to Plat 5. It takes roughly two weeks, give or take a week depending on how much I want to play on that account. But I don't really do it for the money - I just have a lot of free time.
"The people I was selling accounts to are almost always real life friends, or friends on League, that's why I was able to sell for double usually, it's from a more reliable source. A lot of people don't like buying from sites."
An anonymous US org owner offered his advice to those who are thinking of boosting.
"My advice to customers is to try to buy boosting from someone who is actively coaching," he said. At least then you know you won't get banned for cheating."
Banning the boosters: How do developers treat this issue?
Are devs clamping down as much as they can on boosting? What are the punishments?
The general answers to those questions would be no and not as much as you might think.
Riot's stance on boosting is as follows:
"Any account found participating in MMR Boosting (both booster and boostee) are subject to the following punishments:
- Two-week account suspension in League of Legends
- Removal of any prior Season's Ranked Rewards
- Exclusion from receiving the current season's Ranked Rewards
- Second time offenders will be permanently banned from League of Legends"
Riot Cluvie said a few months back: "We do ban [boosted accounts]. It's not always immediate, but we are working on that. Every season, we work to improve and iterate on detection as well. You will see a lot of QQ towards the end of the season as the rewards are stripped from the account and punishments begin rolling out."
The problem exists in other games too, of course. Overwatch has been out for more than a year and Blizzard has only recently said it's going to do more to battle the boosters.
"Doing anything to manipulate your internal MMR or skill rating (i.e. boosting or throwing) is not fine," said game director Jeff Kaplan.
"Penalties for boosting and throwing are about to increase dramatically. Please report the behaviour."
"Doing anything to manipulate your internal MMR or skill rating is not fine. Penalties for boosting and throwing are about to increase dramatically."
Jeff Kaplan, Blizzard
Blizzard also made some other changes earlier this year to prevent throwing. They said in a statement: "Some players deliberately throwing matches in an effort to reach the lowest attainable skill rating. We obviously don't want to incentivize this behaviour so we're making it a little more difficult to hit the lowest and highest possible ratings: 0 and 5000. We're also no longer displaying skill rating values that are lower than 500."
The developers will never say it, of course, but a boosted customer is still one of their customers and is important to them. It's someone who still plays their game, makes up the numbers and may occasionally pay for cosmetic items and make other micro transactions.
What would happen if Riot, Blizzard and other devs banned every known booster and boostee overnight? Games might be a bit fairer in the short-term. But some boosters and customers may quit. The devs will likely make slightly less money. It's shallow but something for them to consider.
A top UK org owner told Esports News UK: "If it's a free to play game they really shouldn't bother with [banning boosters] too much. I found a lot of the people I boosted, who would spend £1,000 on a rank, also spent a lot on other things, like RP, rare skins etc.
"I always told customers the chances of being banned were pretty low unless it was super obvious, for example going from a sh*t tier Bronze 5 Renekton main, to getting Diamond 4 using only Vayne and Twitch is just asking to be caught.
"Riot did look at internet IPs and things along that line, though I never had a customer banned."
Another experienced UK player admitted: "Riot doesn't do anywhere near what they're capable of in regards to stopping boosting.
"They're extremely slack and it's why so many people do it - because they get away with it.
"There are literally blatant examples of people who compete in UK tournaments who openly advertise boosting on their Twitter. And nothing has ever been done."
"Coaching is by far superior to boosting. Give a man a boost, you boost him for a day. Teach him how to climb and he'll climb for a lifetime."
Jamie "Tundra" Duthie
Saying that, during season 2, Riot released a statement saying boosting was prohibited and anyone caught would be punished. Esports News UK understands one former booster ended up working with Riot to take down a big boosting site at the time, and apparently more than 300 accounts were banned as a result.
But boosters and customers will also take steps to avoid being caught. Some would lose the occasional game on purpose, while others would join forces.
"When I was boosting most people wanted to do it by duo queuing, because they didn't want to make it obvious they were getting boosted," one former booster said.
One booster site, SecretElo.Net, makes no effort to hide what they do (for more information see the interview at the bottom of this article).
'Devs should spend their time on anti-cheat instead'
Another US-based org owner said boosting isn't a big deal and that developers should focus their attention elsewhere.
"Boosting in general doesn't create too many problems because people who get boosted either don't play at their boosted elo, or they play and lose their elo hyper fast," they said.
"I think devs trying to stop boosting are probably wasting their time. They 100% would be better spending their resources on anti-cheat.
"The more shady boosters are using cheats to win rather than skill. That ruins games way harder than a pro player getting someone to Global Elite in CSGO," the anonymous org owner explained.
"The amount of cheaters in games like Overwatch is insane. I know of players spending hundreds of dollars a month on a cheat subscription who still buy coaching and boosts. It's absolutely absurd. Coaching someone that has aim and walls on is literally surreal and gave me a renewed hatred for cheats."
It's interesting the org owner's use of the word 'cheating'. To some, boosting itself would be considered cheating. It's subjective and obviously depends on how each issue affects each individual.
Efforts have been made to clamp down on cheaters. Riot sued a cheating software creator earlier this year in a landmark case.
'The problem is the income' - why one UK LoL player turned to boosting
"Why boost? Well, the money was better before but it's still good enough today to warrant doing it.
"Let's compare playing competitively to boosting. If a team wins LAN they receive a few thousand pounds. For most orgs their cut is 15-20%. So that leaves me, a player, with a few hundred pounds.
"That is my reward for a gruelling tournament, weeks of team training, and for being the best. Second place would be half that amount.
"Now let's take Joe Bloggs, a Diamond 5 UK player who would barely get into an ESL Premiership or UK Masters team. But he can cruise through Bronze to Gold, maybe even Plat. Let's say a player wants a Gold 3 to Plat 5 boost. That's £100. How long would that take? 15 to 20 wins, that's around 10 hours.
"What's better, winning £400 or £500 from a LoL tournament after months of work, or £100 in a day from boosting?"
Anonymous UK player
"What's better, £400 or £500 after months of work, or £100 in a day?
"But what about ethics? Being a 'pro'? Both become irrelevant. I can list several LCS players who are currently playing that actively boost.
"The boosting network has grown and Skype chats for elite boosters surfaced, making it easy to find duos or groups to boost the same games with a minimised risk of losing.
"The problem is the income and time investment difference between competing and boosting. And the lack of punishment to boosters and how easy it is to get away with it."
'There were tons of ban waves and drama bombs' - tales from a WoW Gladiator
We spoke to an anonymous former World of Warcraft booster for their account of what they used to do and how it worked...
"Back in Wow Seasons 1-4 a lot of the gear was rating locked and was considered highly prestigious. WoW didn't have what they call the transmogrification system (making gear look like other gear) so people's achievements were generally recognisable by the gear they wore. Shoulders and weapons required pretty high rating and signified a great PVP player.
"In later seasons, the currency used to buy the gear was given to you weekly based on your rating, so people would pay you to get them higher ratings. This meant they'd get more currency per week and access to the more prestigious items.
"At the time there were widespread scandals on each Battlegroup about people win trading for rating to get access to the items undeservedly. There were tons of ban waves and drama bombs surrounding it.
"I got involved just by being good at PVP, hanging with people who were good at PVP and being asked by guild members for small boosts initially. Then I started to make a decent amount of cash..."
"Finally there were the Gladiator titles; the top 0.5% of Arena players each season were awarded the title to use for the next season and a mount to keep for life. These were incredibly valuable.
"Wow's core motivation for many people was the respect of random passers-by, as people would congregate in places like Ironforge and Stormwind and would stand out with these things.
"I got involved just by being good at PVP, hanging with people who were good at PVP and being asked by guild members for small boosts initially. Then I started to make a decent amount of cash and would play people's accounts to the higher ratings/pull them into our teams so they could leech.
"It would be stuff like £300 for a 2k rating - pretty high during season 4. And we generally didn't offer Gladiator as it was too dicey. I got out at the end of Wrath expansion as I quit WoW altogether.
"Our guild had a vast array of Gladiators, Rank 1 Gladiators and a large portion of them did boosting for friends and for cash."
'Coaching is by far superior' - UK LAN veteran Tundra shares his views on boosting
Jamie "Tundra" Duthie, League of Legends streamer, coach and former player in the UK scene, shared his thoughts on boosting.
"Boosting is essentially an anomaly," he said. "The sheer amount of legitimate players that play ranked substantially outranks the amount of current boosts going on.
"If you have a booster in your game that's just unfortunate and won't affect your overall rating or where you end up - and anybody who uses such an excuse isn't being true to their mistakes.
"Nowadays every Tom Dick and Harry in Diamond 5 has an inflated ego. They believe they're God's gift to League of Legends and thus can boost."
Jamie "Tundra" Duthie
"Boosting has become a lot more saturated. Before you had to be an elite player to even be considered to boost. We're talking 2.1k+ the equivalent of mid-Master tier now.
"Because so few people even held that kind of rank, an even fewer amount of people wanted to boost.
"Nowadays every Tom Dick and Harry in Diamond 5 has an inflated ego and believes they're God's gift to League of Legends and thus can boost.
"The sad thing about all this boosting? Coaching is by far superior.
"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
"Give a man a boost, you boost him for a day. Teach him how to climb and he'll climb for a lifetime."
An interview with YoungGooby: The owner of SecretElo.Net
The difference between eSports and boosting pic.twitter.com/Wgy9pSpUdB
— YoungGooby (@YoungGoobz) July 4, 2017
To end this article on boosting, we thought it'd be fitting to interview the owner of one of the League of Legends boosting sites, SecretElo.
The site has around 3,000 users and has had hundreds of orders invoiced.
ENUK: Why do you run SecretElo.net , what kind of money do you earn?
YoungGooby: I run SecretElo to spite Riot for their disastrous acquisition by Tencent, which has caused Riot to go on a downward spiral in their handling of esports and especially their handling of the balancing of their game.
I'd probably still be a streamer/YouTuber and an avid player of League had they not done such a poor job with my favourite game of all time.
I was on pace to make about 50k per year gross, but now due to time constraints with working full-time I'd probably estimate about 20k per year.
What kind of split do you take from your boosters?
I take a 40% cut for all boosting orders, and a 75% cut for all unranked 30 accounts sold.
You have some quirky marketing videos, like the below. How well do these work for you?
— SecretElo.net (@SecretEloDOTnet) February 23, 2017
The Fiverr videos were unbelievable in terms of bang for buck. Not as good as the impressions I get from just tweeting memes and tweeting about current events in the League of Legends community, but still completely worth the $5-$10 per video.
"I run SecretElo to spite Riot for their disastrous acquisition by Tencent."
What are your thoughts on boosting in general, do you think it creates elo problems, do developers like Riot take it seriously enough, should they bother trying to stop it? Do you even care?
It's going to sound biased but I've never cared about boosting. People complain about playing against boosters and stuff, but whenever I was playing against people who were obviously boosting, I just tried to learn as much as I could from the way in which they played the game, and also put me on another level of tryhard to try to ruin their winrates.
I'm a really competitive person, so I just always saw it as a challenge. Should Riot even bother trying to do something about it? Nah, there is no way to combat boosting due to the way in which boosting is conducted in this day.
Whoever buys a boost does so at their own risk as their account could get banned. What are your thoughts on that? And do you ever have any problems with your boosters/customers?
It's actually impossible to get banned for boosting when boosters do it correctly, I mean Jesus, even Brofresco the YouTuber got boosted and didn't get banned for it.
Out of the entire existence of SecretElo I've only had one customer get banned, and only because they logged the booster out of their account a ton of times while the booster was in games, so it was simply really careless and rude by the customer, and also easily detectable by Riot due to the IP address changing back and forth over and over again.
What happened recently when you disappeared off Twitter for a bit, do you have a TLDR on the situation and how it affected your business?
I got banned for posting a picture of Tarzaned's face because he reported it. It hasn't affected business at all surprisingly.
Thank you for reading this monumentally long article; we hope you're still awake.
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