“Out of stock” is a message those who are still seeking Sony’s PlayStation 5 (PS5) have become all too familiar with.
For the casual online shopper, it may seem near impossible to get your hands on Sony’s console. For those willing to put in the time, however, it has proven possible to buy one, but there is a significant obstacle in the way.
That obstacle comes in the form of scalpers – people who buy large quantities of in-demand items, such as new electronics or event tickets, at regular price, hoping that the items sell out. They then resell the items at a higher price.
“The scalpers use bots to flood the websites to prevent other people from buying PS5s, then sell them at double the cost, which is disgusting,” said Rodney Copperbottom, who helps run MSTV, a community established with the sole aim of stopping scalpers from having a monopoly on hard-to-get items.
MSTV operates mainly on the social media website Discord, a platform that is popular amongst gamers. The channel almost immediately alerts its members when retailers release more PS5 stock, something that is not happening as frequently as Sony would like.
The demand is high
Even before its launch, Sony’s PS5 was one of the most sought after consoles in recent memory. According to Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan, Sony pre-sold as many PS5s in the first 12 hours of preorders in the US as the first 12 weeks of preorders for the PlayStation 4.
The PS5 demand only increased once the console was launched in November 2020. This can, in part, be put down to the mostly positive reviews the console received.
It can also be attributed to the unprecedented social context in which it was released, with more people than ever playing video games during the Covid-19 pandemic.
But whilst the global pandemic had a positive impact on the public’s desire for a new gaming console, it had an equally negative impact on Sony’s ability to keep up with that demand.
In an interview with GQ magazine, Ryan said: “Obviously in a pandemic supply chains become a little more complicated than would normally be the case.”
The PS5 is nearly half a year old and yet, due to the limited supply, is still being listed for sale well above the recommended retail price (RRP) of £450 for the Disc Edition and £350 for the Digital Edition on websites such as eBay and Facebook Marketplace.
This has not deterred people who are eager for the console, however. Tommy Cole, a 23-year-old supply chain manager from Surrey, managed to secure a PS5 Disc Edition in November on Facebook Marketplace for £650.
He said: “I spent the whole release day trying to get a PS5 but had no luck, I found one on Facebook for what I thought was a reasonable price and decided to buy it.
“I spoke to the guy selling it over FaceTime and he showed me the PS5 box, we met in a public place and no money was exchanged until I had the console in my hand.”
Paying way above the RRP is not feasible for all, but, luckily for them, other methods of securing the PS5 without relying on scalpers have become available.
The anti-scalpers strike back
The story of rebels banding together to combat a mighty force is one as old as time. In all of these tales, the rebels may seem outgunned and overmatched, yet they do their best to topple what they perceive to be a great evil, and, in the end, they emerge victoriously.
In this case, however, the great evil is not a vast empire but the scalpers, and the rebels are the collection of computer-savvy individuals who spend their time and resources helping others to combat the scalpers and get their hands on the console at the RRP.
“For a long time, the scalpers had complete control of the market and people were desperate enough to pay those prices.
“So this channel quickly grew into more than just a source of information for people, it is a community dedicated to beating the scalpers,” said Copperbottom.
Rodney Copperbottom is not a real name, but rather an alias used to hide their real identity. They are an Argos employee and so can access stock levels and delivery dates which they then use to make an educated guess on when stock is going live.
They said: “I am technically leaking sensitive information, but I feel it is necessary to get ahead of the scalpers.”
MSTV is not the only one of its kind. There is an abundance of Twitter accounts dedicated to alerting followers when retailers release more PS5 stock.
What sets MSTV apart though, is that whilst most of these other accounts utilise scalper technology, MSTV is operated entirely by people.
The operators of this Discord channel spend upwards of 20 hours a day constantly refreshing retail websites. As soon as PS5s are labelled “in stock” on any of the websites they check, they send an alert on the channel informing the community, which currently stands at over 4,000 members.
A YouTube stream and Twitter channel are also used to alert the public. This is not a foolproof way to beat the scalpers, but it at least gives the community a fighting chance on getting their hands on the console.
It is a fairly thankless role as, minus the odd donation on the channel, the operators receive no financial compensation.
But for them, knowing that they are “sticking it to the scalpers”, in the words of Copperbottom, is good enough.
BxT (an alias), a 26-year-old BBC contractor, joined the community when it was still relatively small, and, despite already owning a PS5, continued to help the community by gathering and sharing information about stock drops.
“It has been a constant battle fighting against scalpers and having to use ‘manual hours’ [what the community calls late evenings/early mornings] to try and help everyone secure a console. There have been times where I have only had three hours of sleep over 48 hours.”
On February 12, BxT was the community member who alerted everyone that a lesser-known retailer, Ace, had released a limited amount of stock on their website at 7am.
Thanks to BxT, of the 800 members who were online at the time, over 600 of them were successful in securing a PS5.
The success in part, they theorised, was because the scalpers only check the large retailers, not the smaller ones.
The retailers’ response
Communities like MSTV would not be required if the retailers had rigorous safeguards against scalpers.
This is not the case, however, and as Copperbottom said, retail websites are frequently compromised by the scalpers whenever any stock is released.
Some retailers seem unbothered by the possibility of scalpers securing all the stock. Amazon, for example, has little to no measures in place to prevent scalpers, which is why it is one of the toughest websites to secure a PS5 on.
Other websites fare better, with order limits, online queues and regular CAPTCHA tests required before a purchase is processed. They will also often review purchase records before confirming purchases to try and identify any suspect orders.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We have stringent processes in place to make sure our customers get the best possible experience when shopping with us.
“As part of this, PlayStation 5’s are currently limited to one per customer and any duplicate orders are cancelled.”
Similarly, a Game UK spokesperson said: “We have strong measures in place to help ensure that our ‘one per customer’ statement is maintained to allow for as many individual customers to successfully purchase as possible.
“All pre-orders are subject to automatic checks and order updates such as cancellations.”
A new hope
With the world slowly getting a grip on the global pandemic, less stress will be placed on supply chains and production will increase.
In his GQ Magazine interview, Ryan said: “With renewed vigour and energy post-Christmas to get supply up, it will increase as each month passes. And the situation will start to get better hopefully quite quickly.
“We have been relentless in terms of trying to increase production and I really can’t say any more than that.”
This is good news for those who are still yet to secure a PS5. It means there will be less incentive for scalpers to secure all the stock as the resale price will be driven down. It will also mean less reliance will be placed on communities like MSTV.
“We dedicate our time to make sure the scalpers lose, and we do not plan on stopping until everyone has a PS5 in their hands,” said Copperbottom.