Pro-Auctioneering, the New eSport

Electronic Sport (eSport) is the competitive play of video games, often professionally, for prize money. In South Korea contests are so popular they are broadcast on dedicated television channels. E-sports generate less enthusiasm in the rest of the world, but their popularity seems to be growing.

There are parallels to traditional physical sports: The games played are accessible to the general public, but require huge dedication, skill, training and coordination to be “the best”. Many football (soccer) fans enjoy “kicking a ball about” in the street, but don’t expect to be playing at Old Trafford. Likewise there is a huge difference between beating Quake‘s single player mode and competing against top players. Probably the biggest difference is that eSports focus on the screen (what the player is doing), rather than on the player themselves (as tends to be the case with physical sports). This, combined with the traditional “geekiness” of video games, helps explain why most eSports professionals are rather devoid of charisma. Not that that stops tournament organisers putting these people on stage…

Traditionally eSports have favoured fast-paced games, either played individually or as small teams. Contests take place in short bouts. Examples include Starcraft and Counter-Strike. While these games require a degree of strategy, exceptional hand-eye coordination and reflexes are key to winning.

There have been attempts to promote casual games eSport, but tournaments remain biased towards fast-paced games. In the case of World of Warcraft’s (WoW) arena tournament, the core of the original game (the massively multiplayer part, where players are expected to invest time developing characters) was systematically removed to create a platform for traditional eSports. Missed opportunity. And here’s why:

This article proposes a rather curious “eSport”. One that is entirely dependant on the core facet of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) – the other players. An E-Sport that is played over days, rather than minutes. A game within a game, that tests abilities beyond simply clicking the mouse faster than your opponent. Allow me to introduce, Pro-Auctioneering.

Aims

The aim of pro-auctioneering is simple: Make as much in-game money as possible, as fast as possible, entirely independently, from absolutely nothing.

New characters start in Azeroth (WoW‘s first game world) with nothing but the clothes they stand up in. And those clothes are worth very little. To start the game proper, contestants must perform a few introductory quests, kill a few boars, and generally “level up” a little. That will give them a “float” – money with which to invest. Some contestants will wish to reach level 5, the point at which they can learn professions. Some professions can be used to generated additional cash. Most contestants will want to start the game proper without wasting too much time in the wilderness.

What is, the game proper? The only way to legitimately make serious money, seriously quick, is to convince other players to pay more for items (weapons, armour, and other trade-able goods) than the contestant paid to buy those items. Direct communication and exchange with individual players can be used to trade high-value items. But most trade will be conducted through the Auction House. Hence, auctioneering.

Auction House Basics

Ironforge‘s Auction House (uncommonly known as “the arena”), is pictured below.

Ironforge Auction House.

Exciting, isn’t it? The characters standing on the small stages are auctioneers. Talking to them gives the contestant access to the auction markets. These are entirely player-driven markets. Players can post items on the market, which other players can buy.

Auctions must be specified with a starting (lowest) bid, and optionally a maximum (“buy-out”) bid. Purchasing at the buy-out price automatically wins the auction. Items may be placed on the auction market for 12, 24 or 48 hour periods. The auction house takes a deposit for listing (for most items), and takes a cut if the item sells. When a contestant’s item sells, a full hour passes before they can claim the cash. However, if they win a bid, the item is sent to them immediately in the mail.

The nearest mailbox is on the opposite side of square outside the auction house, requiring contestants to regularly run back and forth to collect items and cash.

The auction house is remarkably similar to eBay, except time-scales are compressed, and the goods are imaginary.

Early Profits

It will probably not be a surprise to learn that pro-auctioneering is based heavily around buying at low prices and reselling at high prices. But like all good eSports, the art is in the detail.

At the outset, contestants have limited money available, so they are looking for more than just a bargain: They should seek basic items that are well within their budgets, and are likely to sell quickly. Rapid sales are important, because at this stage the potential profits are limited entirely by the amount of cash available to invest. Basic items will allow contests to buy several items, and so spread the risk that some do not sell. Such basic items also allow massive markups: Most players regard silver coin as “small change”, and seem just as willing to pay 80 silver as 20 silver. That allows shrewd contestants to quadruple their starting cash within a couple of hours.

Of course there are many complications. Take a look at information in the screenshot below.

Auction of Hunter's Muzzle Loader.

The image shows a small part of a typical auction house listing. Each row contains one item. The tooltip describes the first item – a Hunter’s Muzzle Loader, a gun. “Min” and “iLvl” are not important here. On the right you can see the approximate time remaining for the auction, and two prices. The first Hunter’s Muzzle Loader has a current bid of 14 silver, 10 copper, with a buy-out (maximum bid) of 20 silver. 100 copper coins equal 1 silver, 100 silver is 1 gold.

Should we buy that Hunter’s Muzzle Loader?

A quick look round the characters standing in auction house tells us that plenty of new characters are still being created on the realm. Since it is the weekend, a lot of them are playing. So low level weapons are likely to sell fast. The prices are low compared to a lot of other items for sale. We can’t hope to understand the value of everything immediately: There is always an element of trial and error. But the “gut feel” is good.

Unfortunately, there are 3 identical guns up for auction. If we take the first, believing that it is worth 80 silver, the other 2 guns will need to sell first before we can resell our gun. How much demand is there for level 14 guns anyway? Could it be that there are too many being auctioned, which is precisely the reason prices are so low?

So promising, but not a good first buy. It’s too risky. Rather, we should be looking for similar items that are not over-stocked, and priced low because the seller did not know any better.

There are a lot of little tricks and techniques to generate early profits. However it is not uncommon to have literally hundreds of these items up for auction. Such a situation cannot be sustained for long, because players sense the high prevailing prices, and stop listing their items cheap.

Raising the Stakes

Juggling all those basic low-cost, high margin items is fairly straightforward. What contestants are mainly doing at this stage is reading the market trends for more expensive items. What’s selling? How much are prices varying? How long do the variations take?

And just who are the other contestants, and what strategies are they using? Try and spot the “one trick ‘bots”. For example, players that log on, run round Ironforge buying recipes from vendors, list them at the auction house for 10 times their original price, and then log off for 24 hours. If you do the same a few minutes later, under-cutting their prices by a few silver, you will take their sales for the day. The best contestants will change their strategies to counter your strategies. But the “one trick ‘bots” only have one strategy.

Meanwhile, contestants are waiting for their “lucky break”: Eventually, somewhere in among thousands of auctions, someone will list an expensive item far too cheap. Maybe they accidentally listed the price in silver instead of gold? Or perhaps they found no listings for similar items and so had no idea what the item was worth? There are many reasons.

But our contestants already know what items are worth and roughly how long they will take to sell.

Moments of high drama can develop when these items are listed with only a bid price. Auction times are approximate, so contestants cannot simply enter a bid in the final second. Will someone else spot the deal? Will a bidding war break out that causes a mad rush to the mail box, as all the contestants run out of coin? Will the auction go to extra time?

As the example below shows, a lucky break reaps huge rewards.

Arcane Tome Lucky Break.

The image shows a record of transactions of Arcane Tomes, captured using the Auctioneer addon. This tool should not be used to determine prices directly: It is far too easy for other contestants to manipulate prices to fool the addon. But it is an excellent aide memoire for past sales history.

The first line shows how 5 Arcane Tomes were won on a bid for 17 gold, 90 silver: Roughly the value of one Arcane Tome. How can another player afford to loose that much money? For veteran players, 70 gold can be made in an hour or two. Those money-making opportunities are not available to the 1-day old characters of our contestants …except here, at the auction house.

Immediately the 5 Arcane Tomes go back on the market at a competitive price, 18 gold buy-out. All 5 sell quickly, earning 17 gold 10 silver each (after the auction house cut). Suddenly we find ourselves drowning in gold coins. Fortunately, all that money opens up a whole new game. So let’s play!

Market Manipulation

There are many interesting ways for contestants to make money by influencing how players buy and sell items. We will use the example of Arcane Tomes to demonstrate a basic technique.

Arcane Tomes are rarely carried by a wide range of hostile creatures, so players tend to gain them by accident. But only about half of all veteran players require them. The market for Arcane Tomes moves relatively quickly: Prices may fluctuate several times during a day, over a surprisingly wide range. In short, Arcane Tomes are ideally suited to trading.

Look at this set of auction listings for Arcane Tomes:

Arcane Tome listings.

At first sight, prices are poor: The cheapest Tome is listed at just 6 gold, 50 silver buy-out. 6 hours before we were earning 18 gold per Tome. But look closer and you will see that if the first 6 Arcane Tomes were taken away, the “current” price would double to over 13 gold. If we have understood the variations over time correctly, Tomes are now being purchased faster than new Tomes are being added to the market: The number of Tomes on the market will gradually reduce, progressively exposing more expensive listings as the cheapest available to buy.

So we can buy up the first 6 Tomes, and immediately re-list them at about 13 gold. If the Tomes sell as expected, our profit will not be great – only 10-15 gold. So perhaps we should hold onto the Tomes for a few hours, and let the price drift up further?

Players almost always list new auctions below whatever price they find for current auctions, since they assume this means their auction will be bought first. That behaviour invites the use of many different tricks to encourage prices back down again, once we have made our profit.

By the end of the pro-auctioneering tournament, our contestants will be doing everything described here, and much more, across many different items. On some items they will loose money, but on most items they will profit.

Every item is slightly different, and requires a slightly different approach. For example, some items sell better individually, while others sell better as stacks (for example, 5 or 20). Some price trends cycle over a few hours, while others change over a week. And some items almost never sell. Every realm is slightly different (everything shown here was from last weekend on Ravenholdt EU, a medium-population, RolePlaying Player vs Player community), and every contestant will have a slightly different approach.

Each contestant might earn over a thousand gold during a long weekend. Including time to eat, sleep and walk the dog. All from playing against other players.

If you wish to learn more, you can try different ideas out yourself and watch what other players are doing, or you can follow guides that offer more detail than I have introduced here.

But, Seriously…

I don’t expect to see pro-auctioneering added to the next Major League Gaming tournament. It takes far too long, simply isn’t fun to watch, and is wide open to abuse. But it would bring games like WoW into eSports in a way that actually builds on the core strength of MMOGs.

In reality, any “professional” auctioneer would be best advised to use their skills where they can make real money: Casual speculation on world grain markets, reselling sub-prime mortgages, offering pensions advice…

One comment on "Pro-Auctioneering, the New eSport"

  1. On May 11th, 2010 at 11:59 pm A Strange Game - Tim Howgego wrote:

    […] admit the game was not originally intended for this, and WoW arena matches are widely regarded as less exciting to watch than classic eSport games like Counterstrike. There may be no direct link between the […]