Gaming the game: Popular video games can be vulnerable to hackers

Key Points
  • Video game revenue is projected to reach $174 billion in 2019, according to IDC.
  • Developers are trying to stop hackers who search for vulnerabilities in a game's code and use it to get special advantages, called cheats.
  • If players do not think they can win a game, they will often switch to other games, which can hurt profits.
  • Cheats are bought and sold online and are not difficult to find for sale.
Gaming the game
Gaming the game

You're playing a video game. Imagine being able to see through walls, control your gun's recoil or shoot people far away without missing. This might sound like fantasy but it is within the realm of possibilities. These options are not open to most players, unless you know how to hack or are willing to spend money for special software.

The video game industry is on a tear with global revenue projected to reach $174 billion in 2019, according to IDC, a provider of market intelligence. The revenue includes in-game purchases and advertisements and consoles and controllers. But there is an issue many video game developers don't want to talk about — cheating.

A profitable part of the video game industry is e-gaming or esports, competitive video game competitions where amateur and professional players compete for prizes that can reach into the millions. Players and industry experts say it's rare to find cheating at tournaments, because of tight controls, but when playing at home, cheating is a lot harder to squash. And while it may seem harmless, it's not. Cheating can ruin the gaming experience, cut into profits from in-game purchases and turn consumers off.

"The interesting thing with online gaming is there's so much money in it now, not just as an industry, but also prize money and other things like that," said Alex Hamerstone, a leader at TrustedSec, a cybersecurity consulting firm that helps video game producers keep their games safe. "And so when you start to look at it that way, criminals oftentimes go where the money is."

A recent survey by security company Irdeto found that 60% of online games were negatively impacted by cheaters and 77% of players said they will stop playing if they think competitors are cheating.

"If a game has a lot of cheating, you just really have to hope that the people who run the game, the developers, work their butts off as fast as they can to get that dealt with, because it is an issue," said Eric Wrona, a professional e-gaming player who goes by the gaming name "Snip3down."

Cheating is an issue 18-year-old Bill Demirkapi knows well. The college freshman says he has developed cheats for video games by finding vulnerabilities in the games' code.

"I don't think that I'm either a good guy or necessarily a bad guy, but I think that a lot of what I do can be interpreted as being the bad guy," Demirkapi said in an interview in Las Vegas, where he was speaking at Def Con, a large hackers' conference held in August, about cybersecurity in schools.

Bill Demirkapi, a college freshman, demoed a cheat for CNBC.

He set up a demo for CNBC playing Rainbow Six Siege, a first-person shooter game made by Ubisoft. In the demo, he was able to see through walls, a distinct advantage in a game where you need to anticipate what's coming.

"This is a bot behind this wall right here. We're going to see him in a second," Demirkapi said.

A player shows a demo of playing a video game with cheats. He can see targets through the wall, as shown by the red outline.

In Demirkapi's demo, he used the cheats while playing against bots, or the computer

"If I'm playing in a multiplayer game, I definitely would feel bad if some people think that I'm legitimately this good," Demirkapi said. "I'm just using cheats and augmenting my abilities."

Ubisoft, which makes Rainbow Six Siege, declined an interview. However, in a statement, spokesman Anthony Acosta said in part, "Rainbow Six Siege does not tolerate cheats and exploits used in-game. Players found using cheats are penalized and/or banned accordingly."

Demirkapi has used his ability to develop cheats as a way to make money.

"For the higher-end cheats I've made, I've sold them for hundreds of dollars a month. Usually $100," he said. Demirkapi offered his cheats as a monthly subscription, a common practice. Video game makers update their code frequently, so cheat developers, like Demirkapi, need to keep updating their offerings.

This is the same video game side by side. On the left side, the player is not using cheats. On the right side, the player is using a cheat and can see targets through the walls, as shown by the red outlines.

But he didn't sell to anyone. Demirkapi said he only used to let 10 to 20 people at a time have a subscription to make sure his cheats were high quality. The small number of buyers also helped prevent purchasers from getting banned by the video game companies.

Demirkapi researched the players who wanted to make a purchase to be sure they could be trusted. He said he did not sell to any professional players since money is on the line at tournaments.

TrustedSec's Hamerstone showed CNBC websites where cheats are bought and sold.

"These add-ons [cheats] can be a lot like a professional athlete using steroids or some other performance-enhancing drug," he said. "Here what you're seeing is some code that you can use for what's called the 'aimbot' to increase your aiming."

Many of the cheat websites can be found on Google — sometimes it's as easy as searching for the name of a game and the word cheat, Hamerstone said.

"There are multiple different cheats. There are some that are sold very much like any retail product. Some are passed around amongst gamers more secretively," he said. "There's an absolute large market where you can just go out and buy these."

A website where people can buy and sell cheats, or special advantages in video games.

Video game players CNBC talked at the Fortnite World Cup said they had seen instances of cheating when they were playing at home.

At that tournament, held in July in New York, Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf, the 16-year-old winner of the singles competition, took home $3 million. Fortnite is a popular battle royale-style game where players try to survive and compete to be the last one standing. It was reported to have 250 million players in March.

"When I experienced hackers in Fortnite, there was people across the entire map hitting me … and instantly killing me, which is pretty crazy," said Griffin "Sceptic" Spikoski, a 15-year-old e-gaming player.

Crowds line up to enter the Fortnite World Cup held in New York City.

Players at Red Bull Rise to Dawn Till Dawn featuring Halo, a video game tournament held from sunset to sunrise on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower in Chicago, had also said they had experienced cheating while playing on their own. Halo is a first-person shooter game developed by 343 Industries, which is owned by Microsoft.

"I've experienced hacking in a lot of games," said Wrona, who came in second at the competition along with a gaming partner. "I really have never experienced that in Halo itself. ... We have a lot of tournament organizers and people higher up that would handle anything like that very swiftly."

Professional players like Wrona can make their living from playing video games, earning anywhere from $40,000 a year to into the millions. This includes money from tournaments, and often money from streaming and sponsorships.

At most tournaments, the organizers control the consoles or computers the games are played on and officials keep a close watch. Players said tournaments have referees to keep game play fair.

The final round of the Red Bull Rise Till Dawn Halo competition on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower in Chicago.

Neither Red Bull nor Epic Games, which makes Fortnite, would give CNBC an interview at their tournaments.

"Here at tournaments, we really need to protect the competitive integrity," Tahir Hasandjekic, a lead esports producer for Microsoft, said at the Red Bull tournament.

When it comes to playing at home, it's the Wild, Wild West.

"You're fighting a battle, you've already lost. When I have my computer in front of me, I have physical access," said Demirkapi. "It's really difficult for them [video game developers] to actually prevent me from cheating. And the best thing they can do is make the bar high enough to where it's not worth my time."

Demirkapi is far from the only hacker who has targeted video games. At Def Con the hacking convention in Las Vegas, which drew an estimated 30,000 attendees, video game hacking was on the agenda.

At Def Con, an annual hacking convention held is Las Vegas, there was a presentation on video game hacking.
Oscar Molina

Security researcher Jack Baker gave a presentation on hacking into video games played in a web browser.

"The truth is I spend a lot more time hacking games than it might take to actually get good at that game legitimately," he said in an interview.

When it comes to hacking esports, another term for e-gaming, Baker said it can be difficult to find cheaters. Like Hamerstone, he compared cheating to performance enhancing drugs in other sports.

"The truth is we're only really going to know about the cases where people slip up, of course," he said.

Developers watch for hackers by looking at patterns to see if there is anything suspicious, Hamerstone said. Most developers use anti-cheat software to try to prevent hacking.

In addition, video game developers have ways for users to report cheating. If a player suspects another player is cheating, the game developer will investigate, Hamerstone said.

Alex Hamerstone of cybersecurity consulting firm TrustedSEC showed CNBC where people buy and sell cheats.

Video game makers take action against cheaters, such as suspending or banning players found to be using cheats. Some developers have even sued players. For example, Fortnite has sued players, including those who were underage, for posting hacks on YouTube.

Epic Games, which makes Fortnite, declined an interview.

"There will always be a handful of players who think they can gain an unfair advantage through the use of cheats. We will continue to pursue all available options, including revoking access to Fortnite, to make sure our games are fun, fair, and competitive," said Nick Chester, Epic's senior PR and communications manager, in a statement.

Still, it's a topic most game developers do not want to talk about. Many of the major video game makers declined to comment on the security of their games.

"For us at 343, it's really about staying one or two steps ahead of any hackers or cheaters that might show up," said Microsoft's Hasandjekic. "Halo has never really had a huge issue with hacking. … For us, as developers, competitive integrity and the experience of players online is crucial."

Demirkapi said he has not sold cheats since last year, but he has no regrets.

"The only reason I did even sell those cheats was because, you know, I have financial obligations I have to meet," he said. He plans to pursue a career in cybersecurity.