May 2, 2013 at 6:55 PM ET
It's a thoroughly 21st-century heist: An online gaming service secretly leveraged thousands of users' computers to acquire money in the form of online-only crypto-currency Bitcoin.
E-Sports Entertainment (ESEA) is an established gaming league that hosts tournaments in games such as "Team Fortress 2," "Counter-Strike" and "League of Legends." Players can compete for prizes and prestige, and as with any e-sport, must submit to running a piece of software provided by the ESEA that watches for cheating and other issues.
Earlier in the year, ESEA was experimenting with integrating Bitcoin "mining" with the software client — meaning that the user could opt to have their machine work on the complex mathematical problems that produce the virtual currency that has been in the news so much recently.
The virtual currency is created at a set rate by its users, but takes a huge amount of computing power (if Bitcoins were easy to make, they wouldn't be worth much). Distributed networks of hundreds or thousands of computers are often made to work together, and ESEA though their client might be a good way to do that.
Ultimately, they decided not to implement it — it was more trouble than it was worth — but one employee appears to have decided to go ahead and do it in secret. As a result, the Bitcoin mining code ran for weeks on users' computers, running their powerful graphics cards at maximum (which can damage them) and causing crashes and other trouble.
The community was suspicious, and users examining the software closely found the hidden mining software. It was brought to the attention of an administrator, who at first said it had only run for a couple days — but later amended this, saying it had run for weeks and mined about $3,700 worth of Bitcoins.
Higher-ups at the ESEA quickly caught wind of the story and issued a formal apology; the Bitcoins — or their dollar equivalent — will be donated to charity, and the ESEA will offer support to anyone whose computer was damaged.
As for the perpetrator, it's unclear what will happen: Such a serious breach of authority and trust may certainly result in dismissal, but it's possible that hacking charges could also be involved, since running unauthorized code like this could qualify as a crime. And it's not the first time that Bitcoins have been the object of nefarious acts.
The recent Bitcoin craze has garnered a lot attention for the heretofore-obscure online currency, the value of which has skyrocketed in recent months. New users, services, and applications are sprouting — including a Bitcoin ATM.
You can learn more about Bitcoin, including how it works and why it's suddenly in the public eye, in our recent article on the topic.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.