Bitcoin, a digital currency whose worth has been in flux of late, is still valuable enough for enterprising users to want a lot of it.
One online computer gaming site administrator recently used his players to earn more than $3,600 in Bitcoins without telling them, nearly frying their computers in the process.
The E-Sports Entertainment Association (ESEA) is an organization that provides an outlet for e-sports (professional-level competitive video games) players to connect with each other and hone their skills. ESEA offers its own software client, which helps prevent cheating and allows players to login to official servers for first-person shooters such as "Counter-Strike" and "Team Fortress 2."
Unbeknownst to the players, two ESEA administrators installed Bitcoin "mining" software in the client at the end of March, decided against activating it, but then accidentally set it to run during a server reset on April 29.
Bitcoin mining may sound dodgy, but it's actually a perfectly legitimate way to generate digital money. Mining — creating more Bitcoins by forcing computers to solve a set of ever-increasing mathematical problems — is actually a necessary part of the Bitcoin economy. Rather than leave management of the money supply in the hands of an elite few, Bitcoin crowdsources its economic needs.
Mining Bitcoins takes a lot of power, and users can sign up to offer their graphics processing units (GPUs) to assist. After each mathematical problem is solved, a block of 25 Bitcoins is released into the world — or, more specifically, into the Bitcoin miner's digital wallet.
For those who don't have a gaming-quality PC, a GPU is a specialized video card that's necessary to render most 3D graphics in modern games. A GPU has its own memory and operates separately from a PC's main processor, which allows, among other things, a player to observe a detailed world while moving and shooting.
As one might imagine, the kind of gamers who participate in e-sports generally have very powerful GPUs. The ESEA users booted up their clients and played for 48 hours before Eric Thunberg, one of the two administrators behind the accidental mining operation, realized what was happening and took to the forums for a glib apology.
"That got aggressive quickly," he said, noting several users' ire at almost melting their GPUs (running a Bitcoin mining operation in addition to graphics-intensive games is a recipe for disaster). "Anyway, our bad, we just released client update with the Bitcoin stuff removed."
Thunberg went on to explain that he would put the $280 worth of Bitcoins purportedly earned into a prize pot and let one lucky, slighted user win it.
Thunberg's initial estimate turned out to be a little bit off. As it turns out, a multitude of users burning through their GPUs actually generated a little more than $280 — $3,713.55, to be precise.
Realizing this might be a little steep for a prize pot, the ESEA decided instead to donate the money to the American Cancer Society, and match the donation 100 percent from its own funds. [See also: 12 Biggest Game Fails ]
Both ESEA users and the ESEA itself pinned the blame on a system admin who calls himself "Jaguar." It's unclear what will happen to him, but since he initially installed the Bitcoin miner and accidentally reactivated it, he may face repercussions.
In the end, nothing illegal happened, no immediate harm came to user PCs and the American Cancer Society got some money out of the deal.
If there's a lesson to learn from this, it's to keep an eye on your computer's processing power while running games through a separate client. If something seems to be draining your resources, it probably is.
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