Game+ comes to the Android and iOS app stores today, offering a platform for users to win (and lose) real money by playing popular video games against friends and strangers. It’s not a new idea, but it represents a collision of heavily regulated markets: video game intellectual property rights, banking, online privacy and something that looks a lot like gambling.
Game+ co-founders Adam Frank and Karim Sanford have an answer for most of these concerns. They say the app is secure because it uses existing financial systems to verify users and encryption to protect card data. They distance Game+ from gambling by calling it a skill-based competition platform, and only offering it in 38 US states where head-to-head gaming for money is permitted. The app geolocates users at sign-up and every time they enter a challenge with another player.
However, when it comes to securing the rights to Call of Duty, Madden, Fortnite, Mortal Kombat, Apex Legends, Halo, Mario Kart or any of the video game franchises advertised by Game+, Frank and Sanford don’t have a clean answer.
“We didn't go to the companies, no,” Frank said.
The Game+ website features more than 50 games, plus the Xbox, PlayStation and Switch logos. A disclaimer at the bottom of the main page says the app isn’t affiliated with (deep breath) Apple, Android, Microsoft, Xbox, Sony, PlayStation, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Valve, Take-Two, Ubisoft, Capcom, Infinity Ward, Gameloft, Epic Games, “or any other company that markets a computer or mobile game.” In the eyes of Frank and Sanford, this disclaimer is enough legal protection to continue advertising Game+ on the backs of mainstream video game franchises.
“We've obviously looked at these issues and we’re confident that what we're doing here is completely permissible,” Frank said.
By and large, the publishers disagree.
“The app and service as described would be a clear violation of Epic's policies and intellectual property rights,” a spokesperson for Fortnite studio Epic Games told Engadget. “We have no involvement in anything similar to what you're describing and if it is launched Epic will take appropriate steps to stop this exploitation of our players and abuse of our IP.”
Multiple other publishers responded with surprise and concern at the description of Game+, and made it clear that the app is unauthorized to use their franchises. Publishers including Activision, Nintendo, EA, Microsoft and Sony are historically quick to defend their IP, pulling top titles even from established gaming services when they don’t like how they’re being used.
Not to mention, the video game industry is allergic to the term “gambling” and publishers are eager to stay off regulators’ radar. Game+ is presented as a skill-based competition app, thereby avoiding a gambling label on its face. At the same time, Frank and Sanford had the app certified under the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which outlines regulations for online gambling.
As proof of concept, a Game+ spokesperson pointed to the existence of services like Players’ Lounge and GamerSaloon, which also advertise one-on-one, for-cash competitions using the iconography of popular games. The spokesperson is correct that these programs exist. And, as demonstrated by the iOS app Play One Up, they’re raising millions.
These services seem to be on dicey legal ground, too.
In response to a question specifically about Players’ Lounge and One Up, both of which include Fortnite in their marketing materials, Epic’s spokesperson said the rules remain the same: “Any organization of wager matches for Fortnite violates our policies.”
Game+ differentiates itself through an integrated Discover card enrollment process. In order to fund challenges, Game+ requires players to sign up for a prepaid Discover card, which is then issued by MetaBank. This is the same financial institution that recently distributed coronavirus-related Economic Impact Payments via prepaid debit cards in the US. Players load the card with their own money and challenge other users to matches in more than 50 console titles, setting their own rules and betting between $2 and $250 on the outcome. Game+ makes its money by taking 10 percent of each challenge, capped at $5.
It’ll also make some money through fees, apparently. The prepaid Game+ Discover card requires a minimum of $20 each time it’s loaded, and there are charges related to funding and keeping the account active. If a user doesn’t participate in a challenge for the month, Game+ will charge an inactivity fee of $1.50. After six months of no activity -- and presumably $9 in fees -- users will be charged an additional $2.95 per month until their account is drained. Game+ reserves the right to collect these fees “by any other permitted means if the payment attempt is declined.” Additionally, ATM withdrawals using the Game+ card cost $2.50.
“There are some fees associated with putting money on the card,” Frank said. “For example, there's a $0.50 fee to load the card and that sort of thing. As far as using the card, it functions as a prepaid card. If you went to spend money with it at a store or online or that sort of thing, there are not fees associated with that, but there are some fees that are disclosed in a schedule.”
In contrast, One Up acts as an escrow and allows users to upload and withdraw cash through PayPal, Venmo, Cash App and other online banking programs. The app charges a 15 percent booking fee for tournaments, and it raised upwards of $4 million from investors last year.
The One Up review section might just be a living prophecy for Game+. Scattered among the positive judgements are dozens of complaints of missing funds, an inability to make withdrawals, broken customer service trees, surprise limitations and cheating players. Some posts call the app a scam outright.
In Game+, Frank and Sanford have a conflict-resolution scheme that involves players uploading photos of their disputed end-game screens, or re-playing matches that are too tough to call. They’re relying on the Discover card sign-up process to vet players and prevent cheating.
Game+, One Up, Players’ Lounge and other skill-based tournament services are taking advantage of recent legal changes around gambling and sports-betting apps to try to establish a new breed of head-to-head video game competition. And they might do it, if the folks who own the video games will let them.