Gamers are a canary in the coal mine for the global semiconductor industry.
When supply chains are functioning normally, gamers religiously buy the latest graphics cards from chipmakers NVIDIA and AMD, which give their computers the added power they need to render cutting-edge graphics on the newest generation of video games. (They have, in fact, developed tribal identities around the chipmakers they choose to patronize: AMD customers are Team Red, while NVIDIA enthusiasts are said to bleed green.)
But semiconductor supply chains are not functioning normally right now. The pandemic has disrupted production and scrambled demand signals. Chip foundries are drowning in orders that far exceed their capacity for the year. Auto plants have shut down, consumer tech prices have risen, and even simple appliances are hard to come by. And gamers—stricken, heartsick gamers—are resorting to desperate measures to get their hands on graphics cards.
Gamers are generally last in line for chips: Industrial customers like automakers, smartphone manufacturers, and PC companies get first dibs on the semiconductors that roll off the assembly line long before they hit the shelves of your local Best Buy or Micro Center. So we’ll know the shortage has truly eased when gamers can finally find chips again—and we’ll know that something is still broken in semiconductor land if even the most dedicated gamers still can’t track down a graphics card.
Today, the shortage is so dire gamers have resorted to extreme measures to score their next chip. As a way of measuring the desperation of the market, Quartz has cataloged the most outlandish steps gamers are taking to find a graphics card on the web.
At any given moment, hundreds of gamers are watching graphics card alert livestreams on YouTube and Twitch. The streams are almost always completely silent, designed to be played in the background while hobbyists go about their normal web browsing business in other tabs. But every once in a while, a piercing alarm will erupt from the silence to alert gamers that a graphics card has been listed for sale somewhere on the internet.
Those with quick enough fingers might manage to switch tabs quickly enough to find the listing and place their order before hordes of other gamers (and a swarm of bots) arrive to snatch up the graphics card.
Each day, over 100,000 gamers sign up for a raffle known as the Newegg Shuffle. The prize? The chance to pay a marked-up price for a graphics card, which is usually bundled with some other piece of computer equipment they probably don’t want. Even the winners are left wondering whether or not they actually want to buy the card after all: One lucky winner, who sought advice on a hardware enthusiast forum, decided against spending $1,800 on a graphics card normally listed at $1,200.
Some gamers have bought brand new computers just to crack them open and take out the graphics card within. The gamers then resell the rest of the computer to recoup some of the cost, and keep the graphics card to upgrade their old PC. It’s often easier to find a graphics card this way, because most of the graphics card supply goes to computer manufacturers, rather than being sold directly to gamers who want to build their own PCs.
Part of the reason why it’s so hard to find a graphics card online is that scalpers use bots to constantly trawl the internet for retail listings and automatically buy chips the moment they go on sale. The scalpers then resell the cards to gamers for exorbitant mark-ups. Many gamers have concluded their only hope of beating the bots is to camp outside of brick and mortar stores whenever shipments of graphics cards are scheduled to come in. A lucky few get to buy a card in person.
Some desperate gamers decide to join the enemy and employ their own bots to snag a graphics card. PCMag tried it out in April, paying $120 for two weeks of access to a bot called Stellar. Ultimately, even their bot failed to snag a chip—there was simply too much competition from other bots for theirs to break through.
Fortunately for gamers, there does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re already facing less competition for graphics cards from cryptocurrency miners—who have been vying with them for chips—after China cracked down on its crypto mining industry. Plus, chip foundries have started to ramp up production in response to the sky-high prices they’ve seen for graphics cards.
Even so, it’s unlikely that the chip shortage—and the misery of the gamers—will end until at least 2022. We’ll have a good indication of when that day comes when the number of desperate consumers watching graphics card alert livestreams and signing up for the NewEgg Shuffle starts to fall to zero.