True story: How I managed to expose a scam and actually make a difference
In this quick case study I will describe my assistance in exposing a scam: namely how I managed to find out about it, what actions I took to warn others and what the results were. It was quite an interesting journey and it yielded results that are quite motivating so I hope you’ll enjoy this quick read.
I’ve never been involved in any type of crypto investigation so this situation I found myself in was totally new, unexpected and also kind of exciting. I’m aware of channels like Coffeezilla or Barnacules and they’re doing great work exposing some of those schemes but that’s about it as far as my scam hunting knowledge goes. I will also add that I am relatively familiar with Axie Infinity, own a couple of Axies, and I also dipped my toes into a couple of other less known titles. Therefore I do have a bit of familiarity with play to earn field, although by no means am I an expert.
The culprit in this story is a game called Thetan Arena. It debuted in October 2021 via Binance Launchpad and got off to a very good start. Its whitepaper described it as the 1st MOBA NFT game that’s easy to pick up and play. Launchpad participants were able to buy mystery boxes with one of 3 types of heroes Common, Epic or Legendary and then duke it out on PvP arenas in one of many competitive modes. Each hero had only a certain amount of games at its disposal which made tokenomics look strong and sustainable. Basically, those with consistent win rates could expect to make money, just like in a game of poker. Actually, the break-even point was somewhere around 45% so even players who would win exactly half of their games could still come out on top.
I did not participate in the launchpad nor did I have any prior knowledge of Thetan Arena but sure enough, I heard of it late November when Thetan went public. There was a lot of hype, simply because admittedly the game was quite fun to play and having money at stake made it more engaging. Investors were coming in large numbers, influencers predicted Thetan might as well be the next Axie Infinity and so on.
In early December, after seeing a bit of gameplay I convinced myself to purchase one of the cheaper “common” heroes and test the waters. And well, that’s when I noticed something was off.
I do have some background in doing Quality Assurance and video game QA testing which might explain why I quickly realized gameplay doesn’t seem natural. Both your teammates and opponents were acting weird, often would glitch out, or just act completely reckless. This was especially apparent when playing 4v4 where having clueless teammates that just run into your opponent could easily diminish any chances of making a profit regardless of how skilled the player individually is. Battle Royale mode was also totally off with some players looking for combat right of the bat instead of loot and generally being actively hostile which contradicts typical organic behaviour.
I started to play around putting my QA knowledge into practice and trying to spot any bugs or irregularities in regards to this odd player behaviour. I suspected that these are not human players but rather bots.
Lo and behold. After just a few games I managed to force supposedly “human” players to infinitely run after me, following the exact same path (that was most likely hardcoded into their pathfinding algorithm).
What’s worrying here is that these bots were not attacking each other (this is Battle Royale mode, you can see in the top right corner there are still 12 players left) but instead were dead set on killing a human player first (to the point where you could clown them into running in circles). To make it funnier both bots were using the same heroes although that was a coincidence.
Since there’s money at stake I didn’t expect players to immediately notice. After all, not many would be willing to risk their win rate just to test some hypothesis. But that discovery was no doubt a big red flag. It’s one thing to inflate player numbers and lead players into believing they are fighting human opponents when they’re fighting bots, it’s another to engineer these bots in a way that is disadvantageous to players altogether. Bots do not earn any coins, they do not withdraw their winnings. If an average bot win rate is above that of a human or just above 45% in general that could yield massive savings for developers at players cost.
I kept doing some more playtesting and things were looking worse and worse. Here you can see what looks like 6 players converging on me from all different directions.
It’s almost impossible to avoid defeat unless you manage to run into another human player, confuse all the bots that are chasing you and still somehow survive. The way rewards are distributed is such that the top 3 players get the biggest amount of gTHC. Those placed 4-6 also get some small awards but end up in an overall loss, and then places 7-12 don’t pay out anything. As a result, if bots place for example 1st, 3rd and 5th, their win rate might be 50% but their actual payout impact would be much worse as bots would collect a disproportionate amount of money from the pool, closer to 70%. And since every game costs players money, you can easily start to connect the dots here.
I did not want to jump the gun just yet because the evidence was quite circumstantial. Screenshots look mighty suspicious but could be easily discarded as photoshop, as a set-up (human players banding together to make Thetan Arena look bad on purpose) or simply as a very weird coincidence.
Fortunately, developers did not bother to cover their tracks very well and I quickly realized you can identify bots just by looking at their names! They all follow a similar naming pattern, possibly a result of some kind of generator.
Let’s look at this example. Here you’ll be playing against (or together with) these three gentlebots. Notice anything particular?
ProudCrab, SoufulFly, TestyRabbit, SnazzyAnt, GraveLizard and so on. Almost all of these variations follow a similar pattern, an adjective followed by an animal verb. Sometimes it can be food or some general item like a book. Both adjective and animal parts are always capitalized. This made identifying bots a whole lot easier and also made the case against Thetan a lot more solid. Anyone who plays Thetan Arena could now check my findings themselves and confirm it’s true, quickly identify who the bot players are and notice their artificial behaviour. Also, there was no way Thetan Team could argue that these are all coincidental names and that there’s no collusion going on.
Meanwhile, the game was generating more and more hype and people were piling in from every direction, so time was of the essence. Here we can see CagyJan, one of the biggest names in the play to earn space, placing second in Thetan Arena and not realizing he just lost to a bot!
CagyJan assumed (just like 99.99% of players) that he’s playing against another human, so it’s hard to blame him for having a good time or for featuring Thetan but seeing things like that only strengthened my conviction that I was onto something and that I had to act quick. Most people had no idea these shenanigans were taking place and were making flawed financial decisions that could cost them dearly. I’m talking here about the play to earn aspect but of course also about Thetan’s main token THG which people were pouring their money in, hoping for big returns when Thetan becomes big. It was important to blow a lid off this thing and to do it fast.
First I went to check Thetan Reddit. You could find there some tips for newcomers, players looking for teammates, feature requests, suggestions and so on. Most posts were well-intended. I spotted a bunch of complains where players grumbled about bizarre teammate behaviour and other weird glitches but in most cases this was simply explained as players playing the game wrong. There was no attempt draw any conclusions or any assumption that foul play might be involved.
I made a couple of posts outlining the discovery of bots and urging players to be careful, but the results were very meagre. Sure, I got a bunch of upvotes, but that was it. Thetan subreddit wasn’t particularly active and it was hard to expect any major reaction or resonance.
The next step was to look for someone with a bigger megaphone than me. I first tried to contact Coffeezilla and Barnacules but realized these guys are very busy and pretty much out of reach for a regular internet dweller. I tried Twitter, Instagram and even Bitclout but to no avail. Even if I could somehow reach Coffezzilla I'm not certain he would have time to make a video about Thetan. There are just so many scams happening every week. I had to look somewhere else.
My next best bet was to look at various influencers in play to earn space. Most seemed to hype up Thetan like crazy but there was one video that caught my eye that was a bit more critical than others. Champion NFT Gaming made a video that questioned Thetan Arena's claims about its player base. Around that time Thetan Arena officially boasted 6 million players and to Champion NFT Gaming this seemed like an extraordinary number. Axie Infinity had 3 million players at that time. Other numbers, like the number of members in Thetan Arena Discord or Reddit were also brought up and compared to those of Axie. Same with the number of NFTs: way below 6 million and in the range of 200 thousand.
All those things suggested the real number of players in Thetan is way smaller than 6 million. Since CNG (Champion NFT Gaming) team was quite sceptical of Thetan to begind with, it seemed very plausible they would find my bot discoveries interesting and useful. I checked for a website, Twitter or any other form of contact and eventually made it to their Discord where I asked to be put in touch with the main creator of content for their Youtube channel. I explained what was going on to one of the discord admins, presented evidence of bot play and waited.
Few hours later I was put in touch with the NGC founder who was made aware of my discoveries and was now looking into this case, verifying my findings and going through a large number of games to get a general idea of how bot play might impact players and their payouts. I was also told there’s another red flag relating to Thetan Arena, namely funds from sales of so-called ‘mystery boxes’ that were supposed to be burned were moved instead to a private Binance wallet.
The next day NGC was already out with their video.
Titled aptly “Theta Arena Scam?” it laid out both proof of bot presence and also implications of such manipulations. NGC video did a very good job in explaining even to laypeople why having AI bots pose as human players is such a big red flag.
In the screenshot above CNG shows two teams, one team with 3 players and 1 bot and the other team with 1 player and 3 bots! Obviously, the single lone player on the right (Jonathan) is at a massive disadvantage and almost guaranteed to lose in such a configuration. Same with teams that have to fight against legendary or epic bots. The way matchmaking worked was far from transparent or honest and anyone who watched NGC’s video could easily understand that.
Video also touched on other topics like inflated player numbers and funds from sales being transferred out of Binance Smart Chain and into an unknown private wallet. The video raked around 15 thousand views and in all honesty, I thought that was it. I did my part, spoke out, found a way to share my concerns and now there is a video on Youtube that explains everything better than I could. I went to bed knowing I did the right thing and was ready to move on.
To my surprise, however, this is when things actually started to take off. As other outlets and influencers started picking up NGC’s video, news began to circulate and when I woke up the next day Thetan Arena scam was discussed all over crypto Youtube.
Content creators picked this info up, broadcasted it to their own respective audiences, and collectively shifted the entire thing almost overnight. Suddenly bot play (as well as other malpractices Thetan team engaged in) were all common knowledge!
Some Youtubers like Crypto King acted very honorably. Crypto King not only cautioned his followers to avoid Thetan Play, but even apologized for helping publicize this game which wasn’t his fault at all, since almost every Play 2 Earn outlet covered Thetan Arena at that time, and many speculated it’s poised to become the biggest MOBA in crypto.
But others were not as honest with their viewers (and maybe also with themselves). Accusations of FUD followed, even accusations that this is some kind of well-orchestrated move by competition that wants Thetan to fail.
That was the suggestion made by Bulldog1205. That this is some kind of black PR stunt and that Thetan users shouldn’t stress as there is nothing to worry about. Inflated player numbers, coins being moved into Binance personal account instead of being burned and even bot play are nothing more than FUD (crypto slang for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt).
For players afraid of getting cheated, Bulldog1205 suggested they should friend each other, and go into matches in groups of 4. So basically instead of fixing or even admitting the issue, players should try to find a workaround and carry on (at the expense of other less informed players I should add).
Other videos were even more jarring. Go Shiny Hunter concluded that “This is not a scam, it’s just unfair to the player who gets matched with bots” (sic) and downplayed what was a massive red flag. After listening to those influencers you could be led to believe that playing with AI opponents instead of humans isn’t all that bad. Sure it breaks one of the major promises of the game, but it’s just a bot, what’s the big deal. You’re probably going to lose regardless, so why not lose to a bot, have some fun, spend some money, pump the coin. I’m being sarcastic but it’s not hard to guess a lot of crypto influencers had their own money invested into THG and seeing their minds twist like a pretzel to avoid hurting the game and its sales was quite interesting if not depressing.
A couple of days later a surprisingly large number of users started commenting on the NCG Youtube channel, Crypto King as well as on other social media where bot play was discussed. Posts were usually quite aggressive in their format, things like ”you’re just a sore loser that blames bots for lack of skill” “I have never seen a bot” and so on.
Some replies were totally nonsensical:
There is no such thing as Epic Taekwon hero, no such things as “Fire” affinity or skin or whatever that was supposed to be, and also max level you can reach in Thetan Arena is 10. But that doesn’t matter. For those unfamiliar with the game that were browsing such channels, this created an impression as if there’s always some kind of sensible reply and that it’s not just a litany of disgruntled and discontent players in the comment section. Also worth noting, this reply was directed at someone asking how there may be players with 300 win streaks in the game - a good question that never got fully answered as it’s not possible to look into individual game logs. But it would be curious to see what opponents this 300-win streak player met on his way and how this record-breaking result came about.
Not that it mattered anyway. At that point, the THG coin was already down by half. From $9 on the 17th of Dec when CNG published their first video to $4.50 at the end of Dec when CNG published their last video on the subject.
No point in getting into the details of this last video. Suffice to say that all those problems reported earlier on still persisted. And now with the token in a freefall, lack of any confident roadmap or willingness to resolve all these issues was a major compounding factor.
It was already over for Thetan Arena. Players interested in this game would surely stumble upon all of those warning videos and with Token’s value dropping it was clear that Thetan isn’t going to be the next big thing. In fact, the lower THG coin was dropping the bigger risk that its team might simply forfeit their long term promises and instead just milk the project until exhaustion.
There was one more issue with Thetan Arena. A massive red flag and a final nail in the coffin that never even got properly exposed cause there was no need for a final nail. Thetan already collapsed before that. But if you’re interested what that final nail in the coffin would be, here it goes:
It turns out that Thetan Arena wasn’t even a real game. It’s actually an older mobile game from 2020 called Heroes Strike!
This unfortunately leaves a bit of distaste in an otherwise motivating story. Thetan Arena team didn’t even bother to create their own unique project, instead, they took an existing game of which there are loads, repurposed it for crypto and then made millions. Even with the project being exposed Thetan Team still made at least tens of millions from selling their Binance Launchpad mystery boxes.
The fact that all these red flags weren’t noticed, neither by Binance, nor by influencers, nor by anyone, is symptomatic of the entire P2E space which encourages crooked and unscrupulous grifting over honest devs work. Thetan Arena looked like a fun, engaging game that could have made its mark, and with its poker-inspired economics, its token could have reached some form of equilibrium but unfortunately, greed triumphed over everything else and now Thetan Arena will be remembered as just another money grab.
But there’s also a bright side. I’m positively shocked how much effect one can have by exposing such misdeeds and how much difference one person can make. I spotted something, explained, made noise, contacted Champion NFT gaming, and it all snowballed from there. And now people are talking about it, and now it’s having a real-world effect and so on. Seeing for example Youtuber discuss in German how you can spot bots by looking at adjective + name was quite powerful.
Armed with evidence of wrongdoing and with motivation to do something about it you can make your voice heard and make a difference. So let’s support good projects, expose the scams and make this world a better place.