Cheating has always been a part of video games. Cheats have allowed players to produce infinite rewards, create an invincible character or walk through walls, from classic consoles up to modern games.

But while messing with cheats was once considered all part of the fun of games, in recent years the results, and punishments, have become a whole lot more serious.

Caleb "Sky Orbit" Rogers, a gamer who posts videos to YouTube, happily admits to cheating. His public videos include demonstrations of hacks while playing online against others in popular shooting games such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.

"I cheat for fun," he admits in one video.

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This cheating for fun developed into something more worrying when the publisher of Fortnite, North Carolina-based Epic Games, issued a lawsuit against the gamer.

It became even more potentially challenging for Epic when it was revealed Sky Orbit, like so many gamers, was a minor, just 14 years old. Epic has been trying to crack down on cheating in Fortnite, its hugely popular "battle royale" game, which sees 100 players pitted against each other in a cartoon world.

The blockbuster game is big business. Videos of popular gamers streaming Fortnite rack up hundreds of thousands of live viewers, earning tens of thousands for individual players on websites such as Amazon-owned Twitch.

It has been played by the likes of the rapper Drake and the England footballer Dele Alli. In January, it reportedly had 45 million players and in March alone Fortnite recorded revenues of US$223 million ($318m), according to analysts SuperData.

The game's biggest rival is PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, known among gamers as PUBG, which recorded US$700m in revenues in 2017. It is published by Korean company BlueHole and backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

With so much money sloshing around and millions of highly competitive players, fraud, cheating and fake accounts are a growing issue for publishers.

"It's not that hard and it's low risk. If you get caught, you just lose your account," says Matt Cook, founder of gaming security consultants Panopticon Labs. "It's not like you will have the FBI coming after you."

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has seen almost unprecedented levels of cheating. In January alone, BattlEye, the anti-cheating software company used by the game's publisher, said it had banned more than a million accounts in its crackdown on cheaters.

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Video game cheating can secure a hacker healthy revenues, often through selling hacks to other players for a subscription fee or hacking in-game money.

"The best cheats are made by professionals. At the top of the chain they make a living out of it," says Cook. Panopticon estimates that anywhere between US$350m and US$500m is spent worldwide by players to buy cheating software.

Fortnite has been played by the likes of the rapper Drake and in January, it reportedly had 45 million players . Photo / Getty Images
Fortnite has been played by the likes of the rapper Drake and in January, it reportedly had 45 million players . Photo / Getty Images

Meanwhile, the biggest game companies can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on software to prevent cheating. Other companies sell anti-cheating software, with names like PunkBuster or FairFight.

While cheating may seem like a joke for most gamers, the reputational damage for video game brands has many thinking harder about their security. That's because the way in which players consume video games has changed.

While 15 years ago, most were played by buying a £20 ($39) disk or cartridge, most games now are online and competitive. Many games have millions of players and tech-savvy users looking to get an advantage.

Furthermore, in-game spending has become an important revenue stream to publishers. Games rely on players buying extra weapons, clothes or armour with in-game currency, which can often be traded for real cash.

Therefore, hacking a game to make your character super-powered can earn more money, both in-game and in the real world, cutting income for the publisher.

The market for microtransactions, where players buy extras in games, is thought to be worth around US$22 billion. But some developers are losing out.

While there is no clear figure, Panopticon estimates that some games it advised lose as much as 40 per cent of their revenues due to cheats and bugs.

"We found that one of the top five games on Facebook, with tens of millions of users at the time, was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars per month," Cook says. "Senior executives have told me: 'I can't put a dollar figure on it, but I'm afraid we could be losing up to half our revenues'."

In January Fortnite reportedly had 45 million players and in March recorded revenues of US$223 million, according to analysts SuperData. Photo / Getty Images
In January Fortnite reportedly had 45 million players and in March recorded revenues of US$223 million, according to analysts SuperData. Photo / Getty Images

While some cheaters sell their hacks on dark web forums or gaming social messaging apps such as Discord, others can be even more brazen. Bossland, a German company that developed bots to help players win at the hugely popular game Overwatch, marketed its services online as a legitimate company.

Many other hacking services employ 24-hour helplines and can quickly develop new hacks for games, with subscription services that charge users between US$5 and US$20 per month.

For some of the most advanced packages for highly competitive Chinese gamers, this can climb to more than RMB4,500 ($1100) to RMB6,000 a month, according to Chinese media reports.

But while there are rewards, there can also be penalties for cheats.

Often, cheating is a legal grey area, but Epic has had some success in its legal fight against cheaters, who often take to YouTube to brag about their hacks to market and sell more.

In messages on Discord, seen by the Daily Telegraph, YouTube gamers tried to sell video game hacks to other players, having brazenly advertised them on their YouTube channels.

Epic recently settled out of court with gamer Joseph "Spoezy" Sperry over cheating on Fortnite. Sperry will have to pay a fine to Epic if he ever uses his YouTube channel to promote cheats on Epic's copyrighted work.

It's one of the first injunctions on Fortnite since the game was launched last year.

Meanwhile, Bossland was subject to a first-of-its-kind legal battle with US giant Activision Blizzard, the publisher of Overwatch.

Bossland was threatened with an US$8.5m fine for making automated bots for the game. But this was a fairly unusual case. The company was particularly open, and defensive, about its activities.

"Most of the time, the defendants you are going after don't tend to be companies," said Angela Fouracre, a partner at the law firm Bristows.

"So financial recovery against the cost of going for injunctions doesn't always add up. It can be difficult to even find these defendants."

But the punishments can be more severe in some parts of the world. In China, which is thought to account for around 99 per cent of all cheating on PUBG, 120 people were arrested by police for making and distributing cheats.

Unscrupulous cheat-sellers can also bundle their hacks with viruses to hack users and steal information such as credit card details. Another 15 hackers in China were fined US$5.1m for developing such attacks on PUBG.

"We'll continue to crack down on cheating programs, and their creators, until our players are free to battle it out in a totally fair environment," said PUBG Corp spokesman Ryan Rigney.

While players looking to cheat normally get away to play another day, the growth in competitive gaming has led to a boom in this grey market. But as the rewards increase, so does the risk. While many players want a fair fight, the battle against cheating looks set to get ugly.