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Nintendo Cracks Down After High-Profile Leaks

At 10:28 pm on November 1, an image of an unknown and classified Pokémon appeared in a Discord group. Gigantamax Machamp, the megasized version of the bodybuilder Pokémon, was slated to appear in the then-unreleased games Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. Within minutes, JPEGs of it were posted to 4chan. Then, on a dedicated Pokémon Reddit. It wasn’t long until 300 URLs were hosting it.

Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, who developed and published Pokémon Sword and Shield, said in a November court document that they had handled the games’ materials with the “utmost secrecy.” Background checks. Secure computers with secure storage mechanisms to which limited employees had access. Digital tracers. Key cards for building entrances. And, of course, nondisclosure agreements. After the levee broke, the Pokémon Company submitted takedown request after takedown request, but Gigantamax Machamp was uncontainable. In fact, it was only the beginning: Over the next 15 hours after the first Discord post, at least 18 other pictures of Pokémon leaked and proliferated—all from the game’s unreleased strategy guide.

Nintendo filed a lawsuit against the alleged leakers who had undermined its PR strategy. (It wasn’t out of character; Nintendo’s lawyers and leak investigators are playfully referred to as “the Nintendo ninjas” among the leaking community.) Yet over the last couple of months, the company has taken action against multiple leakers. Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Nintendo’s traditional E3 digital press conference, it looks like the gaming giant is cracking down.


In addition to Nintendo’s suit against the Pokémon Sword and Shield leakers, Nintendo in mid-February cut ties with Portuguese review site FNintendo, whose freelance reviewer shared screenshots from the games. The leaker Zippo told WIRED that they will no longer be leaking Nintendo games. And in a message on his Discord channel, the leaker Sabi said the same to friends and fans. Finally, in February, the FBI caught one of the most connected Nintendo leakers of all time—a hacker who went by the name RyanRocks.

“Nintendo has been increasingly aggressive when it comes to combating leaks,” says one longtime member of the Nintendo leaking community who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. They say that a few years ago, “it absolutely wasn’t as threatening, and even just early last year it wasn’t bad.”

Says another community member, who obtained a copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two weeks before its 2018 launch and whom we’ll call Gary, “Nintendo is always cracking down on leakers, but recently there has been a surge in activity.”

Nintendo and the Pokémon Company declined to comment for this article.

All game companies have leakers. (Just this week, Activision sent a subpoena to Reddit after someone leaked an alleged battle royale mode for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare). And all game companies pursue their leakers with varying degrees of tenacity. But Nintendo’s leaking community is more visible than those of other game companies. Energetic, detail-hungry, and unable to be deterred, the fans who leak Nintendo game announcements, information about upcoming games, and sometimes the entire games themselves constantly butt up against Japanese game company’s reputation for opacity. Because so many people grew up alongside the now-behemoth game brand, Nintendo fandom easily and naturally becomes an identity. Nintendo’s drip-drip-drip feeds about hugely anticipated Pokémon, Super Smash Bros., Animal Crossing and Zelda games are called “teases” for a reason. And a lot of people can’t resist the temptation.

Over the last several years, no one has embraced Nintendo leaking quite like Ryan Hernandez. According to court documents, Hernandez, 21, registered online for Nintendo developer access in 2016—that’s a privileged resource for people who make and publish games for Nintendo consoles. He accepted a nondisclosure agreement, which prevented him from sharing much of what he saw, in exchange for proprietary information about the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U consoles. That information began appearing on a Twitter account attached to Hernandez, and when Nintendo noticed him posting confidential information, they sent Hernandez notice to cease and desist. Because he was 17 at the time, his parents agreed on his behalf. But Hernandez didn’t stop; he was just getting started.

The following month, according to an affidavit, Hernandez asked for technical assistance on the Nintendo Developer Portal. As part of his request, he shared a malicious link, which the Nintendo employee clinked on. That’s how Hernandez hijacked the employee’s credentials, and used them to upload malware onto the portal, which vacuumed more credentials. Hernandez worked his way into several privileged servers and continued his leaking spree, even after promising the FBI that he would stop. At one point, Hernandez leaked details about the Nintendo Switch’s design before the console was released. His Twitter account, RyanRocks462, had become notorious, and his Discord server, “Ryan’s Underground Hangout,” buzzed with friends and acolytes.

Hernandez had become a central hub for not only for his own Nintendo leaks, but those of other leakers as well. “Basically if you needed anything to leak and did not want to be associated with the leak, you gave it to Ryan,” says Gary.

After an FBI raid last year, which also turned up child pornography, Hernandez pleaded guilty to “federal crimes related to his computer hacking scheme,” according to an FBI announcement on January 31, 2020. He will pay $259,323 in restitution to Nintendo.

Eleven days after Hernandez pleaded guilty, Nintendo revealed it had uncovered FNintendo’s leaky freelancer. Eight days after that, Sabi, who leaked much of 2019's E3 press conferences, deactivated their Twitter account. (A Nintendo lawyer called them last year to tell them to stop leaking.) “I deactivated it because I will not be leaking Nintendo co ltd trade information again,” Sabi wrote on their Discord at that time. On top of that, Zippo, who had posted a rumor in mid-January that Nintendo would release new Paper Mario and Metroid games this year, said in a message with WIRED that they believe those posts aggravated Nintendo. They also confirmed that they were done with Nintendo leaks.

While it’s possible that Nintendo is on a security tear, these incidents could also simply be several ongoing efforts. “I'm sure if it was less critical information, Sabi and Zippo would've been left alone, but you can't go spoiling Directs,” says a leaking community member named NWPlayer123, referring to the company’s online presentations. “That's their big shebang.”

A lot of Nintendo fans might celebrate the rounding up of leakers, who spoil Nintendo’s carefully curated announcements with their chaotic firings-off. “Good,” said one Twitter user after Sabi announced they’d received a cease and desist notice from Nintendo last year. “Now we can all enjoy the full effect of expertly crafted announcements from the people who've worked hard on these games, rather than from someone selfishly seeking cheap publicity and clicks online.”

This is a critical time for Nintendo. This year, the company’s console competition—Xbox and PlayStation—are releasing shiny new hardware with big specs and fancy games. Nintendo’s got to retain interest with first-party games like Animal Crossing, downloadable content in older games like Super Smash Bros., and a steady stream of ports. The best way to keep the air in its tires is to find the leaks.

Correction 2-25-20, 11:30 am EST: This story has been updated to reflect that Sabi was contacted by Nintendo's lawyers after leaking other game publishers' announcements.

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