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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Desperate Gamers Camp Out in the Pandemic for $700 GPUs

On a recent Brooklyn morning, Andrew Okun, 22, and his dad Damien staked out their local Micro Center at 6 am, in the rain, to purchase a two-month-old, $700 graphics card for Andrew’s PC. It was their third attempt at getting a Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080. This time, they’d be first in line.

Since its September 17 release, the 3080’s stock has been severely limited. And for weeks, Micro Center employees across the country have arrived at work to find eager gamers—sometimes over a dozen of them—waiting not so patiently for the hot GPU. Ebay resellers are listing the graphics cards for about $1,200.

At 9 am, Micro Center employees ushered in the Okuns and several other gamers, including K. Kim, who had just dropped his son off at school. Once inside, an employee wearing a face mask solemnly told the group that, unfortunately, they only had four 3080s to distribute. Kim was fifth in line.

“It's pretty crazy—in the middle of a pandemic,” Kim said, holding his Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070, a less specced-out version of the GPU he had hoped for. “I didn't think the apocalypse would go like this—you know, people waiting in line for $700 video cards.”

When Nvidia released the 30 series on September 17—its most powerful graphics cards yet—the GPUs promised to deliver gaming resolutions up to 8K, and handle 4K without sacrificing performance. Just a shit ton of pixels, right into your eyeballs. With upcoming blockbuster games like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Cyberpunk: 2077, and Halo Infinite, gamers are scrambling to optimize their PC builds for ultra-ultra gameplay.


Then, disaster: In a blog post describing the RTX 3080’s launch, Nvidia describes it as “simultaneously the best GPU launch ever and the most frustrating.” Supplies on websites like Best Buy and Amazon vanished in minutes. Bots scooped up dozens of 3080s before customers could. Graphics cards were suddenly the new Supreme drops. In a PC Mag article, one admin for a bot organization explained: “When given [the] chance, I’m sure most people would purchase more than 10+ units if they have the capital and look to make upwards of $25,000+ USD in one single day from [the] secondary market.”

The recent launch of AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series of processors—which UK retailer Scan describes as “the fastest-selling CPU launch we’ve ever seen"—has experienced similar turmoil. With online purchase options blocked by bots, desperate gamers are braving risks associated with the pandemic and flocking to brick-and-mortar sellers. Best Buy says it’s only selling the 30 series online; in the “chain tech retail” category, that leaves Micro Center.

On the day the 3090 was released, cybersecurity worker Nate, 31, camped out outside a Duluth, Georgia, Micro Center for 26 hours to get the $1,500, top-of-the-line GPU. It was worth it, he says, for Destiny 2 or Far Cry 5 gameplay that could average 100 frames per second at 4k, “with zero dips below 60.” To prepare weeks earlier, Nate went to Target and purchased a tent, sleeping bag, and lawn chair. At 8 am the day before launch, he expected to be the only person in line.

“There were already 10 people there,” he says.

Micro Center employees warned Nate and the others that it was not safe for them to stand in a large group during a pandemic, and asked them to sleep in their cars. But the gamers chafed at the idea; for the 3080 launch a week earlier, opportunists waited in their cars until employees left, and then made a mad rush toward the store again. An empathetic employee went inside and came back out with a roll of tape to demarcate 6-foot squares. By the morning of launch, Nate says, 80 people were waiting in line. The store had 10 GPUs in stock.

Although Nvidia maintains that it has “great supply,” it says it can’t keep up with such high demand. The company says more stock is coming, but the shortage will continue throughout the year. It seems likely that the pandemic, which impacted factory hubs like China and Taiwan and the shipping industry at large, contributed to the worldwide shortage. AMD chief marketing officer John Taylor cites Covid-19 as a reason for the strong demand of his company’s high-end processors as well. “With so much of the fun part of our lives disrupted,” Taylor said in an emailed statement, “important technology products now at the center of our lives are even more exciting when they launch.”

“I would go as far as to say this is unprecedented in the last decade—to have, a month and a half later, people waiting in line for a graphics card,” says Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy who worked at AMD for 10 years. “It’s a hot product, hotter than anyone expected.” Demand for consumer PCs is ferocious right now, with at-home work and big interest in gaming boosting it by 11.7 percent year-on-year, according to research firm IDC. In the US, this has been the best quarter for the PC market in 10 years. For the highest-spec PC build, hobbyists and the hardcore alike want the best possible GPU. (Gamers say the 3080 in particular is a great bang for their buck.)

Micro Center employees across the country say they don’t generally know when shipments will come in, or how many at a time. Keeping everyone, including employees, in the dark helps prevent scalpers from dominating both the IRL and URL markets, where hundreds of the 30 series GPUs sell daily. “People get angry,” says one Micro Center employee in Brooklyn. “Yesterday, some older dude came up and started screaming about how he took a cab out here and wasted all his money. He was furious.” The employee compared their workday mornings to hypebeast sneaker or streetwear launches, which regularly draw lines that wrap around city blocks.

“It attracts some very weird people. Not people you should be afraid of. Just dorky people who are very passionate about their computer,” says the Micro Center employee. Like other Micro Center staff WIRED spoke with, they didn’t really “get” all the hype. Older graphics cards are fine, and at this stage in gaming tech, it’s difficult to take full advantage of a 3090 when mainstream 8k gaming is still a distant dream. “I guess it's just a combination of everything going on in the world—people locked in for months and months—and, you know, a lot of people got into this kind of PC gaming,” the Brooklyn employee said. “Something new comes out and you've been sitting around doing nothing. You know, you want to go out and get it.”

Sam, an art director for film and TV who also games, was standing outside the Brooklyn Micro Center with a big bag Thursday after calling an Uber. It was his third visit in recent weeks. Last Friday, after waiting in line outside the store for the 3080, he happened upon somebody returning theirs and followed them to a register. “At that point, I was flirting with the idea of the 3090,” he says. The guy who got that day’s 3090 decided he actually wanted a 3080, so they traded.

Back again on Thursday morning, Sam had scored a scarce 5950 Ryzen processor. He’d already ordered AMD’s Ryzen 3900 off B&H, which he says he’ll probably sell to help pay off the pricier unit. He was buzzed. He finally got all his things. “I call it going fishing,” he says. “I wouldn’t have spent this much except it’s so damn scarce.”

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