The $77 million PUBG cheating empire smashed by the Chinese cops—and the founder who escaped

PUBG key art.
(Image credit: PUBG Corp.)

Cheating has been around in video games forever, but the industry's meteoric success over the last few decades has turned it into a genuine side business. You don't need to look hard to find them: any game worth making cheats for will have someone, somewhere, beavering away on a method of breaking the rules. And, almost always, charging for it.

The phenomenal success of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and particularly in the Chinese market, has seen it targeted by countless cheats. One of, if not the biggest of all, was called Cheat Ninja, until its closure in January this year. Vice has managed to track down the cheat's original developer for a remarkable story.

This person is given the alias Catfish, for the obvious reason that they remain wanted by the Chinese authorities. Cheat Ninja became the focus of a huge legal investigation in early 2020 before, in January this year, key figures were arrested.

But not Catfish.

Having been tipped-off by unusual behaviour from the arrested figures, Catfish used "a good old hammer" to destroy all their drives, then wiped their cheat servers and began to lie low.

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The scale of Cheat Ninja's operation was revealed when, in April, the police announced charges against the arrested figures, and alleged it made $77 million from cheats (a figure Catfish thinks is roughly accurate thanks to Bitcoin inflation, though an earlier estimate was $46 million).

This was coming from subscribers who'd pay between $10 and $15 monthly, and Catfish estimated that at its peak the cheat was attracting a thousand new subscribers a day and bringing in an astonishing $350,000 a month.

"This is totally not the norm of the cheat market though," Catfish says. "I think we did it purely because we were the best cheat for the most popular game."

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Catfish seems a bit of an odd fish, at one point saying "I want to ruin [these companies'] games and damage their profits" before apparently thinking better of it and saying he's quitting the "pay-to-cheat scene."

There are so many fascinating aspects to this side-industry: such as that, when Cheat Ninja disappeared, and even before that point, a whole layer of scammers emerged trying to pretend that their software was Cheat Ninja. Brand politics among cheaters! What a world!

Vice's article goes into huge detail on Cheat Ninja and Catfish's role, and is well worth the read.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."