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Philippe Alcoy
Philippe Alcoy

Game Over: Stopping DDoS Attacks Before They Start

Video games are poised for a revolution, but benefits will come to fruition only if the industry can guarantee consistent performance and availability.

At one point or another, all online gamers have suffered from a sudden time lag or lost Wi-Fi connection at a crucial moment. Most players find these issues frustrating, but in some cases, they aren't accidents or technical problems; they are distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that can impact an entire game, or at least one's experience of it.

The latest NETSCOUT Threat Intelligence Report found that "the COVID-19 pandemic drove a mass movement to virtualized work and play, giving adversaries a much larger playground of opportunity." And play they did. With cafés, bars, and most other venues closed, people turned to gaming as an alternative to hang out and interact with friends. 

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Video games are now immersive and engaging worlds and communities that offer a sought-after escape from the current reality. As a result, the gaming industry has become a prime target for hackers since lockdowns first went into effect. 

Gaming as a DDoS Target 
Gaming studios have weathered DDoS attacks on their platforms for well over a decade. The hacks come in two varieties: aggression directed at an individual player or the whole company's servers. When a single player is the target, that participant alone is unable to play or experiences a significant slowdown. The latter issue, though less frequent, typically renders the whole game unavailable to all participants. 

While most games conceal a user's IP address, making it more challenging to target individuals, players using private servers sometimes have their information visible to administrators or other gamers. The third-party chat platforms that teams use to communicate can further leak IP data. 

Botnet-for-hire services, known as booters or stressers, are also widespread because owners can rent them out to anyone with a credit card or Bitcoin account. They launch attacks quickly and inexpensively, with no technical skills required and a 10-minute hack costing as little as 35 cents. DDoS attacks on gaming affect user experience, allowing the hacker to gain a competitive advantage. That issue has undoubtedly gotten worse this year. 

The High Price of Gaming Industry Success
On April 4, 2020, Steam reported 24 million players online. Platform usage statistics show steady increases in gamer interaction and consistent playtimes since the onset of pandemic-induced lockdowns. Electronic Arts also had the best quarter in its 38-year history, as people spent more money on games than ever before. All major companies in the sector reported similar success, which illustrates the scale of gaming today. 

Unfortunately, more players translate directly into more attacks against individuals and companies alike. One firm that produces several high-profile series has been hit by four significant DDoS attacks since the beginning of the pandemic. 

The latest trend is toward complex but fast-moving multivector hacks, resulting in less time to respond and keep platforms available. Narrowing the mitigation response window is also more difficult now that security staff work from home and people, processes, and technologies cannot spring into action as quickly. 

Preparing Gaming Pros
Defending gaming platforms is only one side of the coin, however. With traditional sports events postponed, e-sports competitions and live tournaments have also become very lucrative for professional gamers. They often offer seven-figure prize pools, with finalists eyeing record payouts of up to $6 million. 

But the allure of these prizes also lends itself to ransomware, and most e-sports players can't defend themselves during an attack. Luckily, some service providers are now considering automated DDoS protections for their gaming subscribers that cost only a few dollars more per month.

That is a wise decision, as reflected in NETSCOUT's list of the top 10 industries targeted by DDoS attacks. Telecommunications took the top spot, with just under half a million attacks during the first half of 2020. Broadband consumers bore the brunt of these hacks, which were usually gaming-related. Those trends will continue in 2021.

Video games are poised for a revolution, with cloud and 5G services enabling new benefits. But they will only come to fruition if the industry can guarantee consistent performance and availability. Low latency is crucial in multiplayer arenas, where a slow connection can put players at a competitive disadvantage and open them up to DDoS attacks. Dealing with these issues is not a game, however; the right solutions for both businesses and individuals are essential to future success. 

Philippe Alcoy currently serves as APAC security technologist for NETSCOUT, where he works across the research, strategy, and presales of DDoS threat detection, investigation, and mitigation solutions for service providers and enterprises in the Asia Pacific region. Alcoy has ... View Full Bio

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