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The Strange Cult of the Steam Summer Sale

Every sector of capitalism has its rituals. For some, it’s lining up days in advance for Black Friday deals on a flat-screen TV. For others, it’s extreme couponing — getting 600 rolls of toilet paper for a mere 40 cents. For PC gamers, it’s the Steam Summer Sale, an annual rite that has come to involve decimating savings accounts, war movies, and the sonorous voice of Patti LaBelle.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about how Steam works. Steam is basically iTunes for video games, and like any digital storefront, it holds sales. Steam sales are notorious for steep discounts overall, which is how people who don’t actually play computer games often end up with a library of hundreds of games. “Every version of Sid Meier’s Civilization for ten bucks? Sure, why not.” It’s the type of sales event that conjures images of fanboys throwing dollar bills at their screen and flies buzzing from empty wallets. The deals are denoted by prominent green boxes advertising the percentage of savings a buyer will enjoy.

But there was another layer of meta-strategy to it. Within the weeklong sale, there are also daily deals or hours-long flash sales, which compound already discounted titles. The smart strategy was to wait until a game you wanted went on sale in one of these small windows, and if it doesn’t, buy on the last day of the overall event. (Because Steam’s inventory is digital, there’s no danger that stock will run out.) It was a canny way of getting customers to check in frequently.

Because of this meta-game, fervent PC gamers grew to treat the Summer Sale as a game of wits, a battle against Valve, the company that runs Steam, and specifically against Gabe Newell, its founder and leader. Newell has, over the years, developed a strong cult of personality, given his pivotal role in developing classic gaming franchises like Half-Life and the PC platform’s preeminent digital distribution platform. During the Steam Summer Sale, Gaben (as Newell is known) gifts the community with amazing deals — deals so tempting that, paradoxically, they end up bringing gamers to near bankruptcy.

Which brings us to 2012, where the Summer Sale as a cultural event was canonized by a YouTube user who goes by Uncle Grim. “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT,” the 34-second video was called, featuring Newell as Jesus Christ (Newell is aware of the image and autographed a copy once).

Amid a cascade of deal percentages, and the sounds of Patti LaBelle’s “Ready for a Miracle” (from the 1992 Steve Martin film Leap of Faith), Gaben blesses his followers with savings. A year later, the video was iterated on for a never-ending loop on, which now features a leaderboard for time-on-site, a metric for measuring how deep your fandom goes. In the course of drafting this post, I left open for 12 minutes without thinking.

From there, the Summer Sale motif has splintered into surprisingly elaborate fan tributes, usually war scenes featuring Newell as an invader and the percentage discounts as bullets or catapult ammo, his death march accompanied by LaBelle’s music.

Maybe it’s Game of Thrones.

Or Lord of the Rings.

Or the Darth Vader scene from Rogue One.

Or Forrest Gump.

There are dozens of videos like these, or others, like user AncientReality, who racks up hundreds of thousands of views chronicling the ecstasy and the agony in first person.

The Steam Summer Sale is, among hard-core PC gamers, capitalistic benevolence unmasked as violence, as war. And like real soldiers, they yearn for the thrill of battle and the masochistic inevitability of their wallets’ defeat. Each year they return, thinking that maybe this year they won’t spend their hard-earned cash on bundles of games they might never play. And every year, Gaben wins, and the cycle starts anew.

The carnage starts tomorrow at 1 p.m. Eastern.

Update: This post originally indicated that flash sales were still a component of the sales event, but they disappeared a couple of years ago. It has been corrected to reflect this.

The Strange Cult of the Steam Summer Sale