The moment the fleet of Svipul-class tactical destroyers crashed through the gates of Standing United's home system was the greatest moment of Circo Maximo's virtual life. Leading the charge was a man who had once tried to take everything from him. But today, EVE Online's most notorious scammer Scooter McCabe would be his saviour. As the hundred-man fleet warped into the star system, Scooter McCabe sent a message in the local chat channel: "We are the Goonberets and we are coming to liberate the oppressed."
Though Circo didn't realise it, he had just become the target of EVE Online's first humanitarian-aid mission.
Weeks earlier, The Mittani, leader of the massive Goonswarm Federation and Scooter's boss, asked him to settle a personal vendetta against another player. The mark was a small-time pilot who went by the name of Scottmw15 and had made a crucial mistake when he called The Mittani's personal friend a bitch. Scooter would teach Scottmw15 a lesson about making the wrong kinds of enemies.
In EVE Online, veteran pilots often play with multiple accounts at the same time. This allows them to specialise in several key areas, such as having a powerful combat pilot and another who oversees complicated industrial production chains. For Scooter, each of his 'alts' is a suit of digital skin that he wears to become someone else. This time he'd become Neerah Otomeya, a quiet, likeable pilot. In a harsh sandbox MMO where trust is everything, people like Scooter are the very reason it's in short supply.
"The idea was that I would infiltrate his corporation, befriend him, get a leadership role, and then rob everything," Scooter says. Making matters easier, Scottmw15's corporation, Standing United, recruited only brand-new players. It seemed like a simple scam.
In November 2016, EVE Online launched a limited free-to-play option that allows players to explore New Eden without the intimidating cost of a monthly subscription. As fresh pilots spawned for the first time, they were bombarded by recruitment notices from corporations looking to capitalise on the population explosion. It was EVE Online's own career day.
"I'd never played before and I'd been told EVE Online is really involved and complicated," Circo Maximo tells me. "I knew I wouldn't be able to function that well on my own." Scottmw15 recruited him within 24 hours.
"He took them out to Russian space where the only people who spoke English were the people in the corporation and him," Scooter tells me. "They were off and isolated, and once they were there he put them to work."
The tales of glory and wealth that Scottmw15 promised to recruits like Circo was a lie. Instead, he forced them to 'rat'—kill respawning NPC pirate ships to collect their bounties—every hour they were logged in. While hunting real pirates is an adrenaline rush, killing the AI variety is a monotonous grind.
"It was basically a '20s mining company," Scooter says. Scottmw15 had cranked up the corporate tax rate so that a massive portion of every bounty would go directly into his wallet. What's more, he'd force the recruits to sell him whatever loot they found at a fraction of the price so that he could flip it on the market for double the profit. While Scottmw15 got rich, Circo and the rest barely made enough to survive. But Scottmw15's cruelty ran deeper than exploitation.
"He would yell at people if they did anything other than ratting," Circo says. "He'd make examples of them." On Standing United's Discord chat server, Scottmw15 would frequently humiliate and terrorise players. He even spammed links to weird dating sites he owned and forced them to click on advertisements to generate ad revenue. Those that resisted were cut loose and left to die penniless and alone at the hands of the Russians. Scottmw15 wasn't running a corporation, he was running a forced labour camp.
The moment that Neerah Otomeya—Scooter's spy alt—exploded into flames at the hands of her corpmates in Standing United, he knew his plan was working. For days, he had launched a one-man siege against Standing United, and the cracks were beginning to form. As Neerah, Scooter worked his deception from the inside while as Scooter McCabe, he piloted a strategic cruiser more powerful than anything Standing United could match.
"Scooter made everyone's life a living hell," Circo recalls. "It was awful. Nobody could do anything—he pretty much shut down the entire corporation just by himself." The moment anyone undocked, Scooter was there to destroy them. Circo lost millions of ISK to Scooter personally, and others lost much more. The threat of death meant Scottmw15's labour empire had ground to a halt. "He flat out told people that he was here strictly because of Scottmw15, and then Scottmw15 would tell us that he was full of it and that everything was a lie."
But more than physical damage, Scooter's siege was quickly eroding the morale of the entire corporation. Cooped up inside their station and safe from his missiles, Scooter began playing mindgames with them. "As I sat there on comms as Neerah, I took details I heard and belched them back out as Scooter," he says. It worked.
"Scottmw15 was super paranoid," Circo tells me. "He thought everyone was Scooter." Players were screamed at and interrogated. But eventually suspicion fell on Neerah and Standing United ambushed her, destroying her ship in an attempt to interrogate her. But this wasn't Scooter's first rodeo. A carefully planned alibi in the form of a kill report that showed Neerah had killed Scooter in a past career proved they couldn't be the same person. "There's no possible way Neerah is Scooter because who would do that to himself?" A crafty scammer, that's who.
However, the witch hunt was taking its toll. Many gave up EVE altogether, and those that persisted were miserable. Convinced that Neerah was his ally, Scottmw15 began to suspect everyone else and the pressure was causing him to crack. And then he crossed a very personal line. "I suffer from lung cancer," Alexya Fisulfatia, one of the recruits, tells me. Weeks ago, Alexya had told Scottmw15 this in confidence. But then Scottmw15 used Alexya's cancer as leverage. "He says, 'Hey leave us alone because this guy has cancer—we must pity the cancer kid,'" Alexya says. "I was humiliated."
"It was a really shitty thing to do," Scooter adds—and that's saying something for a professional scammer. "I'm talking to these guys as Neerah, and suddenly as they're explaining the situation to me, I realise all of them are nice fucking guys." While burning Scottmw15 was still Scooter's plan, he needed to find a way to make sure the innocent members didn't get caught in the crossfire.
Returning to The Mittani, Scooter told him everything. "We're going, this is fucked up. This guy is actively hurting the game itself. I know in the past I've scammed people, but shit, those people have been in the game for years and should know better," he says.
Together with Markonius Porkbutte, a Goonswarm spymaster, Scooter and The Mittani reached out to rival null-sec alliances to put aside differences and devise a strategy to liberate the trapped Standing United newbies. Over the next few weeks, each alliance would seed spies into Standing United and foment a mutiny and get them into proper corporations.
And then everything collapsed.
While hunting Scottmw15, Scooter ran into a band of Australian soldiers known as the Swords of Damocles roaming into nearby regions looking for fights. As it goes in EVE, they destroyed Scooter's ship. But their leader was curious, what was Scooter doing way out here? "I told him about Scottmw15, and it turns out he knew him from the past and knew he was an asshole," Scooter says. Seeing an opportunity, he told them about a 100 million ISK bounty Scottmw15 placed on his head and asked if they'd do him a favour and collect it. They did one better.
In an in-game mail, Swords of Damocles' leader informed Scottmw15 of their recent kill and their intention to collect the 100 million ISK bounty, except with just one twist: they demanded 20 billion ISK instead or Standing United was as good as dead. Everyone panicked.
"Now that we didn't just have Scooter coming after us, Scottmw15 completely lost it," Circo says. What they didn't realise was that Swords had no intention of collecting. Scottmw15 bought their bluff all the same.
To Circo and everyone else in Standing United, Scottmw15 had cracked. While Circo tells me there was always something "weird" about him, he was now fully unhinged.
"He said God punished me with cancer because I deserve to die," Alexya says. "I went beserk."
Scooter's idea worked too well. Within minutes, the Standing United voice server devolved into mutiny. Pushed to the edge, forced to endure verbal torture and monotonous labour in a videogame they played for fun, and now seemingly the target of powerful alliances, Circo and Alexya were done. They accused Scottmw15 of exploiting them for profit and lying about Scooter's intentions in front of the whole corporation.
"You bastard, you made us slaves!" Alexya screamed at him. Before anyone could respond, Alexya was gone—Scottmw15 had banned him from Discord and booted him from the corporation. Soon after, Circo suffered the same fate.
One by one, Scottmw15 began kicking recruits from Standing United. Days old, barely able to navigate through space, and locked out of all their ships, it was game over. "He kicked the entire corp and left them stranded in Russian space where they can't speak to the Russians and essentially told them to go fuck themselves and die," Scooter says. He watched everything in silence as Neerah and realised he couldn't wait.
"We got to get these guys out, we got to send a fleet in now because if we don't it'll be a bloodbath," he wrote in a message to Markonius.
"Let's roll," Markonius wrote back.
While Alexya made a run for safety, Circo stayed behind. For days he had secretly ferried what few items he had out of Russian space in anticipation for a collapse. Though only days old, he knew the route well enough. "I was telling everyone, 'Come follow me and I'm going to get you to [high-security space] and, once in Hisec, I'll lead you guys to the Goons,'" he says. "I was going to take my ship and scout ahead and if I blew up, I blew up. I was going to get those guys to safety."
Scooter couldn't maintain his disguise any longer. "Sit there and don't move," Neerah wrote to Circo. He didn't have time to explain because in a second window of EVE Online, he was guiding a fleet of Goons through the 62 jumps of enemy territory that sat between Goonswarm and Standing United. An hour later, Circo saw the biggest fleet of his life.
"We crash into the system with Scottmw15 and the Russians there," says Scooter. "The local population all of a sudden spikes, and I can see, as Neerah, the Russians going, 'Oh shit.' I'm telling everyone as Neerah that the Goons are coming and to relax. As Scooter, I write into chat, 'We're the Goonberets and we're coming to liberate the oppressed. Russians, if you undock we will fucking kill you. Scottmw15, you had this coming.'"
Scottmw15 would never see that message. Minutes earlier he received word of the incoming warband and logged off, presumably in terror. For all he knew, the whole galaxy was coming to kill him. Scooter tells me that, to his knowledge, he's never logged in again (Scottmw15 couldn't be reached for comment on this piece).
For Alexya, Circo and the rest of the recruits, the rescue operation was akin to being liberated from a virtual labour camp. "They don't know me, but they spent hours to come out and get me and bring me back," Circo says, amazed. "I lost all this money, and these people just met me and they showered billions [of ISK] on us. They just threw it at us."
But more important than the ISK, Alexya says that it was the realisation that EVE Online wasn't the cruel and abusive world he thought it was. "I was told by Markonius and Scooter that I was among friends right now," he says. "People were so friendly."
Markonius extended each member of Standing United instant admission into KarmaFleet, Goonswarm's own new-player corporation. For Circo and Alexya, they could finally experience the real EVE Online—not the exploitation and harassment, but the sense of belonging found among friends in an unforgiving galaxy. In the end, over 25 players had been liberated.
Both were lured to EVE Online by its stories of war, intrigue, and scandal, but neither imagined they would become the centre of it. "I always wanted to join something big and have my moment of fame, but I never could expect something like that to happen," Alexya explains. "It's just such a weird coincidence."
"It was awesome," Circo says. "After it happened I pretty much loved the game."
For Scooter McCabe, it's a reminder that even after all these years EVE Online and its players can still surprise him. Scottmw15, he says, "is an awful fucking human being. Not just in the EVE way, but I mean this guy in real life is an awful human being. I didn't even make money off this but this was the most rewarding thing I've ever done in this game."