Like it or not, a Black Market exists for Team Fortress 2. A black market, in this case, can be defined as any trading containing transactions outside of the walled garden of Steam item trading—buying an in-game item for Paypal money, for example. Valve has taken a firm stance that they will not support issues with trading anything outside the Steam Trade window, but they also have yet to take a stance specifically against Black Market Trading, allowing the practice to continue. While a lot of different items and even entire backpacks get sold every day, for this article I will focus on Mann Co. Supply Crate Keys.
Keys are just for opening crates, right?
At any time, you can go into the Mann Co. Store and purchase a Mann Co. Supply Crate Key for $2.49. Indeed you can use this key to open a Mann Co. Supply Crate for a random item, or you can use the key to trade with other players for specific in-game items—as purchased keys becomes tradable shortly after purchase. Currently on the Black Market, you can buy the same exact key for as low as $1.24 each.
Why is a black market key less money than in the store?
There are a few reasons, actually. Let’s take a step backwards for a moment and look at why the keys are being sold on the black market in the first place.
Players buy keys from the MannCo store for $2.49 each. They can then trade the key(s) for an item that would normally cost more in the Mann Co. Store; perhaps a player found a valuable item as a random drop, and they don’t want it, but they’re willing to trade it for a key. They may also prefer a craftable version of the item—and seeing how all items purchased from the Mann Co. Store are non-craftable, the only way to acquire a craftable version would be to trade for it. After the trade is done, a different player has the key but doesn’t have $2.49 of real money invested into it. Key-for-item trades also commonly involve many keys for an item like Bill’s Hat or Ear Buds which have become somewhat of a currency for higher end trading.
Now that this player has turned his free items into keys, the next step is for him to turn his keys into cash. He has a few things to consider when setting a price. There is an inherent risk with buying or selling keys on the Black Market because someone ends up having to go first. Either the seller has to send the keys first or the buyer has to send the Paypal (or other money transfer service) first. There is always the possibility of a Paypal chargeback—and those side with the sender because buying virtual good is against Paypal policy (and even screenshots are not enough for the seller to win and keep their money). Because of these risks, the TF2 community has built a reputation system that involves rep threads on trading forums, rep posted as comments on traders’ Steam Profile, and sites like SteamRep.com where you can research a player’s trading status, ban history and friends list.
So now we have trusted sellers that you can research and trust to send you the keys after you send them the money. Obviously there is not just one guy who has built this status and is selling keys, so there is a competition. Everyone tries to undercut the other sellers and the price goes down until it stabilizes on a value that is still worth the trouble.
Really though? 50% less than retail?
As with any real world market, supply and demand rules the roost. TF2 events that involve special keys, such as the recent Pyromania and Scorched Keys, usually result in a glut of keys on the market post-event, causing an excessive supply of keys. Sometimes this results in a lowered demand, also because players are burnt out on opening the special crates. Sellers still want to move product, so they have to lower prices to do so. The prices eventually stabilize and may slowly rise again until the next glut of keys enters the market.
So you want to buy keys on the Black Market eh? Well considering you understand the risks detailed above, it is rather easy. You simply go to a trading site that allows trades of items for cash to be advertised. A recommended site for this is SourceOP.com. A quick look at he TF2 Item Buying/Selling forum shows multiple listings of selling keys. Start with the one with the lowest price and research the seller. It is a bit of a leap of faith for first timers but it really is as easy as adding the seller on Steam and chatting with them. Introduce yourself and make it clear what you want
“Hello, I would like to buy 5 keys for $6.20 as advertised on SourceOP. I have checked your rep and am willing to go first.”
They will come back with, “Great! My paypal address is email@example.com.”
Stay in communication letting them know what you are doing before and during.
“Thank you, I will send the money now,” and send it off.
Paypal trades are commonly done as Personal Gifts to avoid fees as much as possible, and as explained above, you have no more or less security if you were to do it as a purchase or payment for goods.
“Sent, please confirm.”
The seller will check their Paypal account to verify the funds and you will receive a trade request shortly after. In the trade the seller will place the keys they are selling, and once you both confirm you are ready, Bam!
Congratulations, you’ve just purchased keys on the TF2 Black Market. Welcome to the slippery slope.
Easy wasn’t it?
As easy as it is there is always the risk that the seller does not send you the keys, and you always have the ability to do a chargeback on the Paypal transaction to get your money back. There is definitely room for scams on both sides, but it is the risk you take to save big money on the TF2 Black Market.