The Team Fortress 2 [TF2] trading community is an odd one. Why is that you may ask? Well its quite simple, its a community based on trading sparkling hats. The community as a whole seems to love these novelty items that do little else but sit on your head as a trophy of your worth. Let me explain how the item system in TF2 works and in turn the trading of sparkling hats.
The current item drop system was introduced on April 20, 2010. Players are guaranteed to find items at regular intervals of 30 to 70 minutes, with an average interval of 50 minutes, over the course of 10 hours per week. After these 10 hour are used up the player will not receive another drop until their drop timer resets, which happens every thursday. These items can be a random normal weapon or a hat/misc item, although the hats and misc items have a much lower chance of dropping. This item drop system also changes depending on a player's status.
When a player joins the TF2 community they are called a Free to Player or F2P for short. If the player spends real world money on an item in the cash shop then they become a Premium Player. F2P’s don’t have the same amount of drops as a premium player and also lack the ability to trade items to premium players. For a while there was discrimination between these two classes of players as many Premium Players thought less of the F2P’s due to their lack of fancy hats and weapons.
Hats were introduced in the Sniper vs Spy update on May 21, 2009. In this update a hat was added for each class. These original 9 hats have since been discontinued and no longer drop but can be acquired if they player buys particular toys from valves real life store. Since then more hats and other misc items have been added. At the time of writing there are a total of 779 cosmetic items. some of which some in varying qualities such as Unique, Vintage, Strange, Genuine, Collectors and Unusual. Items will only drop in Unique quality, while Strange and Unusual quality items must be found in crates, which cost real money to open. Collectors are made by fusing 200 of the same item together and Genuine is given for items obtained by pre ordering select games.
An alternate method to obtain these items is for a player to spend real world money in the in-game cash shop and purchase a weapon that they want or even hats and other misc items. But this only gives Unique quality items. This however has been sidelined by the introduction of trading. This system allows players of the same status to trade with one another, these trades have players negotiate and agree on a price for what they may want from each other. For instance a player may want another players hat and they make an offer, in turn that offer is either accepted or rejected much like real life. But what's interesting here is the currency system for the game between players.
Some players will request money for their items but these tend to be very hard to get items such as “unusual hats”.But most players will trade with metal which is currently the stable currency. When a player has any two weapons off the same class they can smelt those two weapons into a scrap metal. Combining three scrap make a Reclaimed metal also referred to as a Rec and combining three Rec create a Refined metal also called a Ref. But it doesn’t end there the currency then changes again, seven Ref make a Key, ten keys become a Bill, two Bill’s make a Bud and three Bud’s make a Max. This gets even more complicated when the player who is gaining these currency decide to spend it.
A weapon is worth a scrap, but newer weapons are worth a few Ref. Weapons can also come in special qualities such as Vintage or Strange which can have items such as stat counters applied to them or can be upgraded again to become killstreak weapons with a further three variants. Each of these variants gets progressively more expensive.
Unusuals and Max heads are the most expensive as both cost buds. Unusual hats are hats that have been found in crates and have a particle effect on them, hats with these effects have a 0.66% chance of being found in a crate. These particles are also tiered depending on the trader. Flies or nuts ‘n’ bolts are considered the worst effects while flames or sunbeams are considered the best. The effect may go up in price if it is on a hat that matches the theme of the effect, e.g: a Pyro hat with a flame effect.
The lowest tier unusual hat may cost a player 18 keys while a high tier hat may cost them 200 buds, if we convert these prices into money then the low tier costs 24 euro while the high tier costs 7530 dollars. While this seems crazy and you may even think that no one would pay this and yet if you visit a site such as TF2 Outpost you will see these items and trade offers. In fact a hat was recently sold for no items but instead real money. The person paid 10,000 dollars for a hat because they did not have the buds the trader was requesting.
This strange trading does not just affect TF2, it also branches off into Valves other games DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global offensive [CS:GO]. All of these games have an item drop system that drops weapons and cosmetics for the player while they can also pay for them with real money. A common practice on trading sites is trading TF2 items for CS:GO or DOTA items. Some traders will even take a mixture of keys from these three games as payment for another item.
Recently a rare knife in CS:GO was sold for 23,850 dollars. Some people even offered their vehicles for the knife, one person offered up their 2009 BMW X6, while another offered his 1995 Ford Mustang.
Another case of an item selling for a high amount of real life money was a courier in DOTA 2 sold for 38,000 dollars last year.
Again this item has no effect on the game and is only a cosmetic change to what the player would normally have but these items and the hats in TF2 share another purpose, whether this was intended or not. While facing other players they may show skill but if the player has one of these special items then it can affect how their opponent reacts. It could lead to them becoming a priority target or it may make other players fear them and as such avoid them.
In TF2 a player wearing no hat but playing really well usually gets called a hacker, but if they don any hat, besides the Gibus, then they will be complimented on their skill instead. This applies even more so to these unusual hats. A player wearing an unusual is normally a really good player, these hats are worn by competitive players as well as some of the best players in the world and this can have the aforementioned effect of having players forget their objective as they attempt to kill this player, while some people will refuse to fight them.
But these hats are even more commonly associated with traders. Some of these players don't play the game properly anymore, they trade, haggle and barter their items to make a profit that they can eventually sell for real world monetary profit.
Usually these players are frowned upon by others in the community as they may join a game that is being played and start attempting to trade others and entering their offers in chat, which can disturb the game for other players. Due to a few of these traders many traders have been given a bad reputation, the majority of traders are still normal players.
And while they may not sparkle, owning certain weapons in TF2 can change how players react. A strange weapon changes its name after every couple of kills. The highest of which is called Hale’s Own. Usually having a weapon with this title means that the player will pose a significant threat to the opposing team. These weapons are also sold for real money but not by Valve, no these weapons are bought and sold from one player to another just the same way hats are.
These weapons that have no in game effect actually do have an effect on the players perception of one another and whole communities are formed around the selling and trading of these sparkling hats and strange weapons.They can even be of monetary gain in the real world. Its such an odd notion that this happened based almost solely on player interaction with little input from Valve.