In April, GameStop was a struggling video game and electronics retailer trying to sort out its future as the pandemic worsened consumer trends that were already working against it. The chain was losing money and staring down a long-underway shift in the gaming industry that pushed business away from GameStop’s brick-and-mortar model. (It turns out people don’t like walking into stores during a pandemic to buy games they could just download from home.) The company had posted $470 million in losses in 2019, eight years after reporting a $340 million profit. Right as the pandemic hit, it announced it would close 300 locations permanently. GameStop’s stock price on April 1 was $3.25.
It’s not clear things have improved much for GameStop. The company is actually closing more stores than it expected at the onset of the pandemic. But one thing has changed for the better: When trading ended on Monday, GameStop stock had hit $76.79—four times its price to end 2020 and 23 times its price from the early days of the pandemic. (The stock then jumped to $96.67 on Tuesday morning before dropping into the 80s as its roller-coaster run continued onward.)
GameStop has not, as far as anyone knows, completed the greatest comeback story in the history of free enterprise. But it has had one of the most memorable runs on the stock market ever. It’s a story that encapsulates quite a lot about life in 2021: the democratization of financial markets, the mobilization of a giant online community, and the ability of obsessed amateurs to alter reality when they put their minds to it, especially when there isn’t much else to do.
The tale of GameStop’s stock price—and the central role of a subreddit called r/WallStreetBets—will be taught in business schools one day, no matter how it ends. The stock had been in steady decline since late in 2015, when the company reported disappointing earnings. GameStop, which was founded in 1984, had a simple business model: selling video games and equipment out of its physical locations. That became less lucrative as it became more common for gamers to buy games online, generally from non-GameStop sources, and download them directly to their consoles or PCs. The pandemic crash in March brought the stock to an all-time low, and a slight rebound over the spring and summer lagged behind the major indexes.
In August, the well-known investor Ryan Cohen—founder of online pet food giant Chewy—took a 13 percent stake in GameStop. In November, he wrote a harshly worded letter to the company’s board, lambasting it for not keeping up with “the transition from physical hardware to digital streaming,” among other errors. He took specific aim at GameStop’s CEO and blamed the company for squandering billions of dollars and “a massive amount of market share.”
The letter generated a lot of press. By January, GameStop appointed Cohen and two associates from his investment company to serve on a newly expanded board. Cohen’s arrival turned GameStop into a “cult stock,” one financial analyst explained to Bloomberg News, where retail investors believed he’d be a corporate savior. Two days after the announcement that Cohen had joined the board, GameStop’s stock surged more than 50 percent, going from $20.42 to $31.40 after reaching as high as $38.65. That’s when the company’s story went from typical to bizarre.
Around this time, institutional investors, apparently including at least one well-known hedge fund, took out massive short positions against the stock, which trades as GME. These investors figured that amateur investors saw Cohen’s big name and ignored the difficult fundamentals facing the business, overvaluing the stock as they bought it up in droves. So the professional investors tried to make money off GME’s decline by borrowing the stock, selling it high, buying it back low, and pocketing the difference, minus the fees to borrow the stock.
Lots of investors tried to short-sell the stock. (How many investors have “long” and “short” positions is not difficult to figure out.) As of Monday, 71.2 million shares of GameStop stock involved a short position, per Bloomberg, more than the total amount of publicly tradable shares, something that’s only possible because not all shares of GME are available for purchase.
One group that noticed the shorts on the stock was r/WallStreetBets. The Wall Street speculation community has more than 2 million members, hundreds of thousands of whom are online at any given time, to say nothing of lurkers. In September, an enterprising subredditor had posted a seven-point treatise titled “Bankrupting Institutional Investors for Dummies, ft GameStop.” The subredditor noted the stock already had a significant short exposure (months before Cohen joined the board) and predicted that short sellers would be forced to abandon their positions and, in buying back their stocks, drive the price up. R/WallStreetBets users delighted in the idea and took it as a chance to egg one another on.
Hype around GME continued bubbling up around r/WallStreetBets over the ensuing weeks, from posters who apparently saw it all along as a profit opportunity. The stock’s boom has made some of them big money. The most famous is a user calling themselves “DeepFuckingValue” who had apparently turned a six-figure investment into nearly $14 million by this Monday.
Others may have just wanted to screw short sellers, who are by definition rooting for shareholders and companies to suffer. They’re also often considered to be sophisticated investors, cast against the determined amateurs populating internet forums. At the end of November, the subreddit ascertained that hedge fund Melvin Capital Management was shorting GameStop, and the community rallied with fury against the New York–based fund.
“When these boomers made their bet, GME wasn’t a big thing on WSB yet,” one poster wrote. “I don’t feel bad at all taking money from these rich greedy hedge fund managers.”
“They’re not even playing with their own money,” another wrote.
“I’m an old millennial. I’m tired of getting screwed by the globalist elites,” said another. “This isn’t left or right republican or Democrat. It’s the 1% versus everyone else.”
Whether for profit or ideological reasons, the Redditors are winning. They’ve bought the hell out of GME, and short sellers have begun to abandon their positions en masse, leading the stock to go up even more as they buy it back. It’s a classic short squeeze. Melvin Capital was down 15 percent for the year on Jan. 22, according to the Wall Street Journal, leading the fund to take a $2.75 billion rescue package from other rich investors. On that day alone, short sellers against GameStop lost $1.6 billion, financial analytics firm S3 Partners said.
It’s not clear how the story ends. Some professional analysts think the stock is due for a crash. Citron Research managing partner Andrew Left has argued the stock will fall to $20 per share. He tried to explain his reasoning in a livestream last week but couldn’t because his Twitter account got locked after too many people tried to guess his password. He posted the video on YouTube and said GameStop backers were sending pizzas to his house and signing him up for dating profiles. Left decided to stop bashing GameStop, citing harassment by the “angry mob.”
It isn’t just a technological shift that has worked against GameStop. Gaming companies now offer subscription plans, like Xbox’s Game Pass, that have made individual game purchases obsolete for some players. Future consoles might not even have a slot for a disc, further pushing the industry into downloaded games. GameStop does have a loyal fan base that enjoys the experience of walking into a store and buying a title. It also has a large trade-in business, though it’s not clear how the post-pandemic world will affect that.
All of which is to say: GME’s future could go any number of ways, but the reason its stock price quadrupled in three and a half weeks isn’t that its business fundamentals are just that great. It’s that, under a strange set of colliding circumstances, one group of stock traders sees GameStop as the perfect weapon against another.
If this feels outrageous, it might only be because a bunch of supposedly unwashed Reddit users are involved. After all, GameStop isn’t the first stock to be subject to a giant short squeeze or to see its resulting value make little sense. When Porsche bought up a bunch of Volkswagen stock in 2008, short sellers scrambled to get out of their positions and briefly made VW the world’s most valuable company. It’s not clear why Porsche’s boardroom should have any more authority to dictate what happens in the market than a group of internet users operating in public view.
Certainly, GameStop isn’t the first stock to move heavily based on what a specific group of people has to say about it. Financial professionals spend all day talking about stocks on their Bloomberg terminals and yelling at one another on the phone about them. If one considers the Redditors to be untowardly moving the market by talking in public, aren’t professional traders doing the same when they talk in private? Is there any difference between internet dorks hyping a stock and some hedge fund magnate going on CNBC to explain why the market will do as he’s predicted?
Viewed through another lens, the rebels of r/WallStreetBets are doing old-fashioned internet organizing of the guerrilla kind you might find in politics today. TikTok teens and K-pop stans can sabotage the ticketing operation of a presidential rally. As long as there are enough amateur investors to throw weight around, they can decide whether a stock moves up or down. (Unfortunately, as with other internet hordes, some from this one have a taste for harassment.)
Viewed through still another lens, someone on Reddit who’s investing for profit is merely doing what professional Wall Streeters do every day. Anyone doing it to sabotage the pros on the other side of the GME deal is betting with their heart, not unlike internet gamblers betting on sports or presidential politics.
The GameStop saga isn’t just a lesson in the internet’s broadening of access to markets, but in how the pandemic has accelerated that trend. A significant share of the bets on GME’s stock going up have taken the shape of call options, where an investor pays a smaller amount up front for the right to buy a stock at a certain price by a certain date. For instance, the viral Redditor whose GameStop holdings are now worth nearly $14 million apparently spent $25,000 to buy options on 80,000 shares (at about 31 cents per share) that give them the right to buy the stock at $12 until April 16. The value of those options at the end of the day Monday was $5.2 million.*
Call options are not new, but they’ve become a smash hit among casual investors on the internet during the pandemic. As white-collar professionals sat cooped up in their homes and watched their disposable income grow with less to spend money on last spring and summer, user-friendly investment apps like Robinhood saw significant growth. Young traders reportedly gravitated toward options, which can generate quick windfalls but are riskier than standard stock purchases. (If you pay $3 for the right to buy a stock at a particular price, and the stock doesn’t exceed that price to give you a quick profit, then your three bucks were a total loss.) Plenty of inexperienced investors have lost their shirts this way during the pandemic. Others decided to buy options on GameStop, and some of them have made life-changing money.
Does any of this make sense? Not really. But it makes no less sense than the stock market itself sitting near record highs each day just as expiring federal unemployment benefits are pushing 8.1 million Americans into poverty and U.S. senators are balking at an enhanced stimulus package. It wasn’t the GameStop stock’s Reddit hype team that first decided the market needed little tether to the daily realities facing most people, or even to a specific video game retailer.
In other words, hate the game, not GameStop.
Correction, Jan. 27, 2021: This article originally misstated that a Reddit user spent $250 on 800 options worth $5.2 million on Monday. The user appears to have spent $25,000 on 800 option contracts, for options on 80,000 shares; those options were worth $5.2 million as of Monday.