In the wildly popular “Eve Online,” gamers spend their time looking for minerals and sometimes fending off space pirates. CCP Games

Alex Gianturco was a successful corporate lawyer based in Washington. Then, in 2011, he gave up his day job at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and focused all his efforts on his other passion: being a space pirate.

Known as The Mittani within the virtual world of “Eve Online,” Gianturco commands an army of 40,000 space pilots loyal to his Imperium coalition. He has a trusted band of lieutenants and uses propaganda, espionage and deception to retain his position as the game’s most powerful player, describing himself as the Vladimir Putin of the “Eve” universe. He has even leveraged his position to earn a living from “Eve Online,” setting up his own website and renting out his army of mercenaries to other video games.

But his position in both the real and virtual worlds is under threat. In “Eve Online,” Gianturco’s Imperium coalition is facing its biggest challenge yet from an even bigger coalition of warlords, tired of The Mittani’s actions. In the real world, Gianturco’s attempts to monetize his position within the game are being threatened, as the developer of “Eve Online” seeks to stem falling subscriptions by changing how things work in the “Eve” universe as it battles to save its multimillion-dollar business.

This is “Eve Online.” This is war.

“Eve Online” is a space adventure game founded in the early days of multiplayer online games in 2003. Players pilot spaceships across a vast universe of planets called New Eden, mining minerals, building ships and trying to conquer territory — which sometimes escalates into all-out war. The game’s hundreds of thousands of players are among the most dedicated and engaged in the world. They pay the Icelandic developer of the game, CCP Games, $15 a month for the pleasure of playing what is one of the most unique video games ever created.

An “Eve Online” player dressed in costume attends the game’s annual player/developer conference, FanFest, in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2015. Brynjar Snaer

Now CCP Games is claiming this new conflict is potentially “the greatest war in Eve’s history” as it seeks to attract new players, as well as entice lapsed subscribers to return. And it is working. “It has brought a lot of people back, and a lot of new people in, which is great for the ‘Eve’ ecosystem — the game thrives on people and conflict,” Paul Elsy, the “Eve” universe community manager, told International Business Times.

With subscriber numbers dropping in the last couple of years, CCP Games needs to make “Eve Online” more appealing to new players, and one way is by highlighting major conflicts that involve thousands of players in epic space battles.

While “Eve Online” is nominally a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game alongside the likes of “World of Warcraft,” “DC Universe Online” and “Final Fantasy,” its unique aspects won’t be an attractive option for a lot of players of other MMOs. The problem for CCP Games is that attracting new players to a game that takes a long time to get exciting is difficult, and even if players do persevere, it can be daunting to come up against gamers and alliances that hold so much power. This is why CCP needs to change the way “Eve Online” is perceived and one way of doing that is by promoting the epic space battles taking place in New Eden.

Gianturco believes CCP is overselling the conflict. “The marketing department of the company that makes the game has attempted to capitalize on this event by promoting the conflict as similar to infamous Great Wars of the past despite the reality on the ground being very different,” Gianturco told IBT.

But it is almost impossible to take what Gianturco says at face value. An arch manipulator, he is keen to promote his side’s view of the current conflict, and in leaked chat logs shown to IBT after an interview with him, Gianturco boasts that the media (and IBT in particular) are “eager to print whatever I’ll tell them.”

The game’s most influential player has perpetuated the myth that he never actually plays it, but this is another example of his sleight of hand. “I log in every day, but we’ve done a great job convincing the enemy that I never do so,” Gianturco says.

The Mittani is a character and not a reflection of Gianturco’s own personality, making decisions to advance his, and his coalition’s, standing within the game. However, Gianturco has not helped to counter the perception that in real life he acts like his avatar.

In 2011, at CCP’s annual FanFest conference, Gianturco showed up drunk and at a panel discussion encouraged gamers to harass a player he knew to be depressed to commit suicide. Gianturco subsequently apologized unreservedly and gave the player in question his entire in-game fortune, but the incident explains why he is such a divisive character.

“He is kind of a Hitler character, where he is hated as much as he is adored,” David Matterall, a journalist who writes for TheMittani.com and is an “Eve Online” player aligned with Gianturco’s enemies, told IBT.

Gianturco has a lot to protect, not only in the virtual world, but in the real world too. As well as running the Imperium within “Eve Online,” Gianturco looked to leverage his position to make some money. He established a website to report game news and sell merchandise and most recently tried to publish a book about a previous conflict in Eve, called the Fountain War.

A Kickstarter project was launched to try to raise $150,000 to publish the book, which was a joint effort between CCP and Gianturco. However, large sections of players reacted angrily to Gianturco seeking to profit from events in the “Eve Online” universe, and the fundraising effort failed.

“The Fountain War novel was a fantastic project with the full support and promotion of CCP,” Gianturco said, adding that “while the moderators of a toxic Eve subreddit have attempted to connect the Fountain War novel to the [current] conflict” this is simply not the case. He points to another set of leaked chat logs to back up his claim. Just like everything in “Eve Online,” the real history behind the current conflict is much too long and complex to be summed up in a few sentences.

Alexander Gianturco The Mittani Eve Online
Alex “The Mittani” Gianturco, left, with another “Eve Online” player, Richard “Lord British” Garriott, at E3 in Los Angeles in June 2015. Alex Gianturco

One reason CCP Games could be eager to see the end of Gianturco’s reign is a new project of his. Gianturco is offering other game developers access to his trusted band of mercenaries. He will hire out these players to help developers test their new games’ environments — for a fee of course. The reason for this move is to protect himself and his allies against the failure of the “Eve Online” universe.

CCP Games is well aware that its game is struggling to attract new players. It has gone on the record that it needs to make it “more fun” to play — particularly for new players — and in recent years it has significantly lowered the barrier to entry for newbies, allowing them to jump straight into the action without having to navigate the monotonous “spreadsheets in space” aspect of the game.

The company is entirely dependent on “Eve Online” for financial viability. It has a number of other games in the works, most notably “Eve Valkyrie,” a virtual reality game also set in the New Eden universe, but without the millions of dollars it earns from “Eve Online” every year, the company could disappear.

CCP recognizes it needs to change. “We are taking some small steps to provide more guidance, to help people find their way into the universe and discover all the possibilities that are out there — but this doesn’t change our overall design philosophy for the game,” Andie Nordgren, executive producer of “Eve Online,” told IBT.

Eve Fanfest
“Eve Online” players await the keynote address at the game’s annual FanFest conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. CCP Games

According to Matterall the game is becoming more “arcade-like” in a bid to appeal to players attracted by the big battles. This, however, is not good news for those who have grown up with “Eve Online” and like its more mundane aspects.

“The older people, who have now grown up, got married and have kids, that need more gaps in time, those guys are being alienated somewhat,” Matterall said.

"Eve Online" is known in the industry as a “sandbox game.” CCP created the New Eden universe, the raw materials players would need, the tools to build things from the raw materials and then it just got out of the way. Uniquely, the game has no storyline, it has no enemies to defeat, it has no missions to complete. Its evolution over the last 13 years has been entirely player-led.

Playing “Eve Online” is notoriously boring. Players (initially at least) must scour the universe for minerals to mine, then mine the minerals, transport the minerals, refine the minerals and sell the minerals. Every now and then you might get to fight another space pirate, but for the most part you are on your own.

Despite this, the game caught on. In the space of 10 years it grew to over 500,000 subscribers paying the $15 monthly fee. While those numbers pale in comparison to “World of Warcraft” (which has over 5 million subscribers), the “Eve Online” community is the most engaged and fanatical group of players of any video game, with some players spending more time in the New Eden universe than they do in the real world. At CCP’s FanFest conference in Iceland, players meet in the real world, talk about the game, meet developers, get tattoos and, in the case of one couple, get married.

This huge level of engagement has resulted in “Eve’s” evolution into a world where politics dominates. While parts of the game have AI-controlled security, it was in the section of the universe called Null-Sec — the Wild West of New Eden — where things got really interesting and where Gianturco found his calling.

Players formed alliances, staking claims to territory within Null-Sec. Eventually these alliances formed coalitions, and as “Eve Online” grew, Gianturco came to the fore, showing a natural ability for leadership, political machinations and manipulation. “[CCP Games] would have never in their wildest dreams imagined that players would create cartels and manipulate markets in such a way that would make even the most seasoned Wall Street banker blush,” Peter Farrell, known as Elise Randolph in "Eve Online" and a fleet commander for the Pandemic Legion alliance, who by day is a Manhattan lawyer, tells IBT.

Just like in the real world, the growth of these empires within “Eve Online” led to the inevitable: war. As the game grew, so did the size of coalition armies and their fleets of spaceships. The result was battles on a scale never before seen in a video game.

This peaked in 2014 with the battle known as Bloodbath of B-R5RB, said to have been the biggest player-versus-player battle in gaming history with over 7,500 people taking part and with ships worth 11 trillion ISK (the in-game currency) destroyed, which has been equated to over $300,000 in real world value.

Eve FanFest tattoo
A dedicated “Eve Online” fan at FanFest 2014 in Reykjavik gets a permanent tattoo of his alliance’s logo. David Gilbert

Despite the obsessive fans, huge levels of engagement and headline-grabbing battles, CCP has attempted to change things — with disastrous results. In 2011 a major update gave players the option of paying for cosmetic items for their avatars, including an infamous monocle costing $60. The update led to anger among players and virtual riots within the game. CCP apologized and flew members of the player-elected Council of Stellar Management to its headquarters in Reykjavik to hold emergency negotiations to appease them.

CCP does not want a repeat of those scenes and knows it will need to thread carefully to grow the “Eve Online” universe by tweaking the gameplay and promoting big conflicts while retaining its loyal and engaged player base.

As for Gianturco, he says it’s not about power or money, but all about friends. “I play ‘Eve’ because of my friends and the challenge, and it’s really all about our guys and our friends in the wider Imperium community than anything about the game itself.”

Then again, with Gianturco, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s just showmanship.