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The Gaming Grifter: Joshua Mullins, Esports Con Artist

PPIC
Courtesy of PPIC

Catch Me if You Can, The Bling Ring, American Hustle. These movies about con artists and swindlers, all based on real life events, tell the harrowing stories of folks pulling one over on different individuals and institutions to make a profit. They also prove right the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Case in point is the story of Joshua Mullins, the teenage fraudster who, among other things, nearly scammed $42 million dollars from his esports business partners.

Earlier this month, respected esports journalist Jacob Wolf alongside Kevin Hitt wrote an in-depth article for Dot Esports about Joshua Mullins. Said article starts by describing a 2017 incident wherein Mullins, while imitating a lawyer, became involved with a custody case in North Carolina. This incident would eventually lead to the involvement of Jeff Bryden, a financial crime detective from Tennessee, who would go on to launch an investigation that, as Wolf puts it, “would stretch across three states and involve four crimes.”

Joshua Mullins
Courtesy of Chattanooga Police Department

In 2017, Joshua Mullins would only have been around 17-years-old, yet by that point, he had already spent years “alleged to have run a number of schemes in esports—forging checks and bank documents, selling himself as a multi-billionaire investor, and attempting to defraud teams, leagues, and players.” Upon getting involved, it didn’t take Bryden long to start connecting the dots between impersonating a lawyer and “several other cases involving Mullins.” By the time Bryden had solidified his case, he told Dot Esports, “I was looking forward to meeting him.”

Before the 2017 involvement of law enforcement, Mullins had somehow managed to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. At the time,  “between his fifteenth and eighteenth birthdays,” Mullins had focused his alleged transgressions on the volatile world of gaming and esports. Back in 2015, the esports and gaming industry was still in the early days of drawing in investors and capitol. The industry was experiencing a surge of growth, breaking new ground which made it the perfect setting for Mullins to—according to allegations from his former associates—“attemp[t] to take $42 million from them during his time in esports.”

The crux of Mullins’ alleged fraud centered on his ability to sell himself as what Wolf describes as “just another rich kid with a lot of money to throw into a rapidly expanding industry.” After a childhood which saw Mullins’ family moving from place to place, primarily in southern states, in 2012 they settled down in Georgia. Despite misrepresenting himself on social media in regards to his education (he claimed to attend a prestigious private school despite being home-schooled,) Mullins spent his adolescence pursuing varied interests, from writing to making music videos. As might be expected, he also spent a lot of time exploring the internet, playing Minecraft and even going so far as to learn coding. By the time 2015 rolled around, he had founded his own “internet services company that helped build custom Minecraft servers.” These endeavors would ultimately connect Mullins with Joey Amoruso.

Joshua Mullins
Courtesy of Twitter

Amoruso was a like-minded teenager from suburban Pennsylvania who, along with a friend named Korey Money-Melissen, had already become owners of Volume Gaming, an amateur esports team. When another esports team, Team Dragon Knights, had to auction off their spot in Riot Games’ League of Legends Challenger Series in 2016, Amoruso and Money-Melissen weighed the risks of forging a bank notice to secure the spot in the series. When their plans fell through (Money-Melissen was worried about the legal ramifications of going through with the process,) the two had a falling out which would last for months. It was around this time that, after becoming friends, Amoruso accepted an offer to work for Mullins. As their professional relationship and friendship grew, Mullins found himself increasingly interested in esports and gaming, especially as Amoruso described his aspirations. According to Amoruso, Mullins “told me his ‘family’ story of his mom being an exec at a Fortune 500 company,” reports Dot Esports. As such, Mullins allegedly described himself as an interested investor for Amoruso and Money-Melissen’s team.

At the time, the esports and gaming industry was drawing a lot of attention from investors. As Wolf describes it, “For a brief period, roughly from 2015 to 2017, business and sports moguls took especially speculative risks in hopes to break into the pro scene.” Alongside investors such as Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, and Martin Shkreli, rich kids with family money were in the practice of providing large sums of money to finance small-name teams. Mullins portrayed himself to be one such rich kid and, along with Amoruso and Money-Melissen, was prepped to dive into the esports business.

With the 18-year-old Money-Melissen signing and drafting legal agreements, the three would offer financing for aspiring esports teams. The catch was, in order for these teams to access any of those funds, Mullins, Amoruso, and Money-Melissen would first require a deposit. Without funds to back up their claims, the group would be poised to potentially collect said deposits without having the $40 million dollars or private planes they’d promised in return. The group allegedly attempted this scheme three times, “once with Team Sky, a North American amateur League of Legends organization; again with Rogue, then a professional Overwatch team; and lastly with Michael Schnorr, an independent League of Legends manager.” Their attempts never worked, despite Mullins’ providing “bank documents… with noted balances on them. Throughout 2016, he issued documents that were addressed to potential partners from or claiming association with Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Everbank, Bank of America, and American Express, each of which were obtained by Dot Esports.”

As they continued to pursue their goals, the trio hired former Immortals team manager Elliot Smith to work as a consultant. In 2016, they had an opportunity to try and buy Team Liquid’s slot in the Challenger Series. Smith got in touch with Steve Arhancetd, Liquid co-CEO, on behalf of Mullins, Amoruso, and Money-Melissen before ultimately growing suspicious. Eventually, Smith contacted Arhancetd on his own, writing a secret email saying, “I personally cannot in good faith give you the illusion that we are established enough for this not to be risky for you.” With all of his misgivings, Smith would go on to warn Amoruso and Money-Melissen that Mullins’ financial claims were dubious. After a subsequent falling out between the two, Wolf reports that “They didn’t speak for several months and the schemes stopped.”

With the arrival of 2017, Riot Games began the process of transitioning to a franchise model for their League Championship series, requiring an entrance fee of $13 million dollars for new investors. The prospect of being a part of this new league brought Amoruso and Money-Melissen together and it wasn’t long before they brought on Mullins to finance their endeavors. It was also in early 2017 that Mullins had his first run in with the law when “Georgia prosecutors charged him with battery, [saying] he tied his mother’s left arm up and held her hostage after a family dispute. A month later, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge. The court sentenced him to a year’s probation and fined him $680.” That didn’t stop Mullins from joining Amoruso and Money-Melissen in their attempts to get their newly founded org, Draco Esports, off the ground.

Levi Collins
Courtesy of Twitter/Levi Collins

In an attempt to build credibility, the group sought to merge with another amateur organization, EMP, which promised a $250,000 salary to that group’s top executive Levi Collins. In October of 2017, Draco Esports launched with an ill-conceived video on Twitter featuring 17-year old Amoruso “in a conference room, dressed in an oversized suit, as he began to lay out their plan.” When this video drew attention and scrutiny, it didn’t take long for folks online to notice the discrepancies in the group’s claims. Dot Esports notes one such individual in particular: “An internet sleuth named Elle Thibeau published a document with screenshots of conversations where Amoruso misled past business associates, both with Volume and Draco.” It wasn’t long until Collins was left with an onslaught of questions he couldn’t answer.

Draco Esports
Courtesy of Twitter/Draco Esports

By the end of that month, Collins was confronted with the fact that he’d been duped. As Wolf reports, “on Oct. 30, 2017, he started a Periscope stream on his personal Twitter account. He was crying—well aware at this point that he’d been scammed by a trio of fraudsters.” As of October 31, 2017, Draco Esports lost their Call of Duty team after having been officially announced only one day prior. By 2018, Collins was done with esports and Amoruso and Money-Melissen were only barely in contact with one another. Money-Melissen would go on to provide Wolf and Hitt with the majority of the documents they used for their article as well as descriptions of his experience over the course of those years. According to the Dot Esports article, Money-Melissen says “he never knew Mullins was a con man,” while Amoruso  “says he’s yet another victim of Mullins, that he never knowingly misled or scammed anyone in esports.”

In January of 2019, Mullins officially pleaded guilty to charges of felony forgery in Cobb County, Georgia. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and a $1,000 fine. However, in Hamilton County, Tennessee, and Gilmer County, Georgia Mullins still faces “43 other counts of identity theft, forgery, and the impersonation of a lawyer.” As such, he’s been in custody “at the Gilmer County Detention Center in north Georgia for more than a year.”

Overall, Mullin’s story paints a fascinating picture of the world of gaming and esports back in the wild days when investors first started to recognize the newfound industry’s potential for profit. It also highlights interesting and troubling realities of an industry where young people are drawn to the potential of gaining massive amounts of money. The fact that teenagers were negotiating with massive sums of money without any adult oversight brings to mind the realities that, especially when it comes to business decisions, the esports and gaming industry has a real-world impact on people’s lives.

While Wolf and Hitt ultimately describe Mullins as “an ambitious and talented kid who almost pulled off one of the biggest scams in the history of esports” and it is all-too-easy to see parallels between Mullins’ crimes and the narratives seen in the Hollywood movies previously mentioned, one can’t help but wonder about the dangers of romanticizing such crimes. Wolf and Hitt say, “what the three nearly accomplished, in such a short time, is stunning. Three teens with little more than a skill at forgery nearly broke into the top of the esports world.” But it’s also important to remember that while all this was going on, Mullins was also charged with battery for holding his mother hostage. While Wolf and Hitt write off the incident as emblematic of esports’ “Wild early days,” it’s important to remember that those times are over, and maybe that’s for the best.

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