A baby humpback whale in blue water.
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A whale isn’t only the largest animal in the ocean. We’ll explain what online whales are and why they spend so much money on the internet.

What Is a “Whale?”

In internet jargon, a “whale ” is someone who consistently spends enormous amounts of money on one or many online transactions. While the most common use of the term refers to spending in video games, whales exist across many online platforms, from online retail stores to trading and investment platforms selling assets like cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

From the perspective of a business, whales are a minority of a customer base but make up an outsized proportion of all revenue. According to Udonis, whales comprise only 2% of an average app’s userbase but contribute around half of all total revenue.

Whale Tales

The term “whale” started offline in the gambling community. In gambling, the term is used synonymously with high rollers; these are casino clients who wager large amounts of money on individual games like poker. It is used alongside other sea-related gambling slang terms such as “fish,” a weak or inexperienced player, and “shark,” someone that preys on less-talented poker players to obtain easy wins.

Casinos would often attract whales with perks such as expensive beverages, hotel stays, exclusive lounges, and private games for other high rollers. Later on, the term “whale” also became used for customers in other businesses such as luxury retail, fine dining, and collectibles. Then, with the emergence of the microtransaction model in the mid-2010s, the gaming community adopted the term whale for someone that makes many in-game purchases.

Nowadays, the term “whale” is used as a catch-all for any customer with an outsized spending record.

An Ocean of Microtransactions

gacha game man smartphone

Most of the time, when someone uses the term “whale” online, they are referring to whales who overspend on microtransactions. These are any kinds of purchases made inside a game, from random loot boxes to unlockable items.

Whales have become more prevalent since the emergence of mobile games. It’s gotten to the point where many games’ entire business models are reliant on spending from whales. Many studios structure their microtransactions deliberately to push people into spending increasing amounts of money.

Many of the games that attract whales are “gacha games,” titles patterned after Japanese vending machines that release a random toy in exchange for money. Gacha games operate similarly: They use a “roll” system that randomizes the outcome of every microtransaction based on a scale of rarity. Therefore, a player looking for a scarce item may have to spend hundreds of dollars on thousands of transactions before obtaining it, if at all.

Whale Behavior

Several behavioral patterns are common among gaming whales. The first is that they often stick to one game at a time. This provides them with the best chance of “maxing” at a particular game, rather than dividing their money and time between multiple titles. After they’ve exhausted their time in a specific game, they might move to a different one.

Another is that they end up attempting to collect items more than actually play the game. Mobile titles often have an impossibly large assortment of collectible items, characters, and power-ups, and are designed to make it nearly impossible for a player to collect everything. Because of a random number generator, a whale may spend all day trying to roll for a particular item and come up short.

Lastly, many whales incur tons of debt. Because many microtransactions are charged to credit cards, whales might often end up spending money they don’t have. Furthermore, developers constantly release a steady stream of new releases and time-limited items that encourage players to act as soon as possible, enabling them to take on short-term debt.

Emerging Whales

bitcoin.org logo cryptocurrency

In the last couple of years, another common type of whales has emerged in the cryptocurrency community. Whales are individuals who own vast amounts of a particular crypto token. Because cryptocurrencies typically have a limited supply, whales wield huge amounts of power over any particular currency’s price and market movement. Many websites and social media accounts have emerged to track whale movements and use those to make price predictions.

There are also whales in collecting. This can be anything from more typical collectibles like figurines or albums to digital collectibles like games on Steam. Because game collections can be made public, some websites track the users with the most purchases on the game platform.

Profile Photo for Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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