Michael Cohen scandal takes bizarre turn involving massively multiplayer online role-playing games

Daybreak Games says it was never owned by Columbus Nova.

CREDIT: YOUTUBE
CREDIT: YOUTUBE

Amidst the new burst of information about hush money, shell companies, and white supremacist websites suddenly swirling around Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and New York-based company Columbus Nova — as well as Columbus Nova’s relationship with sanctioned Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg — one detail has provided a bizarre offshoot.

Daybreak Games, a California online game company specializing in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), is scrambling to make clear it was never owned by Columbus Nova — a company that was listed as a subsidiary of Vekselberg’s Renova company.

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Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult film actress Stormy Daniels, revealed that Columbus Nova had sent a half-million dollars to Cohen.

However, shuffling money to Cohen wasn’t the only business Columbus Nova undertook in the past few years. According to press releases, interviews, and policy statements on Daybreak’s website, Columbus Nova purchased Daybreak in 2015. (It’s unclear how much money the sale entailed.)

Now, however, Daybreak is claiming that the past three years have been a big misunderstanding, and that Daybreak was never owned by Columbus Nova — and that the company, in turn, never had any connection to Vekselberg. Daybreak says it is actually owned by Jason Epstein, a former executive at Columbus Nova

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“There has been some confusion concerning Daybreak’s ownership and rumors about the state of the company that have circulated from a few online game websites, and we want to set the record straight,” a recent statement on the company’s online forum read. “We assure you that these rumors are entirely false and that there’s no impact on our business or games in any way whatsoever.”

According to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Columbus Nova listed Epstein through at least 2016 as a “Managing Partner of Renova US Management, the US investment vehicle for the Renova Group.”

Daybreak has spent the past few days scrubbing its site of references to Columbus Nova, with one Wikipedia user even attempting to write that “Jason Epstein is and has always been the primary owner and executive of Daybreak Game Company.” (The change was not accepted, and the Wikipedia page now highlights the ownership controversy.)

A spokesperson for Daybreak told ThinkProgress that previous confusion about Daybreak’s ownership stemmed from Epstein’s role at Columbus Nova, and that previous statements about Columbus Nova owning Daybreak came from people “just sort of assum[ing]” that Columbus Nova had purchased Daybreak. As Massively Overpowered, a site dedicated to MMORPGs, wrote, Daybreak told them it was all a “miscommunication.”

Columbus Nova later released a statement denying it ever had any ownership interest:

We want to confirm recent media reports that Columbus Nova has never had any ownership interest in Daybreak. Our former partner Jason Epstein told us in 2015 that he was purchasing Daybreak as a personal investment and Columbus Nova declined to participate in that purchase. We are aware of previous errors stating that Columbus Nova at some point had an ownership interest in Daybreak and regret not asking to correct the record sooner. The reality is that until now no one cared or asked so we just didn’t think about it.

Playing games

It is technically possible that the past three years of statements about Columbus Nova’s purchase of Daybreak were all mistakes and typos. But the litany of slip-ups, as Ars Technica found, were myriad. As a quick sampling:

  • In an official statement in 2015, Daybreak, which was then known as Sony Online Entertainment, wrote that they “have been acquired by Columbus Nova.” The company issued a further statement on their official forum, noting that they were “pleased to announce that we have been acquired by Columbus Nova.” Ars Technica also reported the same at the time, writing that “Columbus Nova announced it has purchased” Daybreak.
  • In 2015, Daybreak identified Columbus Nova as one of its “parent companies” on its privacy policy.
  • In 2015, a statement from the Fenwick & West legal firm said that it had represented Daybreak “in its recently announced acquisition by Columbus Nova.”
  • In 2015, Polygon reported in a lengthy feature on Daybreak that Columbus Nova purchased the company. “After kissing a lot of frogs, we finally found a happy home with Columbus Nova. It was really a match made in heaven,” John Smedley, Daybreak president at the time, said.
  • In 2015, Smedley told an online forum dedicated to one of Daybreak’s games that the “opportunity to go out and get investors like Columbus Nova that think about things for the long haul was a big deal to us.”

Information about Daybreak’s reported sale to Columbus Nova also made the rounds on Twitter:

For good measure, Daybreak even received criticism for the purchase in 2015. In a harbinger of critiques to come, a 2015 piece in Paste Magazine pointed directly to Columbus Nova’s connection to Vekselberg as reason for concern.

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While it’s obviously at a great remove, Vekselberg is the owner, in the end, of Daybreak,” Paste Magazine’s Ian Williams wrote. “He almost certainly will never deal with it personally. He may not even really know that he owns it beyond seeing it mentioned in a report now and then. But he does own it. And the stuff he’s involved in, the oil and the steel and the shady land deals and the militias, are involved with Daybreak, too.”

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to clarify the nature of the payment to Michael Cohen by Columbus Nova. The company says that Vekselberg had no role in the transaction.

UPDATE (3/17): This article has been updated to include a statement from Columbus Nova and to remove a discussion of money laundering. As the original article stated: “[T]here’s no indication any money laundering has taken place within Daybreak’s games.”