Mojang has been allowing private Minecraft servers for most of its existence with very few, if any, restrictions. Hypixel and Mineplex have server bases that rival those of fully independent games. They also have enough staff to create experiences almost as unique as Minecraft. Mojang began cracking down on private server usage in June 2014 and restricting what makes them unique.
Mojang/Microsoft may be in their right to enforce their EULA and protect their brand, but the changes have caused irreparable damage to the community. Although the largest networks are still operational, many servers have been shut down and enforcement efforts are contributing towards a narrative of decline. Although reports about Minecraft's demise are exaggerated, sales are still strong. However, we may be witnessing the end of a particular type of Minecraft.
Independent Servers: The Dawn of Independent Servers
Mojang's insufficient offerings are part of the reason private servers are so popular. Realms, their multiplayer platform, was very limited up until recently. It is not yet as popular as private servers, despite the fact that they are so easy to set up, modify and maintain.
This is only one aspect of their popularity. Mojang has in many ways delegated the responsibility for community management and development from them to other actors. Private servers have been hard at work to maintain and foster the Minecraft community. Minecraft wouldn't have the same popularity without the maps, mods and spaces offered by servers like Hypixel, which are the foundation of many popular YouTube channels.
These servers are the best for competitive players who prefer fast-paced PvP over Minecraft's more peaceful survival mode. The most popular modes, such as Walls, Skyblock and Factions, combine combat with building. Many players enjoy the more design-focused and insular servers Revand and Minecraft Middle Earth. However, many still play on smaller private servers that are shared with a small whitelisted group who focus on exploration or survival.
It's difficult to determine the exact number of Minecraft players who use private servers or primarily. However, it is significant. Hypixel boasts over 10 million accounts. It's clear to see the impact these servers had on the game's development and the community. Many of the popular Minecraft minigames are developed on servers such as Mineplex and Shotbow. Many of these games, such as Battle and Tumble have been included in Minecraft's console version.
Private servers can be created and maintained for free, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy or cheap. Although most servers don't disclose their costs, a quick glance at the monthly expenses for a small server such as Minecraft Middle Earth will show that they can run into the thousands. Many private server owners consider it a full-time job. Many servers have a full-time staff of developers, artists and managers.
A secondary market was created to pay for hosting and staffing private servers. The secondary market sells everything, from cosmetic upgrades to in game items. Although some of these microtransactions may seem innocuous, a few servers quickly gained a reputation for charging high prices for ranks or titles that preyed on minors.
The largest private servers had a friendly relationship with Mojang for a time. They were allowed to use Mojang assets and charge for services, whether they had explicit or implicit permission. Their staffs were invited to speak at Minecon in the early days.