The NBA is putting its biggest dunks on a blockchain.
The league, along with the NBA Players Association, announced on Wednesday the coming launch of NBA Top Shot, a home for blockchain-based digital collectibles.
The idea is for fans to buy and trade unique digital video clips that commemorate “in-game moments from the NBA season, such as a Kevin Durant 3-point shot or Joel Embiid dunk,” the NBA says in a press release.
To put this product in context: The whole value proposition of blockchain, the decentralized peer-to-peer technology that came about with bitcoin in 2009, is as a place to record transactions on a public, immutable, tamper-proof ledger. Bitcoin runs on its own blockchain; ether, a rival cryptocurrency, runs on the Ethereum blockchain. NBA Top Shot will run on a blockchain. Dapper Labs and the NBA aren’t saying yet exactly which blockchain, but it’s likely to be Ethereum, the home of CryptoKitties.
Each video clip will be labeled with a number to mark it as distinct, much like when you purchase a print or signed piece of art and it is labeled with how many there are in supply.
Top Shot also promises a gamification element, where fans can compete head-to-head by building a roster and pitting their digital collections against each other, fantasy-style.
Much has been made about the uses of blockchain for sports memorabilia, since souvenirs or autographed items must be authenticated. As CoinDesk research director Nolan Bauerle put it at Yahoo Finance’s crypto summit last year, blockchain-based collectibles are “the extension of that anti-counterfeit quality of all of these coins. So this is really the beginning of what we’re going to see—I think, anyway—for sports memorabilia, for the authentication of game-worn jerseys, and cards, and all kinds of other stuff.”
But success here is hardly guaranteed—participation isn’t even guaranteed.
Major League Baseball launched a blockchain collectibles game last year with game developer Lucid Sight called MLB Crypto Baseball. It has not, so far, been an obvious hit. If you search Twitter for mentions of the product, most are complaints. It is also far from easy to use, since participants have to first buy the cryptocurrency ether.
The NBA’s product comes from Dapper Labs, maker of the mega-popular Ethereum game CryptoKitties. At its peak, the digital kittens in CryptoKitties were so popular they were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, and trading activity was clogging the entire Ethereum network.
Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou acknowledges the possible pitfalls. “We want to give basketball fans something that they’ve never seen before, but also something that is immediately familiar and they want to actually play with… You might want that play because you love LeBron, you might love the team he’s currently on, or you might need that moment to play in the Top Shot game.”
Gharegozlou also points to the NBA’s huge social media following as something that can boost awareness of the game. “They’re going to be very engaged with us in helping make sure that this experience is authentic to the fan, and not just a crypto experience.”
Although this is the NBA’s first league-wide foray into blockchain, the Sacramento Kings last year launched an Ethereum mining operation to donate crypto to a local community charity. “We know blockchain is going to revolutionize the world,” Kings CTO Ryan Montoya told Yahoo Finance last June.
Now, one year later, the league office appears to agree. Adrienne O’Keeffe, NBA’s head of consumer products and gaming, says, “We are always exploring new ways to engage with fans around the world. We saw this partnership with Dapper Labs as an opportunity to expand our gaming presence while also creating a new and innovative platform that will allow fans to collect and own specific in-game moments.”