The NFL distributed free NFTs of tickets as a keepsake for fans of its final four teams.Courtesy of Los Angeles Rams
Every industry is trying to figure out how to position itself in the metaverse, and the sports world has a unique opportunity to drive innovation in that emerging space.
But first, what is the metaverse? Here’s what little consensus exists: There is no single metaverse but a collection of disparate 3D worlds, largely built on the blockchain, with the potential for connectivity. It’s a fan engagement tool, a revenue driver, an avenue for direct interaction.
“The way that I define it is it’s the convergence of augmented reality, virtual reality, gamification, digital community and the physical world — that’s a lot,” said Greg Kahn, CEO of Emerging Tech Exchange.
Christine Moy, an Apollo Global Management partner who heads its digital assets division, called the metaverse “a hype topic” right now and described the evolution of the internet thusly: Web1 gave users the chance to read information that was presented. Web2, which is inclusive of social media, offered the ability to read and write.
“Web3 is read, write and own — the ability to own a piece of the internet and be able to commercialize your piece of it,” Moy, a former JP Morgan managing director who led the bank’s metaverse strategy, said at SportTechie’s State of the Industry.
That ownership piece is why the blockchain is critical. It creates an immutable record of ownership and is why non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are a key gateway for education and accessibility — a portal to the metaverse. From Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot to MLB’s partnership with Fanatics-owned Candy Digital, the NFL’s work with Ticketmaster, global soccer’s embrace of Sorare and Socios and Tom Brady’s Autograph give an indication of how leagues, teams, athletes and brands are focusing on the space. Everyone in sports, it seems, is minting an NFT.
“It’s a significant movement,” Ivana Kirkbride, Meta’s director of product marketing for entertainment, said of NFTs. “I also think it’s more about bridging between Web2 and Web3. The non-fungible token is a way to engage different communities of interest into how smart contracts work, into crypto, into other pieces of the commerce stack and Web3.”
The other key beachhead for conceptualizing Web3 is gaming. “Esports events are a great example of blending the physical and digital worlds, and I think that’s going to be a core component of the metaverse,” said Take-Two Interactive’s head of data strategy and analytics, Jamyn Edis, who is also an adjunct at both Columbia and NYU.
“Look at the new video games — the Fortnites, the Roblox — those are community-based games where you as an individual can play and participate however you want,” said Baron Davis, the retired NBA star who has become an active tech investor and metaverse creator. “And I think that in this Web3 structure, it’s actually taking it a step further and saying, ‘Let’s build a video game, where everybody’s a builder in the video game.’”
The Atlanta Braves, for example, built a digital copy of Truist Park in the metaverse after witnessing the phenomenon of Travis Scott’s April 2020 concert within the popular video game Fortnite. “That was eye-opening for us because you had this traditional in-person experience that was now happening in a virtual environment,” said Greg Mize, Braves vice president of marketing and innovation. Digital Truist Park, which operates on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and was built by digital developer Surreal Events, will soon host events. The Braves view it as a separate venue.
Hawk-Eye is working with Manchester City to render its Etihad Stadium in similar fashion. At the beginning of the 2022 playoffs, Google and the NBA launched Pixel Arena, a slightly different approach but with the same core virtual immersive experience.
Still, all parties involved understand the need for flexibility.
“The challenge right now is we’re building this somewhat blind, right?” said Rob Shaw, director of North American sports partnerships for Meta. “Until we start having people regularly use it, we don’t know exactly what it should look like.”
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Answering the key questions
Why is sports such a good metaverse case study?
Digital venues can sell tickets; there will be expansive sponsorship inventory; merchandise can be sold for avatars; and so on.
Do I need an avatar?
Most of the time. Experiences will vary, but users will be rendered digitally in many virtual worlds.
So how many metaverses are there and will I have to start over in each one?
Though disjointed now, everyone’s hope is the worlds all connect, like a digital golden spike in the transcontinental railroad.