There was blockchain, and cryptocurrency, and then DAOs. Ethereum, fungible tokens, gas fees. As our lives have become digitized and gamified over the last year, there has been a whole alphabet of new concepts to learn (or at least pretend to). For those still trying to keep up, in the last couple weeks alone The New York Times and The New Yorker have covered “Pudgy Penguins” and “Bored Ape Yacht Club,” respectively.
Now comes the final boss: the metaverse. If there is one tech buzzword to truly understand, it’s this one, because it encompasses most of what’s come before: Bitcoin and NFTs, Fortnite and Facebook. Plus, there’s no engineering prerequisite. If anything, the metaverse is more philosophy than mathematics. And it has the potential to transform the sports experience. So let’s get into it.
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WHAT IS THE METAVERSE?
The short answer:
Depends on whom you ask. At a high level, the metaverse is being pitched as the evolution of online experiences, or Web 3.0 (with smartphones ushering in 2.0). “We’re almost building a new civilization,” GreenPark Sports CEO Ken Martin said.
The long answer:
When it comes to specifics, each company and thinker has offered a different definition, but most share two critical elements.
During an earnings call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces.”
If that sounds familiar, the metaverse last caught the zeitgeist in 2007 during Second Life’s peak as people interacted as avatars in a digital world. Since then, the concept has been mostly contained to games like Animal Crossing and Roblox.
Now though, the Zuckerbergs of the world see board meetings and dance classes taking place in similar virtual settings. Unlike a Zoom call, these places would be persistent (available around the clock) and offer a sense of movement. People would build unique identities while experiencing activities, from dating to weddings, synchronously. And users could access the spaces with virtual reality hardware, as well as other computing devices—and whatever tomorrow’s computers look like.
This is where the blockchain comes in. For now, there are many online worlds, but the companies building them see connections coming in the future. Hypothetically, a horse bought in Zed Run could be run in a race in Fortnite, which could be viewed in Facebook, for instance (“in” is the new “on” as the internet evolves). And the winners could get access to a private Discord room.
Interoperability will make it possible for users to get the benefits of inhabiting not one but many metaverse platforms, like earning a badge in one game that can be displayed in another.
To make that happen, the platforms need to be able to verify who owns what, using a universally accepted standard built on something like the blockchain. Provable ownership will also allow for the further development of a purely metaversal economy, where real estate and merchandise could be bought and sold, and entire businesses can exist solely in the digital realm.
HOW WILL IT IMPACT SPORTS?
The short answer:
Not that much. For now at least. “I don’t think it is likely to lead to new leading sports, nor fundamentally alter which sports are most popular,” said Matthew Ball, an Epyllion Co. managing partner who co-founded the Roundhill Ball Metaverse ETF. For further comfort, he suggested looking at the last wave of technological change. Big TVs and second screens made the at-home experience better than ever, yet ticket prices only continued to go up.
The long answer:
For many following sports business trends, what the metaverse promises may not even seem that new. One of its biggest impacts on sports, Ball says, will be on how we watch games. Rather than being stranded on a couch, fans will have the opportunity to view a game more like they are in the stands. In fact, everyone could one day have the best seats in the house, with their fantasy score or live bets shown on the jumbotron. At-home fans might even be able to impact the game the way a hollering home crowd can.
Beyond being updated, the spectator experience could be disrupted altogether. An entire digital NBA could spring up, with player stats based on their real world siblings but virtual teams wholly owned and controlled by the fans—or fan token holders. (If that sounds farfetched, you haven’t checked out Blaseball.)
But Ball added that there’s no need for the biggest leagues to jump in just yet. Just as Disney has done with its streaming service, major sports will be able to fully leverage their valuable intellectual property when the time is right. For now, they are mainly lending IP to existing online realities like Fortnite.
The metaverse could also have something to offer fans in physical seats. John Hanke, the CEO of Pokemon Go co-developer Niantic, recently wrote a blog post calling the metaverse “a dystopian nightmare.” In it, he argued instead for a “real world metaverse,” in which tech drew people out of their homes and improved their experiences by animating historical tours or bringing science lessons from the chalkboard to life. Hanke calls these possibilities “reality channels,” but that’s for another explainer…
Doug Scott, cofounder of gaming holding company Subnation Media, envisioned Go-like games that could be unlocked in arenas and played on phones during and between the action.
The metaverse will also mean that fandom doesn’t end at stadium gates. GreenPark already allows fans to compete in online games as members of their team-affiliated tribes. An interoperable metaverse with connections to the real world could allow leagues and retailers to sell physical sneakers and jerseys as well as their digital equivalents at the same time.
As metaverse development fuels further virtual and augmented reality research, athletic training will also fundamentally change, author and entrepreneur QuHarrison Terry said. Already, StatusPro and Sense Arena are using headsets to help NFL and NHL players, respectively. “If I was a younger athlete and I wanted to get a leg up,” Terry said, “I’d probably add some type of VR training regimen.” Even if the experiences are subpar now, he said, getting used to them could prove valuable soon.
WHEN IS THE METAVERSE COMING?
The short answer:
In some ways, it’s already here. Buy and trade NFTs, check out a concert in Fortnite, or watch an NBA game through the lenses of an Oculus VR headset, and you’ll get a sense of what the next version of the internet has to offer. Fortnite already gets as many visitors in a month (80 million) as the United States gets in a year.
The long answer:
It will take years for the full vision of unique digital avatars bouncing between digital spaces to come together, if it ever does. “I think we’re in the preseason,” Scott said.
For now, behemoths like Facebook, Microsoft and Epic Games each have their own conception of how the metaverse should work, while outsiders build more decentralized alternatives. Web 2.0 spawned a whole crop of new megacorporations (Uber, TikTok, etc.). Web 3.0 seems poised to do the same, though this time around it may have more to do with pudgy penguins and bored apes.
There are also concerns about the energy demands of a globally large, always-on platform that is constantly using the blockchain to ensure authenticity.
The metaverse’s growth will be gradual, Ball says. “There will be no clean ‘Before Metaverse’ and ‘After Metaverse,’” he wrote in 2020. “Instead, it will slowly emerge over time as different products, services and capabilities integrate and meld together.”
Don’t be surprised though, if you one day find yourself sitting in a virtual seat. There might even be a fake foam finger on your digital hand. In all likelihood, there will also be a friend next to you, asking you to explain whatever might be the tech buzzword du jour.
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