Could digital cats and baseball cards take cryptocurrency mainstream?

 Image: Cryptokitties.co

Image: Cryptokitties.co

Do you know what a whale is? Or what going to the moon means? What about in relation to cryptocurrency? 

If you do, you’re in the minority. While most people have heard of it, few could knowledgeably describe what cryptocurrency is or how it works; the strange vocabulary associated with it only adds to the confusion.

But in recognition of the many possibilities that the technology holds for disruption, established institutions are belatedly starting to pay attention. Some traditional banks have introduced small departments to survey crypto innovations, and the Metropolitan Police has recently announced a new course in crypto at its Economic Crime Academy. But there still lacks an easy way to convey the meaning, value and usefulness of cryptocurrency to the masses.

This may soon change though, and it’s all thanks to digital cats. In December 2017, a blockchain game called CryptoKitties was released and rapidly became the most popular blockchain game. Cryptokitties allows users to buy and trade unique digital cats and pay for them using the Ether cryptocurrency; its users have spent over $25m worth of Ether, including a $140,000 sale for a single CryptoKitty in an auction in May 2018.

Gamification is a tried-and-tested way of gently introducing complex technology into people’s lives: the Nintendo Wii normalised the use of motion controllers in family living rooms, while Pokemon Go brought augmented reality to the masses.  

New excitement for the gamification of cryptocurrency comes from a venture between Major League Baseball (MLB) and blockchain gaming company, Lucid Sight. In MLB Crypto Baseball, collectors use Ether to buy digital avatars tied to specific moments in recent games; they can then sell these items, or even earn rewards and stickers.

In the real world, average attendance of baseball games looks likely to fall for a third consecutive year this year, and MLB is hopeful that this new venture will entice young followers back in particular.

"That is 100% one of the strategic goals of this initiative," said Kenny Gersh, MLB's executive VP of gaming and new business ventures. "Collecting items related to your team, engaging with your team in a new way. For me, say the Red Sox win the division in a couple months, I want to buy something that symbolises that. These will be event-based things—those moments in sports that happen that you want to remember and cherish, and have a sense that you were there, even if only digitally."

An ageing and shrinking MLB fanbase is also affecting the popularity of baseball card collecting and trading. The idea of digitally rejuvenating this activity through the MLB Crypto Baseball venture is an innovation that soothes a number of traditional problems for baseball card collecting.

While some of the sensorial pleasure of card collecting - the emotional feeling of peeling open a new packet; the smell and touch of a fresh new pack of cards - is lost,  digitising the activity also removes a number of problems. There are no issues of authentication, as each collectible is documented on the public ledger. There’s also no more need for valuations or fears of physical deterioration in a collection, and collectibles are received instantly after purchase.

To aid initial growth and comprehension, MLB Crypto Baseball plans to roll the platform out in stages that will slowly build in complexity. The question of whether this will successfully attract younger people back to the sport remains to be seen. But the fun factor that gamifying brings to the world of cryptocurrency, especially enhanced through sport, is a powerful one. Just as eBay’s digitisation of the auction process led millions to open PayPal accounts, games like MLB Crypto Baseball could well encourage people to open Coinbase wallets.

If CryptoKitties was the first big player in the gamification of cryptocurrency, then Major League Baseball is likely to offer the world its second. And if the first follower theory (which suggests that the first follower of a trend is as important as its initiator, as they make the leader’s action seem more credible) is to be believed, this new trend is one to watch.

Tarek Chaudhury, Flamingo