Around the Block from Coinbase Ventures sheds light on key trends in crypto. In this edition, Justin Mart, Connor Dempsey, and Hassan Ahmed explore the growth of NFT games and the play-to-earn economy. Plus, a look at NFT marketplace activity and the Poly Network exploit.
We’re at an exciting time in crypto: one in which cryptonetworks are blossoming into full-fledged virtual economies. Nowhere is this more on display than with NFT gaming.
At the forefront of NFT gaming sits Axie Infinity and its play-to-earn model: a model that pays people in crypto to play a fun video game. With over one million daily active users, Axie Infinity has exploded in popularity in emerging markets and is showing the potential to be a trojan horse for on-boarding the next generation of crypto users.
On top of that, Axie Infinity and play-to-earn gaming has spawned its own thriving financial services sector.
Over the last 30 days, Axie Infinity generated a head turning $343M in fee revenue. This is more than any app or protocol in crypto aside from the Ethereum blockchain, according to Token Terminal.
So where’s that revenue coming from?
The Axie Infinity economy consists of a governance token (AXS) and a second token called Smooth Love Potion (SLP) that serves as an in-game currency, along with NFTs that represent both game characters and virtual real estate.
The gameplay itself is often compared to Pokemon, where players battle “Axies” (pictured below) against those of other players. Different Axies have different strengths and weaknesses, and the strategy of the game comes down to playing to your Axies strengths better than your opponent. Players get paid in SLP for defeating opponents. Additionally, players can compete daily quests to earn additional SLP. Axies can also be “bred” together to create new Axies which can in turn be sold to other players for profit.
Every time an Axie is traded, a plot of real estate is sold, or two Axies are bred, the protocol takes a fee priced in a combination of AXS and SLP. Rather than go to the developers, this revenue is placed in the Axie treasury, which has ballooned to nearly $600 million.
While the protocol revenue numbers alone depict the emergence of a new breakout crypto application, what’s more exciting is where Axie Infinity is taking off: in developing nations where players can often earn more playing the game and selling SLP for their native currencies than they can with a typical day job.
With an estimated 50% of daily active users (DAUs) coming from the Philippines, the game is also picking up steam in other emerging markets like Indonesia, Brazil, Venezuela, India, and Vietnam.
Created by game developer Sky Mavis in 2018, Axie started picking up organic traction in the Philippines in early 2020 after a few players realized they could make legitimate incomes by playing. When Covid lockdowns hit and many were put out of work, more were encouraged to give it a try. A documentary on the game’s growth called PLAY-TO-EARN went viral in May 2021 and DAUs went vertical soon after.
Unlike many mobile games, Axie Infinity is not free to play. To get started, players need to obtain 3 Axie Infinity characters. In the earlier days of the game, the average Axie was selling for under $10. With the game’s rapid growth and the broader NFT rally, the average Axie is now selling for nearly $500 according to CryptoSlam.
Given Axie’s base within the Philippines and other emerging markets, a $1,500 entry tag is a non-starter for most would-be players. To mitigate this barrier to entry, an informal market emerged in which NFT owners began lending players the NFTs needed to play the game in exchange for a cut of their winnings. This is done through QR codes that let players use Axie NFTs in game without the lender having to cede ownership on-chain.
This informal market has blossomed into a formal play-to-earn financial services sector. The largest and most prominent player is a project called Yield Guild Games.
Founder Gabby Dizon likes to say that Yield Guild Games is one part Berkshire Hathaway and one part Uber.
Just as Berkshire Hathaway is a holding company for a multitude of businesses, YGG is essentially a holding company for play-to-earn gaming assets. Starting in 2020, they’ve been buying up yield producing NFTs, governance tokens, and ownership stakes in promising gaming projects and protocols.
Similar to how Uber pairs people who want to earn money driving with people who need rides, YGG pairs people who want to make money gaming with the NFTs they need to earn in play-to-earn games. In many parts of the world, people are opting to work with YGG over Uber simply because it pays more.
YGG recently released its July Asset & Treasury Report that offers an interesting glimpse into the new kinds of business models NFTs and play-to-earn games are creating.
Within YGG, there are scholars and community managers. Scholars receive NFTs that they in turn put to work earning crypto. Community managers recruit and train new scholars. 70% of winnings go to scholars, 20% to community managers, and 10% to the Yield Guild Games treasury.
According to the report, 2,058 new scholars joined YGG in July bringing the total to 4,004. In the same month, YGG scholars generated 11.7M SLP by playing Axie Infinity, which equated to over $3.25M in direct revenue. From April through July, scholars and community managers have earned a cumulative of $8.93M.
From its cut of all SLP earned by scholars, YGG earned $329,500 in July and a total of $580,000 since April. YGG’s expenses currently outstrip revenue, as they spent $1.62M in July alone “breeding” new Axie’s to meet scholar demand (breeding can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,200 per Axie).
The YGG treasury consists of tokens and stablecoins held in a wallet, NFTs, and venture investments made in various play-to-earn games. The project has been funded by a $1.325M seed round led by Delphi Digital and another $4.6M round from a16z. They also raised $12.49M from the sale of the YGG governance token, while holding 13.3% of its outstanding supply.
As of the end of July, the YGG wallet’s holdings stood at $415M, with the majority stemming from the YGG token ($373M). The YGG token is part of Yield Guild Game’s plan to transition into a community-governed DAO.The price of YGG has tripled in August, meaning their treasury currently stands at over $1B.
Much of YGG’s capital has been put to work buying NFTs that can earn yield from play-to-earn games. By the end of July, the YGG treasury had amassed 19,460 NFTs valued at over $10M across 12 play-to-earn games. Axie Infinity NFTs comprised close to 90% of that value.
YGG has also made early stage investments across 8 play-to-earn games via SAFT (Simple Agreement for Future Tokens), and locked in ~$1M for yield farming in blue-chip DeFi projects.
A key element of the YGG model is that players are lent NFTs with zero downside risk and without having to put down any upfront capital. In return, they surrender 30% of their winnings but retain the majority — a critical hook to onboarding a new class of crypto users that have historically been priced out.
In fact, some players in the Philippines are earning 5–10x what they were making from their previous jobs. New homes have been purchased, charitable acts have been made, and even shops are accepting SLP as payment.
Beyond the wealth Axie Infinity has created, the game’s popularity has served as a means for getting a large new class of users comfortable using crypto applications. As these 1 million users interface with cryptocurrencies, NFTs, digital wallets, and DEXs, it’s not hard to see this new cohort as natural users of other DeFi and Web3 applications.
If Axie Infinity is its own digital nation, game developer Sky Mavis serves as its Federal Reserve. Where the Fed has various tools it uses to influence the economy, Sky Mavis can adjust the SLP issuance rate and breeding fees with the aim of keeping the Axie economy healthy. Just like a real economy, digital economies have to consider the effects of inflation.
ETH has been flowing into the Axie economy due to high demand for Axie NFTs. Increased demand for Axie NFTs has led to rising Axie NFT prices. Higher NFT prices have made breeding more profitable. Breeding requires fees paid in SLP & AXS, leading to a rise in token prices. With rising SLP prices, playing becomes more profitable, encouraging others to join. A powerful positive feedback loop no doubt — but what if market conditions change?
Winning Axie Infinity battles and quests yields SLP, inflating the SLP supply. And since breeding is priced in SLP, additional supply of SLP equates to cheaper breeding fees to create new Axie NFTs, inflating Axie NFT supply. These dynamics could have an impact on NFT market prices, which in turn may have a direct effect on the economics for players — a possible negative feedback loop.
Ultimately, Sky Mavis has to keep the SLP supply in-check while improving overall gameplay to keep its player economy and ETH deposits growing. They must also offset the number of players seeking to extract a profit with players who are pure consumers — i.e. playing for the fun of it.
While Sky Mavis works to keep the Axie economy strong, Yield Guild Games is banking on the continued growth of play-to-earn gaming as a whole. By replicating its model for Axie Infinity across new games, it seeks to build a play-to-earn empire. Over the long run, founder Gabby Dizon sees YGG as the “recruitment agency of the metaverse” that ultimately competes with the Ubers of the world for labor. A future straight out of Ready Player One in which millions of people earn a living in the digital world in order to cover expenses in the physical one.
With the exploding revenue of Axie Infinity, the emergence of DAOs like Yield Guild Games, and the multitude of play-to-earn games on the horizon, it’s clear that this trend has legs. With DeFi, NFTs, and now crypto gaming, we’re rapidly evolving past the original crypto killer app of speculative trading and into a universe of expressive new apps and models. We’re in fascinating times as crypto’s utility phase marches forward with a full head of steam.
In the month of August, NFT exchange OpenSea hit $3B in monthly volume as over 1.5 million NFTs changed hands. Its August volume alone exceeds that of every other month in its history, combined.
OpenSea’s August volume is on par with $3B in gross sales Etsy put up in all of Q2: another sign of just how big the NFT market has grown relative to other online marketplaces in a very short timespan.
Data from The Block shows how dominant OpenSea’s dominance over the NFT landscape really is.
Notably absent from this exchange landscape are any kind of decentralized venues for trading NFTs. This follows past market cycles in which centralized exchanges found product market fit first, before ultimately paving the way for decentralized alternatives (think Uniswap during the DeFi summer).
The DEX market for NFTs is still nascent but one we’re watching is the recently launched Punks.house which is a permissionless venue for trading CryptoPunks made by Zora. We’re also seeing NFT markets begin to decentralize themselves, with NFT art marketplace Super Rare making the first move with the introduction of its RARE governance token. Many suspect OpenSea will eventually take this route as well.
Lastly, while OpenSea is a centralized for profit entity, its code is open source. It wouldn’t surprise us to see a low-fee competitor forked from OpenSea emerge in the coming months.
In the largest DeFi hack to date, an attacker drained over $611M from the Ethereum, Binance Smart Chain, and Polygon blockchains. Then in a surprise move, he returned almost all of it.
The hack was done by exploiting vulnerabilities on the Poly Network, a cross-chain interoperability protocol that connects different blockchains. These types of networks are usually among the most complex, owing to challenges in getting two different blockchains to talk to each other in a secure, safe fashion (it’s hard enough getting one blockchain to be secure!). And complexity is the enemy of security because added complexity increases the surface area for attackers to find exploits.
In this case, the hacker tricked Poly Network’s smart contracts into thinking that the hacker’s address had permission to unlock the $611M+ across chains (detailed technical analysis here, simple explainer here). But in an odd turn of events, the hacker ended up returning nearly all of it to the Poly Network team (sans $33M USDT frozen by Tether).
There remains speculation around the hacker’s motives to return the funds. Security firm SlowMist stated that they were able to identify the hacker’s IP and email addresses, so some think the funds were returned because the hacker knew they wouldn’t be able to launder that much money undetected. The hacker, on the other hand, conducted an AMA and stated that they did it, “for fun.” And in a separate twist, the Poly Network team offered the hacker a job as their Chief Security Officer in addition to sending a $500,000 bounty for returning some of the funds.
What’s going on here? We can’t know for sure, but it is rare for a hacker to return funds, especially in such a public fashion. Occam’s razor suggests that the repercussions involved with getting caught (if their info was truly identified) were too great to bear.
While it’s disconcerting to see more hacks happening, we should note that this is simply an evolutionary fitness-function in action. Each hack teaches us how to improve, and we learn, adapt, and improve. While bleeding edge crypto protocols pioneering new use cases will inevitably carry more risk, the space hardens over time.
And Poly Network is not alone. Note the other week when Paradigm’s samczsun discovered and reported a vulnerability in SushiSwap’s MISO platform that would have left $350M ETH at risk. Most recently, Cream Finance was exploited in a flashloan attack for $25M.
But for crypto to really succeed, we need security guarantees. Insurance markets are critical.
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