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An online blockchain golf game? Really?
Fancy technology types (you know who you are) don't always have the most respect for old-school East Coast media companies. Neither does the video game industry.
That's understandable. In so many sectors and genres, the old media and telecommunications titans have allowed themselves to be disrupted, bypassed and in some cases made almost wholly irrelevant by new modes of online engagement.
Except in sports. Because of the extreme concentration of talent, power and consumer interest in a very small number of leagues, teams and athletes, traditional media companies have remained at the core of the global sports ecosystem as purveyors of multibillion-dollar exclusive rights and distribution deals. In fact, a strong case could be made that sports is just about the only thing still propping up the traditional television business at all.
As Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts pointed out recently in Protocol Gaming, sports aficionados are indulging their fandom in new ways on new platforms.
So when a sports media giant also boasts a track record of adapting to and developing new modes of online engagement, it's worth taking a look when they try something fresh. And that's Blocklete Games, the new experiment in blockchain gaming from Turner Sports.
Now part of AT&T (via WarnerMedia), Turner Sports may have been the most nimble and innovative of the big American sports media companies over the last decade. Turner's 2012 acquisition of Bleacher Report for around $200 million was clearly, in hindsight, brilliant. In video games, TBS broadcasts a weekly package of esports and game culture programming under the ELEAGUE brand on Fridays at midnight and claims it's the most-watched game content on television (not that there's much competition).
In early 2016, Turner Sports held one of its regular internal innovation competitions. Yang Adija, now the company's vice president for business strategy and operations, came in second with an idea for a blockchain-based video distribution service. (First place was a social recommendation engine.)
That idea didn't pan out, but in 2017 Adija heard about CryptoKitties, perhaps the most important and influential blockchain game. The entire concept is based on the notion of the non-fungible token (NFT), which represents a unique digital asset that can be authenticated, bought and sold over a blockchain. So your game character, be it a cat or an athlete, belongs to you. You make the character more powerful or interesting by playing the game, and then you can sell it to someone else or keep it for yourself.
Over 2018 and 2019 Adija built his internal pitch, secured a budget, then launched Blocklete last month with a web golf game. After a free trial, players can buy a golfer for $7 and so begins the business flywheel, Turner hopes. (As a longtime fan of golf video games, I have to say that Blocklete Golf is far less sophisticated than a popular mobile title like Golf Clash, but that's to be expected at this point.)
Turner Sports has included some simple game-like features on sites it has managed for sports leagues like NASCAR, but Blocklete is the company's first significant foray into actually developing video games. Blockchain technology is used in only a minuscule part of the overall $160 billion global video game business, but it could become more important as the future creeps closer for a potential metaverse tying together various proprietary game worlds.
If the project isn't a complete flop — and perhaps even if it is — Blocklete plans to expand beyond golf with other interactive experiences based on blockchain technology. Protocol spoke with Adija last week about Blocklete, how he landed on making a golf game and the future of blockchain games at Turner Sports.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you settle on the idea of a playable blockchain game experience?
So the winter of 2017, I was listening to a podcast that talked about NFT technology, and they were talking about how they were selling art — in this case it was a picture of a cat online — and it had the ability to be a distinct digital item. CryptoKitties popularized it. It had become really popular within a small circle, and it had even crashed the Ethereum blockchain, which is the blockchain Blocklete Games is built on now.
I was completely interested in the technology. I wanted to expand beyond the use-case they had, which was mainly around the collectability of the art. I wanted to use the technology to have a utility to it that went beyond the art and aesthetics of it. I started thinking about what you can do within the idea of a collectible item that has utility, and because they had used cats, I was thinking about horses and using it for horse-racing games. I realized that if it could be applicable to horse-racing as a video game, it could be applicable across all of sports. This is certainly the realm where we play as Turner Sports.
What's the goal of the project at this point?
For Turner Sports, we do want to focus on innovation. We want to push the landscape forward. It's not just because we think it's the right thing to do, it's what we see and hear that our fans are looking for. So, really looking to drive fan engagement, create more immersive content and, really, interactive experiences.
We think the long-term trajectory of how consumers will be engaging with content — and particularly sports content — will be much more interactive and much more engaging. Blockchain really allows that to happen because it changes the dynamic and gives more control to the players, the fans. If you look at wider entertainment, you can see the marks of what is happening in that, yes, there is still a lot of long-form content out there, there is still linear content out there, but you also see users wanting to have more control over the content that they create, wherever you're looking.
When we think about the kind of fandom that occurs in sports, we think this is a really good place to lead and do that.
I love golf games. Why was golf the right game, in particular, for this experiment?
There were two main reasons why we chose golf. One is that we wanted to have competitive play, and in order for us to move in a quick way, golf allowed us to have asynchronous gameplay so we didn't need to have hundreds of thousands of users. You can play against a scorecard.
The other reason is in terms of building out the game itself, it was — and I'll put this in air quotes here — a bit "simpler" to build a golf game than to build the graphics of a competitive fighting game or something else.
Besides CryptoKitties, what other blockchain games are you paying attention to?
There's one we like to look at called Axie Infinity; that's another blockchain-based game where there are opportunities for economic value to the users.
We've also been interested to see how the NBA has done a collectibles-style game that they just launched this year called Top Shot. Obviously, we're in a joint venture with the NBA. They've found a really interesting way of bringing in the NBA talent — or at least the NBA content. So that was something we followed and took learnings from.
So what's the big picture here for Turner Sports?
We are leaning into innovation. We want to drive fan engagement. We're looking to bring immersive content and interactive experiences to our fans. We are in a place where we continue to look to make it easier to be a fan and to empower fans with opportunities to gain value from the experiences they have with all of Turner Sports' content, gaming included.
Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.