The changing nature of fandom

Posted 09.03.21

When we look back and reflect on this year we may well say that 2021 was the year that online fandom and digital collectables moved into the mainstream.

We have seen our culture become more digitised following the global pandemic as restrictions on movement have led to more and more of our daily lives being lived out both in the home and online. 

In a world in which physical social interaction has become limited, we have found new ways to express the state of our passion for people, products and brands online. Not only that, but we are seeing an emerging ecosystem and economy around digital collectables powered by blockchain technology that have started to overtake and in some cases even replace traditional forms of fan expression. 

Acquiring digital “moments”
Sports fans who can’t attend games have been limited to watching on TV and discussing with their friends online. Taking that passion one step further we have seen the emergence of digital “collectables’: culture driven by products like the NBA’s Top Shot. Imagine one of a kind officially licensed clip that you can purchase much like many years ago you would have with a trading card or player stickers and you get Top Shot. Jack Settleman, a 24-year-old collector from the US, set the record for biggest buy on the NBA Top Shot marketplace, acquiring the Serial No. 23 moment of the Lebron James Legendary “Kobe Tribute” dunk for $47,500. 

He suggests that this is just the latest step in digital fandom with many of his friends and peers growing up spending money on video game packs and “loot boxes”. For Settleman and others, NBA Top Shot offers real tangible value for their money, giving them a one of a kind collectable that they can experience with friends. “With physical cards, it’s just a photo,” Settleman says. “Your LeBron rookie card that’s worth thousands of dollars, it’s just a random picture of him in a Cavs jersey. These moments give you the ability to actually watch and have more meaning behind it.”

The NBA Top Shot platform trading moments for anywhere from $2 for “common” clips of lesser-known players to the incredible sum Settleman paid for his one of a kind LeBron James clip. It’s estimated the peer-to-peer platform has seen over $60M dollars worth of transactions showing the emerging power of these digital fandoms.

The dark world of “loot boxes”
Though the rise of digital fandom has for many been seen as a positive this is a darker side, especially when that fandom is linked to video game packs or “loot boxes”. 

Global gaming companies are estimated to make over $25 billion from loot boxes every year and in-game items now play a central role in many mainstream games. This now equates to over 25% of all global revenue for games publishers showing the transformative impact this has had on the industry. 

However, governments around the world are now starting to take a closer look at this emerging culture with the Netherlands taking a hardline stance. Last October courts in the Netherlands fined EA Sports, publishers of FIFA and other sports games, with a €10 million fine for its loot box features. EA have denied that its purchasable “packs” constitute gambling. 

Governments in Australia, Spain, and the UK are also looking more closely at this and whether tighter regulation needs to be placed on the games industry to protect younger players and those most at risk. The ability for young people to spend vast amounts, often of their parents’ money, is something that must concern the gaming industry.  

Mistrust and technological shifts
The explosion in digital fandom is being driven not just by the now prevalent gaming culture but also as Shara Senderoff, President of Raised In Space, a music and tech investment firm put it “We have a global mistrust in financial systems, and people are questioning motives, questioning agendas, questioning technology as it relates to the finances of individuals and the global economy”. 

This mistrust for traditional systems and investing has manifested itself in multiple guises from the rise of cryptocurrency and the explosion in the value of Bitcoin to the Reddit investor groups pumping up the price of Gamestop stock causing huge volatility and disruption in the stock market. This mistrust is also manifesting itself in the rise of collectables and digital culture as young people with access to cash want to invest and put their money into something they deem as valuable and meaningful to their sense of expression. 

Senderoff puts it well when she says “it’s the ability for a fan to purchase an asset that is scarce, that is limited, that is exclusive, and has potential offerings tied to that that make them as a loyal fan feel unique, feel rewarded.” 

Music artists are beginning to embrace this change. Canadian DJ Deadmau5 recently launched two limited edition NFT (non-fungible tokens) packs on the blockchain platform WAX (Worldwide Asset Exchange).  The special edition collectables featured creative content from deadmau5’s recent shows as well as video clips, his collectable pins plus an ‘UltraRare’ piece of collaborative artwork by renowned 3D designer Sutu Eats Flies. 

NFTs and digital collectables are already more common for fans of K-Pop where separate album releases are highly sought after. RBW Japan, a South Korean entertainment company that represents major K-Pop artists like Mamamoo, Vromance, and Oneus announced in January that they were working with Hong Kong-based exchange Xeno to offer fans a range of NFT-based digital products. Jae-Woong Wang, CEO of RBW Japan, suggested that “Digital event tickets, membership tokens, even digital content rights can all be captured and housed within NFTs” as well as suggesting “3D model renderings” of the biggest stars could be made available to purchase adding that “the trend of digital commerce is growing”. It seems we may just be getting started with new ways we can experience music and that fandoms can express their love of artists. 

Curio and the evolution of collectables
We are seeing the evolution of fandom and the rise of digital collectables not just impacting sports and music but also arts and entertainment with the emergence of platforms like Curio. Built on similar blockchain technology Curio aims to do for movies, TV shows, and artists what NBA Top Spot has done for basketball. 

The recently launched marketplace struck a deal with TV producer Fremantle to give fans of cult-hit show American Gods (available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK) a set of NFT experiences. Curio is hopeful that this is the first in a series of deals that will adapt much-loved franchises and entertainment brands into new fan experiences. 

With fans of sports, gaming, music, and now film and TV all able to showcase their passion digitally and collect, trade and share these online “moments” fandom and collectables have not only moved virtual but also further into the mainstream.   

With seemingly endless possibilities for online moments and ways for fans to connect and collect digitally, it seems digital fan culture is only going to continue to explode in this way. With collectors like Jack Settleman and others willing to pay a small fortune for the privilege of obtaining these rare moments, 2021 is set to be the year that digital fandom comes of age. 

Tom Jarvis – Founder & CEO

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