‘Degens’ and sporting powers meet at Web3 festival

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I first heard the term ‘degen’ when I fell into online poker. It’s short for ‘degenerate’, but some younger players, with cynicism and irony sharpened by a lifetime of unrestricted internet access, wear ‘degen’ with sense of pride. Degens put in the time. They commit themselves to the cause, even when it costs them. Regular players might gloat about their big hands. Broadcasting the bad beats and major losses? Trading the financial hit for community clout? That’s the mark of a true degen.

Although I was a habitual player, spending late nights and early mornings grinding on the micro-stakes tables, neither my pockets nor my skills were ever deep enough to truly reach degen status. I thought I left them behind when I finally logged off.

Then I attended NFT Fest — where major players in Australian business and commerce stood alongside self-described web3 degens.

Both parties professed their commitment to the NFT space. However, the shit-posting irony of the degens in attendance posed a stark contrast to the pragmatism offered by industry leaders.

Sports leaders keep the faith in NFT projects

For SmartCompany, I visited Thursday afternoon’s NFT Fest sessions at the Alex Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne. Unlike recent NFT events held abroad, participants filled the venue. I watched my step as I made my way through the crowded foyer, careful not to tread on anyone’s feet; among a sea of polished oxfords and box-fresh Jordans, one attendee stood barefoot. Near the theatre door, I found eight furry paws, belonging to a pair of real-life Samoyed dogs. (Samoyedcoin, a “premier community, dog money, & ambassador of the Solana ecosystem” sponsored the event.)

As dogs and degens mingled in the foyer, representatives from Australia’s top sporting codes discussed the future of their web3 integrations. The AFL, NRL, Cricket Australia, and the Australian Open are now deep in the space, with the latter on Thursday confirming holders of its AO Art Ball NFT collection will be granted a week-long double pass to next year’s event. The announcement was surely a boon for attendees who snapped up some of the 6776 NFTs upon release in January this year. However, the discussion dwelled on how best to reach everyday fans without the prerequisite tech knowledge, who may also be spooked by the recent downfalls of cryptocurrency players like FTX.

Ridley Plummer, senior manager of NFTs and Web3 for Tennis Australia, said the organisation is now working hard to introduce tennis fans, not just NFT aficionados, to its digital offerings. Finding ways to introduce NFTs to a fanbase which skews older and more predominantly female than most other codes remains a challenge, he said.

“We want to start bringing tennis fans into the project, on-boarding them,” he told the audience. “I think we all know that there’s the issues with the on-boarding of regular fans into the web three space.” Brands like the Australian Open using their “technology for good” will help “quash some of those skepticisms that come with things like the FTX saga that’s been going on,” he added.

It’s critical to win over those cautious consumers to keep the NFT program alive, Plummer conceded.

“We can’t just be losing money on a project like this,” he said. So we need to continue to keep it going, continue to keep benefiting the consumer or the holder at the end of the day.”

Joan Norton, commercial strategy manager at Cricket Australia, further outlined how sporting codes are enthused by the commercial opportunities of NFTs but wary of their mainstream perception. Cricket Australia has minted NFTs for use in the Cricrush game, but actively avoids using the term NFT in its marketing.

“One thing I will say we’ve been really conscious of, from a CA [social media] point of view and what we’ve been putting out, is not to use NFT, but to talk about them as digital collectibles and tried to kind of get people into into the program rather than NFTs,” she said.

The sport of cricket certainly has more right to resentment over FTX’s high-profile collapse than most other codes. Cricket’s global organising body, the ICC — of which Cricket Australia is a member — was forced to axe FTX’s sponsorship of the recent T20 World Cup, held in Melbourne, as the cryptocurrency exchange collapsed into liquidation. The global partnership now lies in tatters.

Before taking to the stage to moderate a discussion, Greg Oakford, founder of NFT Fest, underscored the importance of delineating the NFT space from the chaos unfolding in centralised blockchain operations like FTX.

“It’s on each and every one of us here at NFT Fest, as leaders in this space in this nascent technology, to actually communicate in a concise way, in an articulate way, the difference between what has happened with FTX versus what is happening in the NFT land,” he told SmartCompany.

“It’s just it’s brick by brick, block by block, educating people on the difference between cryptocurrency and digital assets, 100%.”

Crypto natives profess value of culture

It was soon time for the degens. Taking to the stage after the sports league discussion were Web3 personalities Clouted and Boot, who held forth on new cultures created through Web3 communities. For Clouted, who works with brands at West Coast NFTs, and Boot, a Pepe-poster and advocate for “post-ironic ironism”, it appeared the cultural ties created through NFT in-groups are just as important as the financial value those projects produce.

In a market where NFT valuations have tumbled from their all-time highs, it’s important not to consider a collection’s worth on monetary value alone, they say.

Such a view is unlikely to sit comfortably with the industry leaders who presented on the day, who would hope their big-budget NFT projects produce more than just a sense of camaraderie among token holders. Yet it appears that, for now, the sector needs its degens, its true keepers of the faith, while major brands find ways to win over everyday consumers.

I left NFT Fest both impressed by the turnout and enthusiasm of those in attendance. It must have stirred some dormant instinct in me, too. Soon I was in the back room of the bowls club for a few hands of pub poker, surrounded by players clearly familiar with each other, whose trust and humour was likely honed over years and countless chips traded back and forth.

My luck ran out early, as it tends to do, but it was a hit I could afford to take. Heading home, I thought of the players still stuck at the table.

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