‘There’s a Sense of Vindication’: A NFT Pioneer Looks to the Future

Yat Siu, who invested in Dapper Labs and OpenSea, says NFTs remind him of the early days of the internet, before centralizing forces emerged.

AccessTimeIconApr 1, 2021 at 4:29 p.m. UTC
Updated May 9, 2023 at 3:17 a.m. UTC
10 Years of Decentralizing the Future
May 29-31, 2024 - Austin, TexasThe biggest and most established global hub for everything crypto, blockchain and Web3.Register Now

The most expensive non-fungible token (NFT) sold in 2019 was a digital car for the blockchain racing game, F1 Delta Time (at just over $100,000, the sale seems small-fry now). At the time, the “hyper-limited” 1–1–1 was the first official Formula 1 NFT, the first car auctioned by F1 Delta Time, and the priciest virtual car in history. And no one, not even its creators at Animoca Brands, nor OpenSea, the NFT marketplace where the auction was conducted, knew who bought it.

The sale was highly controversial and widely seen as nothing more than an elaborate marketing ploy by Animoca Brands because the buyer of the NFT could not be identified. It would be more than 18 months before the owner was revealed as MetaKovan, the founder and financier of the NFT-focused crypto fund Metapurse. He (real name: Vignesh Sundaresan) recently bought an NFT from the artist Beeple for $69 million.

Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the Director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm based in Southeast Asia that represents play-to-earn sector clients including Animoca Brands, Yield Guild Games, Blockchain Game Alliance and others.

“The 1–1–1 is indeed a unique creation and reflects MetaKovan’s convictions about this space, and about the quality and undeniable appeal of Animoca Brands’ work,” said Twobadour, a “Steward of Metapurse” and MetaKovan’s public interface. (Read this brilliant whodunnit for the full saga.)

Yat Siu, chairman of Animoca Brands, has been investing in the NFT space since early 2018. Back then, he said, it was “lonely” because there weren’t many people into NFTs. But the fledgling ecosystem needed support. So for a relatively small check amount, he could help seed the market.

The culture of NFTs will change now because a whole new set of people are coming in.

Notably, Animoca Brands was an early investor in Dapper Labs, the company behind CryptoKitties and NBA Top Shot. It also backed Decentraland, the first fully decentralized world (like Second Life on a blockchain), and NFT marketplaces including OpenSea, WAX and Bitski.

In addition to developing its own titles such as F1 Delta Time and The Sandbox, it invested in blockchain game developers Lucid Sight and Sky Mavis (the latter being the creators of the Pokémon-like fantasy battle game, Axie Infinity).

More recently, Animoca Brands joined a seed investment round for Yield Guild Games, a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) for game-based NFTs.

Siu says he wants to work with people who share his vision to amplify the open framework rather than reduce it or control it. After Animoca was unceremoniously deplatformed from the App Store in 2012 (at the time it was one of the world’s top mobile game developers), he experienced at first hand the value of open and permissionless communities.

Ever since, he’s been a crusader for digital property rights, a concept gamers understand. They don’t find it difficult to imagine owning a virtual car or buying a piece of virtual land and building something on it. Even if they have no understanding of blockchain and no exposure to NFTs, gamers have a natural affinity to the idea of digital ownership. It's not alien to them to spend some money on virtual goods or virtual assets.

An advocate for freedom, individual expression and radical inclusion, Siu views NFTs as the asset-centric mechanism to deliver true digital rights in virtual worlds and beyond, allowing us to express ourselves and tell stories about our identity through the virtual things that we own.

The following is a condensed excerpt from a longer conversation I had with Siu about his goals for the “metaverse” – the idea of an extensive virtual economy where NFTs and our digital selves reside.

How does it feel now everyone has gone crazy for NFTs?

It's amazing, right? There’s definitely a sense of vindication for those of us in the industry. Because we had a mission that we believed in and we decided to see it through.

But the space is also becoming very competitive. I used to have a good view as to what was going on. I don't anymore. All sorts of projects are coming through which are run by people who didn't even know what an NFT was barely a month ago. And there's also a lot of money involved now. So I think there's a hype cycle happening.

A screenshot from F1 Delta Time.
A screenshot from F1 Delta Time.

What is it like to have all these outsiders suddenly giving you their opinions on NFTs?

Before this, we [the NFT community] were just talking to each other in an echo chamber. So we were all bouncing off each other's ideas and we weren't thinking about other ways of doing or approaching things because we were always just agreeing with each other.

And now, you’ve got some people saying very negative things about NFTs. Some are poorly informed but others have a real point.

I think that this discourse is good and healthy because it gives us a bit of a wake-up call. I'm not saying that NFTs are necessarily harmful; I'm just saying that we seldom thought of these other perspectives because we were the early innovators.

Which is why it’s important to invite and embrace other viewpoints, including the negative ones.

How do you think this will affect your industry moving forward?

The culture of NFTs will change now because a whole new set of people are coming in. And it's causing some ripples. For us, it's a bit awkward because we're listening and observing but not yet sure how to participate in this new conversation.

It reminds me of the early internet days where the internet purists were saying, ‘This has to be open source, or it has to be this way, or whatever.' And then a bunch of commercial guys went in and created the necessary frameworks but they upset some of the original guys along the way.

That's happening in NFTs now and there will be more turbulent times ahead. But it'll be fun and it'll be adventurous because we’re in this with a very, very long view.

How can you be tolerant of newcomers when they oppose what you believe in?

To have a truly diverse mindset, we need to have a strong sense of empathy. Empathy is one of those things that has been sorely lacking in the world as of late. I think it's related to how we were brought up, how we've been educated and, also, the status and situation of the world.

For many of us, we think our own viewpoint is the correct viewpoint and we've forgotten how to listen to others.

How can NFTs cultivate a diverse mindset?

We're all born slightly different, we come in different flavors and we all experience the world in different ways. The internet has brought that together in a magnified way.

But now, we’re in a digital fortress designed by a few central groups. It was not like this 20+ years ago, when the narrative of the early internet guys was all about freedom of information, freedom of access and freedom of everything.

Blockchain is bringing that back. And NFTs are bringing it back, but with culture. To us, an open framework that allows you to do whatever you want with your digital assets will achieve impact in the realm of diversity because we all have different preferences and desires.

That’s important because now we can have free and open culture everywhere. You can’t get rid of it. It can’t be removed. That, to me, is where it’s exciting.


Please note that our privacy policy, terms of use, cookies, and do not sell my personal information has been updated.

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, institutional digital assets exchange. Bullish group is majority owned by Block.one; both groups have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary, and an editorial committee, chaired by a former editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, is being formed to support journalistic integrity.

Leah Callon-Butler

Leah Callon-Butler, a CoinDesk columnist, is the director of Emfarsis, a consulting firm focused on the role of technology in advancing economic development in Asia.

Learn more about Consensus 2024, CoinDesk's longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.

Read more about