On the night of Dec. 5, 2020, in a soccer stadium just north of Moscow, a football club called Spartak, of the Russian Premier League, played FC Tambov. It was a cold night. The few fans in attendance, bundled in heavy jackets, cheered as the home team routed Tambov 5-1. The hero of the match was Ezequiel Ponce, a 24-year-old Spaniard who scored two goals. It was a forgettable game. Most of the world ignored this random match, one of hundreds played around the globe every day.
But not Grant Anderson, an IT business analyst who lives in Edinburgh. He tracked the match on his phone. He followed the score obsessively. Anderson owned a non-fungible token card pegged to Ezequiel Ponce, and this NFT card, from the blockchain project called Sorare, is not just a collectible. It’s a radically new way to play fantasy football, with the word “football,” of course, meaning what it does basically everywhere on the planet besides the U.S.
With Sorare, you create fantasy football (soccer) lineups using NFT cards that you actually own. When the players score on the field, you win real money. The match in Russia notched Anderson a prize of 0.25 ETH (now worth around $500) and additional NFTs – more player cards – now worth over $2,000. Sorare doles out these prizes constantly. “I saw the potential right away,” says Anderson. “This is fun and engaging, and I can win NFTs and [ETH] using my passion for football and sports.” Anderson is part of a rabid group of soccer fans (120,000 active monthly users) obsessing over Sorare – an addictive blend of fantasy football, collecting and the wheeling and dealing of crypto trading. He loves it so much he started The Sorare Podcast, where guests join him to geek out over strategy.
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Sorare, which raised $50 million in Series A funding in February, is not the only soccer blockchain obsession. Thousands of miles to the east of Moscow, in the Italian city of Turin, Juventus Football Club plays its matches in Allianz Stadium. Whenever the home team scores a goal, the speakers blast Blur’s “Song 2” throughout the arena (“Woo-hoo!”).
Why Song 2? This was decided on the blockchain. Through the blockchain ecosystem called Socios, fans of Juventus purchase “fan tokens” that give them actual decision-making rights: the more you own, the more powerful your vote. “Sports is global, and the consumer is global,” says Alexandre Dreyfus, the CEO and founder of Socios, noting there are more soccer fans in China than there are in Italy. Socios fan tokens, Dreyfus says, let the teams connect with fans wherever they are, even in a pandemic. Top-tier clubs like Juventus, FC Barcelona and AC Milan are doing just that.
Far more often than not, at least to the layperson, it seems the crypto world is divorced from the real world. (Try connecting, say, “yield farming” to something most people have heard of.) Here we have something new. In the case of both Socios and Sorare, the tokens and NFTs bump against the real world of soccer, they’re actually being used by fans and they’re embraced by the actual clubs. They’re serving as real use cases. While NBA Top Shot and athlete NFTs have racked up mainstream headlines, a parade of lucrative sales (like Rob Gronkowski’s $1.2 million haul) and a surprising place in the pop culture conversation, there’s not much you can actually do with NFTs.
Sorare and Socios are different.
More than cardboard
“Jhod28” is a 40-year-old teacher who lives in a Toronto suburb. He was one of the early adopters, picking up Sorare in January 2020. He played it for free, using the beginner level called the “Commons” that does not require you to buy NFTs. (The more advanced levels of Sorare live on the Ethereum blockchain and require payment; the rookie tier is meant as an introduction.)
He won some prizes. He had fun. Soon he was hooked. In a move that would give a financial planner a heart attack, he took out a $10,000 line of credit to start playing for real and buy Sorare cards. “It was a bit of a risk,” J-Hod acknowledges. “A lot of people would say, put it in Apple. But Apple’s boring.”
He chose and played his NFT cards wisely, he won prize after prize, and he says that his $10,000 investment has grown to $100,000. Of that, he cashed out $10,000 to repay the loan and spent $10,000 for a parking spot for his fiancée (she moved into his condo), but the rest of the loot remains in Sorare. As he says, “I’m playing with house money.”
J-Hod (who prefers to use his alias, given his private life as a teacher) argues that even without the use case of fantasy football, the Sorare cards have merit. (This is also the thesis of NBA Top Shot and collectibles writ large.) “I’ve been collecting sports cards since I was 10,” he says, and fondly remembers a time, in the early 1990s, when there was a “card shop on every corner.” These shops hawked packs of cards you could buy for just $1, and then maybe you’d resell them for $20. It was easy money. “There was no internet and no eBay, and people didn’t realize those cards weren’t scarce.”
He also collected memorabilia like signed jerseys, but now those just sit in his closet. Sorare cards, in his view, are superior to their physical counterparts. “This is way better than going to the card store in the 1990s,” he says, as those cards were “just a piece of cardboard.”
Then there’s the game itself. Before we dig into what makes Sorare so addictive, it’s worth taking stock of what fantasy football normally looks like.
In this topic – for once – I’m an expert. I’ve played fantasy football since the early 1990s, years before it broke through to the mainstream. This was pre-internet. Back then, when I said “fantasy football,” people thought I fantasized about the players. We didn’t use computers. On Tuesday mornings, I brought the sports section of the newspaper into high school Latin class, and, instead of conjugating verbs, I tallied up the scores by hand.
The point is my fantasy football credentials are impeccable, and even I will admit that the game is short on strategy. There’s not much to it. You geek out for the annual draft, you tinker with your lineup and maybe you spend a few minutes each day scouring the waiver wire. There’s not much else to do.
Now compare this to Sorare. There are 128 football clubs (and counting) in the partnership, and these clubs are scattered across the globe. They play around the clock. Some in Russia, some in the Netherlands, some in Japan. In the National Football League, it’s easy to keep tabs on its 32 teams. But to get an edge in Sorare, you really need to know about, say, the rising backup goalie in the Dutch Eredivisie. You might get an alert at 4 a.m. that one of your players is injured, so you need to jump into the marketplace and immediately buy an emergency replacement.
When you first log onto Sorare, it’s easy to see what has hooked J-Hod, Anderson, and the thousands of other regular players. (“More than 70% of people are still playing the game after six months,” says Nicolas Julia, Sorare’s CEO.) The interface is slick. Whereas most crypto exchanges can be opaque and overwhelming for newbies, Sorare gets you up and running in less than two minutes. You drag and drop your players’ avatars to a digital soccer field. It feels like a video game. You field a five-player roster (one goalie, one defender, one midfielder, one forward and one flex), and just like in NFL fantasy football, you earn points for on-field performance like goals, assists and penalty saves.
Anderson (the podcast host) owns nearly 500 player cards. He constantly needs to evaluate all of the current matchups, decide which cards he should enter in which leagues (there are many tiers), consider the historical data for each player and assess whether he wants to “train” the cards – playing the NFTs in a match can increase their value. This requires a mastery of all the real-world nuance. “You can just as easily have some guy in Japan, putting up the same numbers as a guy in Europe,” says Anderson. And maybe it’s easier to score three goals in Japan than in the MLS? Then that might nudge you to weight your “portfolio” with more players in Japan. It’s a lot to manage.
Just one small example of strategy: Anderson has long had his eye on Alexander Nübel, a 6’4” backup goalie for FC Bayern Munich. Nübel might not see much time on the pitch as a backup, but Anderson knew he had potential as a starter so he bought his card when it sold for cheap. The card is now worth 500 pounds (GBP), says Anderson, and that “when he’s a starter, it’s a 3,000 pound card.” This rewards long-range planning, which is mana for fantasy football nerds. If you buy a card for a promising rookie who’s 18, say, you might squeeze value from that card for the next 15 years.
Then there’s the money aspect. With traditional NFL fantasy football, you plunk down some money at the beginning of the year and then you hope to win a small weekly purse or a bigger payout in the playoffs. With Sorare it’s different. “There’s a lot of ETH out there,” says J-Hod, and the lure of winning money – maybe lots of money – is everywhere.
Anderson knows players who view this as a full-time job, optimizing their lineups to collect a regular stream of ETH. It takes constant work and tinkering. Let’s say you bought a goalie for $200 and now he’s worth $2,000. Once again, you have a decision to make. Do you cash out and sell the card in the marketplace, or do you play him in a match to try and win more ETH or NFTs?
The chess game of Sorare makes typical fantasy football look not like checkers, but tic-tac-toe.
Cubes and tokens
Socios is the brainchild of Alexandre Dreyfus, a serial entrepreneur originally from Lyon, France, and now based in Malta. The phrase “serial entrepreneur” is often a cliche, but with Dreyfus it rings true. He looks like a linebacker, with bulging shoulders and sleek bald head, so it’s surprising to hear him say, “I’ve never played sports.” Instead, he was a tech nerd. He got his first computer at the age of six, he wrote software as a young teenager, he offered his friends a new service called “email” and he dropped out of school at age 18 to create a web agency.
Several startups later, Dreyfus launched an online poker company, Chilipoker, which was successful enough to land him a partnership with the Golden Nugget casino, where he eyed a major expansion to the U.S. Then he had a more ambitious goal: What if he could turn poker into a sport? Not just a sport in the sense that it’s televised on ESPN2, but to actually create a league with teams and fans and franchises. So he launched the GPL, or Global Poker League, composed of teams like the Las Vegas Money Makers and the New York Rounders.
Dreyfus’ new league brought an innovation to the world of poker: The Cube. He wanted fans to watch the poker games up close and personal, as if they had ringside seats to a boxing match. Just one problem. If spectators are close enough to see the players’ cards, then they could say things to help them cheat. “So we created, excuse my French, 11 f**king tons of glass cubes in Las Vegas in which we put players in the cube,” says Dreyfus in his French accent. These giant cubes were sound-proof, allowing a crowd of spectators to scream as loud as they wanted, as if at a boxing match.
The GPL had a promising start, booked a partnership with Twitch and attracted celebrity players like “Breaking Bad”’s Aaron Paul. (Here you can watch Paul playing poker in The Cube.) Dreyfus says that in the early days there were “a few million people watching,” and that “it was f**king crazy.” The idea might be inspired, but Dreyfus now acknowledges, “We failed as a company.” It had trouble monetizing, because building a fanbase from scratch – for a new “sport” that no one had heard of – was nearly impossible.
Dreyfus had the idea of using fan tokens for his upstart poker league but he realized that was still a tall order. How can you use “fan tokens” if you don’t have any fans? Then he had an epiphany. “Instead of trying to do fan tokens for our own league that has no audience,” he says, “let’s try to do fan tokens for massive brands, who have millions of fans all over the world.”
The pitch is working. Blue-chip teams like Manchester City, AC Milan and Juventus now use Socios tokens as a way to engage their fans. When Juventus needed to decorate the team bus, once again they outsourced the decision to the Socios fan token holders. They chose a bold, striking, black and white design with the motto, “LIVE AHEAD.” Fan tokens have been used to help the teams decide upon alternate versions of logos, song playlists for player warmups and limited edition T-shirts.
For the most part, these decisions are on the periphery of a club’s operations. But that might not always be the case. In October, the club Apollon FC gave its token holders a jaw-dropping moment of clout: They could choose the team’s starting lineup and formation. Granted, this was just a “friendly” competition (an exhibition match) with little at stake, but it sets a fascinating precedent and it suggests the possibility for the fans – enabled by a blockchain – to exert real influence over the team. Once fans are choosing lineups and formations, it’s only a small step to imagine them weighing in on roster decisions (do we trade or cut the disappointing midfielder?), coaching calls (counter attack or wing play?) or whether the coach should get the boot. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing will be the subject of many debates, as will whether it’s fair to conflate “fandom” with how many tokens you purchase, raising concerns of income inequality.
Both Socios and Sorare are “crossover” use cases, bringing non-crypto people into the world of blockchain. Take Alfredo Carotenuto, a 34-year-old sports nutritionist who lives in Naples. He’s a huge fan of Juventus. He first heard of Socios not through the crypto-verse, but from following Juventus’ Twitter feed. Through a Socios contest, he won two skybox tickets to watch a Juventus match as well as a “walkabout” to tour the stadium. Then after the match he met Cristiano Ronaldo and the other players. “I buy fan tokens for my favorite club,” says Carotenuto. “So I can take part of the decisions.”
All of this can be addicting. Diego Herrero Espina, who lives in Salamanca, Spain, spends “at least 30 minutes a day” using Socios. Most of that time, he’s checking the price of fan tokens, trading them on Chiliz (the exchange you use to buy and sell fan tokens, using the #CHZ coin, similar to how you use $BNB on the Binance exchange), and then hunting for tokens in the real world. For an added bit of engagement, and to let anyone participate without spending money, Socios has a game that lets you search the streets of your neighborhood, Pokémon GO style, hunting for tokens using your phone and the app’s augmented reality.
Neither Socios or Sorare would work without the involvement of leagues. But now this is happening, it’s growing and it could soon spread to the United States. The leagues have a reason to play. Both Socios and Sorare offer something of value to the football clubs – beyond mere NFT hype – which is why hundreds have signed partnerships. “This is a way of getting new fans, especially internationally, to learn about our league,” says Leander Monbaliu, Chief Business Officer of the Belgian Pro League, one of Sorare’s earliest partners.
“The way fans consume football is not the way it used to be,” he says. “It’s more fragmented. We need to have a product that’s adapted to their needs, and that requires innovation.” Gone are the days when you can assume a fan sits down for two hours to watch the entirety of a match; they no longer have the attention span. Younger fans crave highlights, data, and feeds from multiple matches. A recent survey from Variety found that for 18- to 38-year-olds, 48% prefer watching highlights of the NFL over the full game. It was even higher for the National Basketball Association at 54%, and 58% for Major League Baseball. Sorare, says Monbaliu, is a way of giving the fans what they want.
Then there’s the coronavirus pandemic effect. Since fans can’t attend matches in person, clubs acknowledge that fan engagement is a challenge. Casper Stylsvig, chief revenue officer from AC Milan, calls the club’s partnership with Socios “an important fan engagement tool,” letting them do something besides just watch the sport on their TV or phones. For example, in early March, the fan token holders of AC Milan voted on the official motto that will appear in the club’s locker room: “Succede a chi ci crede,” which means “It happens to those who believe.” (Also the unofficial motto of crypto.)
Given that Sorare and Socios are both blockchain projects involving soccer, you’d think there would be a decent chunk of overlap in the Venn diagram of their communities. That doesn’t seem to be the case. “I don’t know a [Sorare] person who’s on Socios,” says J-Hod, although he himself owns some Socios fan tokens so he can participate in the contests. And on the flip side, Espina estimates that within the Socios community, there’s “less than 5%” of people using Sorare.
The projects don’t see themselves as competitors – just different value propositions altogether. One is a game, the other a means of fan engagement. “The [Sorare] guys are good,” says Dreyfus. “We work with them a little bit, and we have zero problem at all to promote each other.” Julia agrees. “We have a lot of soccer clubs in common,” says the Sorare CEO. “We see them as friends.”
So why are both Sorare and Socios bigger abroad than in the U.S., at least for the moment? Due to the legal frameworks of the soccer leagues, Dreyfus says it’s possible to ink partnerships with individual clubs, as opposed to the NBA, NFL and MLB, which require league-wide contracts. For a plucky startup, it’s easier to pitch one innovative club than it is the entire apparatus of the NFL.
Then there’s the question of market size. “It’s above the billion mark, in terms of soccer fans around the world,” says Julia. Or as Dreyfus points out for perspective, the Twitter following of the Chicago Bulls is 4.3 million, the Lakers is 9.7 million and the NBA as a whole is 32.8 million. These are not small numbers. But the entire NBA following is less than that of just one of Socios’ partners, FC Barcelona, which tweets out news about fan tokens to 36.1 million fans. This has mostly gone unnoticed in the United States. “My biggest frustration as an entrepreneur is the lack of coverage of American-based media,” says Dreyfus, amazed his company is still flying under the radar.
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This could soon change. Socios is expanding, eager to tap into the U.S. market. It already has a partnership with the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and in early March Dreyfus committed $50 million towards future partnerships with U.S. leagues. He plans to spend the funds as a “minimum guarantee” of revenue for these leagues, to entice the big boys of the NFL, MLB, National Hockey League and NBA to join the party. Socios now has 100 employees and plans to open an office in Manhattan.
How big can this get? Dreyfus dreams of a day when the media covers fan tokens in the same way they cover the wins and losses in sports, explaining that the price of the fan token (which can fluctuate on the marketplace) could be used as a gauge of fan sentiment. So if the NBA's Houston Rockets go on a 19-game losing streak – but the price of the Rockets token remains high – that would signal that fans are swallowing the skid in good cheer, eager to rebuild and win higher draft picks. “Instead of just having a scoreboard of what happened the day before, you also have the token price,” Dreyfus says.
He’s not the only one bullish on this future. When I first spoke to Dreyfus on Feb. 9, each Chiliz coin – used on the Chiliz exchange to buy and sell fan tokens – was valued at 2.7 cents. In the last two months, it has appreciated by 1,785%, and is now worth 50 cents with a market cap of $2.9 billion, making it one of the 50 largest projects (by market cap) in all of crypto. If Dreyfus succeeds in looping in the NFL, NBA and company? Look out.
Sorare can point to similar evidence of growth. Nonfungible.com ranks Sorare as the third-most active NFT project, trailing only CryptoPunks and SuperRare. Twenty thousand soccer fans played it in February and this exploded to 120,000 in March. When Sorare launched in January 2020, it had $70,000 in trading volume. Last month it topped $27 million.
So much of blockchain’s hype-y “potential” requires giant leaps of imagination. This feels different. Because if that single random soccer match, on a cold night in Moscow, can cause fans to get excited and follow the sport more closely, imagine what would happen with a Sorare-style fantasy experience in, say, Game 7 of the NBA Finals? Imagine if you traded not just cards for backup goalies of Munich soccer teams, but cards for LeBron James, Zion Williamson and James Harden, that could win you a regular stream of prizes?
I’m not betting against it.