Polygon Gave DraftKings Multimillion-Dollar Edge in Special Staking Relationship

Blockchain data shows the crypto project quietly gave DraftKings preferential treatment while telling the public it was an "equal" member of the validator community.

AccessTimeIconNov 30, 2023 at 12:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 8, 2024 at 5:50 p.m. UTC
  • Sports-betting company DraftKings publicly agreed in early 2022 to be a network validator that helped run the Polygon blockchain.
  • On-chain data shows Polygon gave DraftKings millions of MATIC to help its validator turn a massive profit with little precedent.
  • Even though it was being subsidized, DraftKings failed to maintain its validator's performance and was kicked off the network last month.
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  • In early 2022, Polygon Labs announced an "important adoption milestone" for its tech infrastructure: DraftKings would begin running one of its network validators, "marking the first time a major publicly-traded firm has taken an active role in blockchain governance."

    What Polygon neglected to disclose at the time: It would allow the sports-betting company to do this job on unusually lucrative and favorable terms.

    Twenty months later, Polygon has foregone millions subsidizing a validator that's gone kaput.

    CoinDesk reviewed dozens of on-chain records relating to Polygon's validator program to make sense of the companies' previously unreported financial setup, and interviewed former employees and validator operators familiar with Polygon's staking ecosystem.

    Read more: What Is Staking?

    On-chain data reveals that DraftKings received millions of dollars in crypto directly from Polygon at the start of their "strategic blockchain agreement" in October 2021. (It is unclear whether DraftKings paid Polygon for these initial 2.5 million MATIC tokens.) DraftKings then earned millions more through a special staking relationship that few of Polygon network's other validators enjoyed. Neither company disclosed these financial ties.

    It's not unheard of for Web3 companies to pay mainstream brands to take part in their crypto ecosystems, be it through marketing partnerships or tech setups. But they balk at publicly discussing the treasure they spend to build this image of mainstream adoption. The on-chain data showing Polygon's special treatment of DraftKings provides a rare window into such an arrangement.

    Representatives for Polygon and DraftKings declined to discuss the financing of the validator deal, citing confidentiality agreements.

    DraftKings was not an "equal community member" among Polygon network's 100 validators, as one Polygon executive called it. Blockchain data show it received outsized compensation to take an "active role in blockchain governance" – and then didn't hold up its end of the bargain.

    DraftKings' Polygon validator

    Being a validator on Polygon's network comes with responsibilities. By design, only 100-odd entities – corporations, staking services, crypto exchanges and others – may lend their computing power to the network at once. They do the work of verifying transactions on the platform. The network rewards their efforts by automatically sending them Polygon's crypto, called MATIC. This is the key to the process known as staking.

    Validators "stake" MATIC as collateral against their doing honest work. They can earn more MATIC rewards by staking more MATIC tokens. MATIC owners who don't run their own validators can "delegate" their tokens to others, who do. Most Polygon validators charge a 5%-10% commission on the rewards earned from these delegated tokens.

    DraftKings' validator was different. It charged a 100% commission, meaning its dozen or so small-time delegators didn't get a single MATIC token as reward.

    "The whole point was to set and forget it," said Boris Mann, one such DraftKings delegator, who estimated he missed around $800 because he didn't realize the company took the whole staking reward as commission.

    The DraftKings validator grew to be among the Polygon network's largest. Its biggest delegator was Polygon: The project had delegated 60 million MATIC tokens to help DraftKings earn more staking rewards.

    Polygon apparently wasn't concerned with letting DraftKings eat its lunch – it seems that was kind of the point.

    No money down for DraftKings

    There's nothing unusual about Polygon Foundation – or any blockchain steward, really – delegating its native token to other validators, people familiar with the staking industry said.

    By delegating tokens to validators, foundations can pay brand partners and reward network contributors without taking a direct hit to the balance sheet. The partners benefit from the staking payouts accrued to them by using delegated tokens; at the end of the day, the foundation can get those tokens back.

    "Foundations naturally have huge treasuries" of their blockchains' native tokens, said Edouard Lavidalle, the co-founder of Stakin, a crypto staking company that runs a validator on Polygon. "They need to stake these, and diversify this stake, while caring about performance and decentralization."

    But the size of the stake Polygon delegated to DraftKings, combined with the arrangement for DraftKings to take 100% of rewards, is highly unusual.

    On Nov. 14 (a month after DraftKings' validator was removed from the network), a single Polygon Foundation-controlled wallet wielded nearly 13% of all MATIC being staked to the network. This wallet had spread 454 million tokens across 26 validators. Just over 50% of these tokens were with validators charging no commission – meaning Polygon got all the rewards. Most of the rest was with validators taking up to 10%. Just one validator (Stake Capital) with Polygon's MATIC charged 100%, and its delegated stake was a fraction the size of what DraftKings' was.

    This chart shows how DraftKings' validator benefitted from MATIC tokens delegated by Polygon. It took a 100% commission on an unusually large tranche. (Chart by C. Spencer Beggs/CoinDesk)

    For most of the last year, DraftKings' validator was staking 65.5 million MATIC tokens, 91% of which had been delegated to it by Polygon. Most of the rest was DraftKings' own MATIC: 3 million MATIC it earned from staking rewards, and 2.5 million it had staked at the beginning of the relationship in March 2022.

    Blockchain data indicates DraftKings received this MATIC from Polygon Foundation in early October 2021. At the time, it was worth $3.2 million. Within weeks, the duo announced DraftKings would host a Polygon-based NFT marketplace. DraftKings also opened the door to running a validator.

    When it did so five months later, DraftKings told its investors it would "stake digital assets it holds in its treasury" to earn rewards on the Polygon network. It did not say it had received those tokens from Polygon, nor did Polygon say it had sent any.

    Special relationship

    Polygon's undisclosed allocation to DraftKings – and its validator's near-complete reliance on Polygon – undercut the blockchain company's own characterizations about the validator being like all the others.

    "DraftKings will take its place among existing validators as an equal community member, solidifying our desire to achieve a decentralized, community-run consensus network," Sandeep Nailwal, co-founder of Polygon, said in a press release on March 7, 2022.

    The statement made no mention of Polygon's strategy to delegate millions of tokens to DraftKings. At that time, it had already earmarked 10 million MATIC for the validator; by the end of the relationship, that total had grown to 60 million MATIC.

    From November 2022 until the validator's demise in mid-October 2023, DraftKings withdrew a total of 3.2 million MATIC, worth just over $2 million at current prices. It had amassed more in personal rewards than any other validator over that period. These rewards were possible only because of Polygon's massive delegation. Without those 60 million MATIC tokens, DraftKings might have earned only 4% of what it did, data from validator.info suggests.

    DraftKings' earnings came at the expense of every other staker in Polygon's ecosystem. The network issues only a finite number of MATIC rewards to stakers annually. At least 80% of DraftKings' Polygon-delegated tokens came directly from the foundation, meaning they were not previously being staked. These newly delegated tokens diluted how much rewards everyone else could get.

    Slouching toward irrelevance

    It is unclear why DraftKings allowed its Polygon validator to fall into disrepair. But on-chain clues hint the companies' infrastructure relationship began to shift just over a year ago.

    On Nov. 7, 2022, the entire crypto industry was on the cusp of chaos. Rumors were swirling of a massive financial hole at crypto exchange FTX. Within days, it would declare bankruptcy and its founder Sam Bankman-Fried would be arrested and later convicted of fraud.

    By this point, DraftKings was rolling in MATIC rewards. In eight months, the validator's token stake had grown 120% to 5,578,691 MATIC ($6.3 million at the time). No other Polygon validator had earned that much for itself over that time. Then again, none of the other validators had been charging 100% commission on so many tokens delegated from Polygon.

    DraftKings had been methodically staking its new MATIC rewards almost every day in order to compound the returns, according to data site validator.info. It did so one final time on Nov. 7, 2022. From then on, DraftKings has only opted to withdraw rewards.

    DraftKings' validator kept on going for nearly a year until this September, when it began underperforming in its core job of checking the chain. It received a first strike, then a second; in early October, it got a "final notice." The self-policing network would soon boot DraftKings for failing to meet its requirements.

    Polygon's separate NFT deal with DraftKings remains active.

    DraftKings validator notice

    On Oct. 19, Polygon kicked DraftKings out of the validator program and reassigned its slot to the crypto exchange Upbit. On Nov. 9, it moved its 60 million delegated MATIC tokens from DraftKings' defunct validator to a different one, with zero fees.

    "We are working with a third-party provider to have our validator node reinstated on the Polygon network adhering to standard procedures that all Polygon validators must follow. This will not impact our customers," a DraftKings employee close to the deal said.

    UPDATE (Nov. 30, 01:00 UTC): Modifies third bullet point at top, and second, third and fifth paragraphs, to reflect possibility that DraftKings bought its initial 2.5 million MATIC from Polygon.

    Edited by Marc Hochstein and Nick Baker.


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    Danny Nelson

    Danny is CoinDesk's Managing Editor for Data & Tokens. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.