Match point. The 2023 Australian Open men’s finals. Novak Djokovic, who had missed last year’s tournament because of his vaccination status, was now on the verge of winning his record 10th Australian Open. If he wins this point, he wins the set, he wins the tournament, and he ties Rafael Nadal for the men’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles – giving him a legitimate claim to be the greatest men’s player in history. (No pressure.)
Jeff Wilser is a freelance author who has written seven books. This article is part of "Culture Week."
Djokovic blasted the serve; it clocked in at 127 miles per hour. His opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, somehow got it back in play. They hit it back and forth. Then Djokovic sensed his chance: He smoked a tough backhand to push Tsitsipas to the far edge of play, which left the rest of the court wide open. Djokovic pounced. He crushed a forehand to the empty side of the court – Tsitsipas had no chance – and placed the ball so perfectly that it kissed the sideline, just barely in bounds.
Djokovic had just won his 22nd Slam.
It was an exciting point. But for a certain segment of the Australian Open fans, the point meant something else entirely. Thanks to tennis’ Hawk-Eye system – a network of cameras and computers that can instantly show precisely where the ball lands on the court within a millisecond – tennis officials knew exactly where that final ball had bounced. Think of the tennis court like a grid. That grid is divided into thousands of tiny plots, and there are people very curious about which of those plots, exactly, received the final bounce.
For Djokovic’s match point, the ball landed on Plot #1174. This is linked to an “Artball” NFT of ball #7407. And the fan who owns that non-fungible token just won tickets to next year’s tournament. In fact, for every finals point in every match in the 2023 Australian Open, the final “bounce” of the winning point is pegged to an NFT, and that NFT just became more valuable.
Larger embrace of Web3
The NFT experiment is just one part of the Australian Open’s larger embrace of Web3, which, frankly, is somewhat astonishing, given the frost of crypto winter. What’s even more surprising? The Open says it’s working, and they want to do more.
“We heard feedback from a lot of these consumers that they were watching more tennis than they ever watched before,” Ridley Plummer, who heads up the Web3 strategy for the Australian Open, said. “Wherever they were in the world, they were either getting up early, or staying up late, to watch the end of the matches, because they wanted to see where the match point landed.”
Then there’s the Australian Open in Decentraland. Working with a metaverse and NFT development studio, Run it Wild, the team created a replica of the Rod Laver Arena and its surroundings. I took my nerdy little avatar that I created back in early 2020 (which is still wearing the goofy Mariachi hat, more on that here) into Decentraland to check it out myself and was surprised by its verisimilitude.
This is the second year that the Australian Open has experimented with the metaverse. In 2022, according to Run it Wild, Decentraland’s Australian Open saw 175,000 unique sessions from 157 countries, making it the highest attended event in Decentraland. The platform also launched the Artball NFTs in 2022, selling 6,776 balls to 3,679 holders. (It then sold more Artballs this year.)
We might be in a bearish climate for crypto, but the Australian Open is one of the most interesting examples of Web3 actually being used by a mainstream brand. For years, in abstract terms, crypto enthusiasts have theorized how NFTs could help traditional brands engage with customers. The Australian Open is now doing that.
The Artball NFTs, for example, unlock a kind of membership that gives certain perks. Owners of the Artballs can watch the players warm up on practice courts, get access to presale tickets and geek out on tennis content that no one else can see. “We have nearly 300 cameras at Melbourne Park that we can create tailored content [from], that is very different from what a broadcaster shows you on television,” Plummer said.
Big brands in the metaverse
Crypto purists might view decentralized worlds like Decentraland and The Sandbox as the only true metaverses, but larger brands see things differently. Roblox is a virtual world with more than 200 million active users, which is why the Australian Open added a Roblox experience this year, and it even snagged Nick Kyrgios, the local Aussie tennis hero, as a Roblox ambassador.
“I’m stoked to be a part of AO Adventure in Roblox,” Kyrgios said in a statement. “I hope that gamers enjoy interacting with humanoid Nick and pick up a few tips and tricks along the way.”
The Australian Open sees the metaverse as more than just a one-time gimmick to goose sales or fetch publicity – it could be a way to extend fan engagement throughout the year. For the most part, says Plummer, the Australian Open is truly relevant for only one month out of the year, “and then everyone moves on to the next event.”
Plummer thinks the metaverse and other Web3 tools could help create an “evergreen model for twelve months of the year,” where fans can play Australian Open games indefinitely.
The numbers aren’t tiny. So far, the Australian Open kids game in Roblox has racked up 6.3 million visits, and Plummer views this as a way to grow the brand globally. Sure, at the moment, maybe these kids have little buying power. But what if they grow up playing these Australian Open games? What if it sticks in their craw? Plummer said that if they can “put the AO brand in their heads” and influence some to put the Australian Open on their bucket list of places to visit, and maybe even hop on a plane and buy a ticket one year, “then that for us is success.”
As for having the confidence to build in the metaverse during crypto winter, when other brands are skittish? Plummer always saw this as a long-term experiment. It needs time to breathe.“When we ideate something,” Plummer said, “there’s the sense that we should be doing this for a minimum of two, three or five years … Let’s not just do it once and then move on to the shiny new thing.”
And while your mileage might vary on how much you get out of watching tennis in the metaverse, those Artball NFTs – linked to actual game action – strike me as fun, inspired and destined to be copied in other sports. Why not link NFTs to where the baseballs smack the home run wall? Or to where the touchdown is scored in the end zone? Or, for that matter, for the tennis courts of the U.S. Open, French Open or Wimbledon?
The idea isn’t lost on Plummer. He pauses, chuckles, mentions that certain partnerships could someday be in the works, and then said, “Imitation’s the highest form of flattery, right?”