Blockchain technology has quickly consumed the sports business ecosystem. NBA
Top Shot led the way into now-ubiquitous NFT collectibles, pro teams are accepting payments in cryptocurrency and the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers are playing their home games in Crypto.com Arena. With investors scrambling to get in on the ground floor of what’s next to come in the metaverse land rush, one company has an idea for the future of virtual sports: Three-on-three basketball games played by cartoon gorillas.
That’s the vision of Rumble Kong League, a newly launched platform from parent company Rumble League Studios. The company is fresh off a $4.5 million funding round, and its NFTs, which are sold in ethereum, have generated an equivalent cash price of over $50 million in total sales despite not yet releasing a game.
“I knew I wanted to do something in this space. I knew I wanted to do something that was competitive in sports,” said CEO Marcus Bläsche, a native of Germany who previously worked at Blizzard Entertainment, game studio Wargaming and open world game-turned-metaverse real estate company The Sandbox. “Then literally one day I woke up and said, ‘We could do a basketball game.’ But how do we get the funding to do this?”
In August, RKL sold a series of 10,000 NFTs. Each token depicted a programmatically generated cartoon gorilla, or Kong. Those unique avatars are not just digital collectables, they also have randomly generated stats, like shooting and defense, and will be playable characters in RKL’s upcoming game, which is slated initially to be a web-based game; it is in development by a third-party company and slated for release later this year. The long-term plan is to roll out a series of competitive leagues, with a future NFT series granting owners the ability to form official teams. Users can earn money by competing or renting out their Kongs to other players.
At present, RKL’s revenue consists solely of a 5% cut on its tokens’ secondary sales on NFT marketplace OpenSea, which as of the start of 2022 have totaled an equivalent of just over $50 million. In recent weeks, the average sale price for an individual Kong has topped the equivalent of $13,000. Following early user interest, last month Rumble Kong League raised a $4.5 million seed round with investments from NBA star Paul George
and CAA Sports. Other investors include Framework Ventures, SkyVision Capital and design agency Victory Creative Group, with Bläsche and his three co-founders still owning the majority of the company.
According to Bläsche, about 20 people are working on the project, most of whom are at external games studio iLogos. Early plans for the newly raised capital include expanding the internal team to up to 30 Rumble Kong full-time staffers within six months, many in marketing and social media roles. The company has over $6 million in cash on hand.
CAA Sports has also joined RKL in an advisory capacity to consult on sponsorships, events and media rights, and the agency has plans to market the metaverse platform’s competitive leagues just like its stick-and-ball and esports properties.
“We’re deploying some of the same principles and relationships and skill sets that we did with Riot Games and the Premier Lacrosse League that we’re going to bring to the Rumble Kong League,” said CAA Sports co-head Michael Levine. “The same type of work is done for UEFA that we do with CAA Eleven, where we’re responsible for selling media rights and sponsorship and licensing rights.”
Beyond the traditional sports model, RKL will develop revenue streams more typical to video games, like users paying for in-game character customization, plus opportunities to use a Kong avatar elsewhere in the metaverse. “We’re building not for what is, but what will be,” said Bläsche, who is now based in France. “Sports will play a key role, avatars will play a key role, brands will play a key role.”
Both Levine and Bläsche said that brands are already showing an early interest in RKL, even those not endemic to the blockchain space. “We’ve seen it recently with an Adidas
commercial, introducing their entrée to the metaverse with The Sandbox, and Nike underwent a partnership with Roblox,” said Levine. “I think we’re going to see more and more mainstream brands participating in a space where they believe consumers are going to be spending time.”
CAA’s involvement is part of a broader push for the agency, which has recently taken stakes in NFT platforms Candy Digital, Mojito and OpenSea. That’s in addition to advising clients entering the space; per Levine, CAA has around 60 people across all divisions collaborating on NFT work, and it was responsible for bringing on George as an RKL investor.
It’s notable that, despite not yet launching its game, RKL is already making waves at the highest level of basketball. George’s Twitter avatar is an image of a Kong, NBA players Josh Hart
of the Pelicans and Tyrese Haliburton of the Kings are active on the game’s Discord channel (an app used for voice, text and video chatting) and NBA players including Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry have been spotted wearing RKL merchandise at recent games. Last year Curry bought six Kongs — they cost him 14.2 ethereum, or more than $46,000 at a recent exchange rate — and owners of a recently released NFT depicting his Under Armour shoe will be able to redeem a wearable used in the digital game for their Kongs.
“We had a trading volume of $45 million within six months. We built a brand that was released four months ago, and we have Steph Curry wearing a beanie in a press conference,” said Bläsche. “It’s incomprehensible for me some days that this is possible. But that’s the beauty of it; it’s very fast-moving and very agile.”