Flow was built not to break under the stress of major NFT collections. Founded by the team behind one of the first web3 games, CryptoKitties, Flow has powered the biggest mainstream applications of NFTs. Ekin Genç speaks to the team, the builders, and the community to explain why it's one of web3's most important blockchains.
It’s a familiar scenario: an NFT project breaks Ethereum, and the team explores setting up its own chain. Yuga Labs, whose virtual land sale clogged Ethereum last May, is just the latest high-profile example. “It seems abundantly clear that ApeCoin will need to migrate to its own chain in order to properly scale,” Yuga Labs tweeted at the time.
That scenario has played out before, and it’s how an NFT-centric chain was born to make sure it never had to happen again.
It was 2017, and the wildly popular cat breeding game CryptoKitties had clogged the network. Dapper Labs, the company behind the project, committed to launching an alternative blockchain for games and consumer applications in response.
They called it Flow, and the chain went live in May 2020.
Although most chains took a plunge during the crypto bear market that began in late 2021, Flow has continued to grow. It recorded over 1.4 million transacting users on the network in the first week of August 2022 – the single most active week to date – and topped 9 million transactions in the first week of November, close to the number completing on the Ethereum mainnet, which sees just over a million per day.
This means that the network sacrifices much of the decentralisation that inspires most of today’s web3 ecosystem. In doing so, Dapper Labs has produced a network that retains much of the benefits of programmable money and smart contracts, which it blends with advantages in scalability, usability, and security to create a very different type of blockchain: one where transactions take ten seconds and cost less than a penny, and one that’s been identified by the NBA and Ticketmaster to underpin their NFT offerings, the latter of which has already minted over 5 million tickets on Flow.
The second distinguishing quality is “developer ergonomics.” Flow has a number of rare features – that is, not shared by most blockchains – like upgradeable smart contracts and built-in logging support to the Flow Emulator, the chain’s main developer tool. He also cites Cadence, the programming language used on Flow, as an “easier and safer programming language for crypto assets and apps.”
Flow’s user onboarding is also simplified by smooth, fiat payment onramps, letting users get onto Flow as quickly as possible, Narang said.
All this has meant that some of the world's biggest brands have built their web3 initiatives on Flow. These include NBA Top Shot, NFL ALL DAY, Ticketmaster, UFC Strike, and most recently LaLiga Golazos.
Flow’s early NFT appeal has been most visible with sports brands inspired by the success of its flagship project NBA Top Shot. Top Shot allows users to collect, buy, sell, and trade NFTs of NBA highlights, called Moments. Similar to traditional sports cards, Moments vary in rarity and can be purchased individually or in packs with fiat currency. The market has crossed $1 billion in total sales in mid-2022 and recently forged a historical partnership with Magic Johnson.
Dapper has since signed deals with the NFL and UFC and is working with the Spanish football club Real Madrid to “create a whole new experience layer for fans,” according to Michael Sutherland, the club’s Chief Transformation Officer. “Real Madrid is giving our fans the opportunity to invest in themselves, collect exclusive digital items, and own a piece of the online world,” adding that “it's fundamentally game-changing for the fan experience.”
Relatedly, gaming is also a major focus of the apps on Flow. Joyride, a web3 gaming studio, has released two big play-to-earn games on Flow, and some of the biggest across the web3 industry: Trick Shot Blitz and Solitaire Blitz. They have amassed over 1 million users in the last month and are both in the top 15 blockchain games, per statistics from DappRadar.
Meanwhile, a range of metaverse sports projects, like Metaverse Football League, are fusing the distinction between virtual games and real-life sports, whilst Cryptoys has raised $23m and partnered with toy manufacturing giant Mattel to bring the toy giant’s IP to interactive digital collectibles.
“It's fundamentally game-changing for the fan experience.”
— Michael Sutherland, Chief Transformation Officer at Real Madrid FC, Europe's most successful football club
“I think Cryptoys will play a huge role in bringing the idea of 'digital collectible' to a massive community of people unaware of what NFTs are or how they work in the real world,” papavader, an active Flow community member, told Culture3. “I really like the idea of testing new technology in the web3 space, and Cryptoys is working on using natural language processing for their interactive products.”
The blockchain tracker Flowverse brings all the trends on Flow to one place. Co-founder James Petchey tells Culture3 that although Flow has clearly established itself as the blockchain for licensed sports NFTs, there are many projects beyond sports, games, and licensed products, and many built by the community itself.
More than 10,000 developers and 1,000 apps are using Flow, per figures shared by Dapper Labs with Culture3, and the blockchain’s first DAO, Emerald City, runs bootcamps to teach Cadence. Collectively, these companies have raised $3.5 billion from 400 investors to build on Flow (excluding the $600m raised by Dapper Labs to build the Flow itself).
“Flow originally approached the blockchain trilemma by maintaining a level of control to ensure scalability and security.”
— Chirag Narang, General Manager, Flow
“Being a gaming and NFT-heavy chain is a stereotype people usually have for Flow,” pseudonymous developer dryruner, founder of Flow’s sole DeFi protocol Increment Fi, told Culture3. They argue that the Flow Virtual Machine can match the Ethereum Virtual Machine – the technology behind Ethereum, Avalanche, Fantom, among others – if not beat it. Its design is inspired by MoveVM, the tech underlying Meta’s now-abandoned cryptocurrency project Libra. (Speaking of Meta, the social media company now supports NFTs on Flow, in addition to Ethereum and Polygon.)
Despite being suitable for non-gaming and non-NFT applications it’s no surprise that sports and gaming brands have flocked to the blockchain built specifically for the NFT use case. Indeed, the chain’s current state shows NFTs are still where much of the activity takes place, and that includes an NFT classic: profile pictures (PFPs).
One of the biggest is Flunks, a 9,999-collection PFP project of “high school misfits causing havoc.” Its co-founder Buddsy told Culture3 that his team chose Flow for “the eco-friendliness of the blockchain and the low-cost, covered network fees.” The Flow community and the culture they’ve shaped were also key, he added.
“Flow has grown to become a large family-like community,” Buddy says. “It's the only blockchain that appears to be so friendly on the inside. Most people in the Flow space are quite open and happy to help others.”
Flow also has a growing culture of generative avatars that have attracted outside interest. Flovatar lets you build your own avatar and own accessories associated with it, whilst Genies, another customisable NFT collection, has secured IPs with big names like Justin Bieber, Migos and Cardi B.
So far, Dapper Labs have been hygienic about activity on the network, focusing on big brands and vetting every community project that sought to launch on its chain. This permissioned approach has meant no scams, rug pulls, or exploits, the sort of activity that is common for NFT activity on other chains that gives the industry a bad name. Dapper Labs has so far prioritised safety and security over permissionless community.
Yet that approach has recently changed. It enabled permissionless smart contract deployment in July, making it possible for anyone to deploy a contract to the mainnet without review. “Flow originally approached the blockchain trilemma by maintaining a level of control to ensure scalability and security,” Flow's Narang tells Culture3. “Over time, Flow has taken steps to support the move to decentralisation without the risks that other chains experience.”
If the experience of other chains are anything to go by, that could help Flow marry its successful push into web2 brands with the vibrant onchain culture and community that is enjoyed by other networks.
Ekin Genç is a freelance writer and consultant based in the UK. He's been writing about all aspects of crypto and web3 since 2020 for the likes of CoinDesk, Decrypt, and VICE. Ekin actively participates in DeFi and NFTs, which informs and shapes his writing about this experimental industry that's also deeply experiential. He's a graduate of the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics.
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