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Capital gains: How Web3 property rights can transform the digital economy
Web3.0
September 28, 2022
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Digital ownership enabled by Web3 tech can challenge the monopolistic dynamics of Web2 and give people real equity, says Animoca Brands chief Yat Siulay

Even as crypto prices languish amid a persistently bearish market mood, Web3 technology, with its promise of technological transformation, hasn’t lost its shine. 

In a demonstration of Web3’s enduring appeal, Animoca Brands, which rose to prominence thanks largely to its position as a lead investor in the enormously popular play-to-earn game Axie Infinity, recently completed a US$75 million capital raise. It also owns The Sandbox, an open metaverse that is bringing real-world cities and brands into the Web3 space, and it’s involved in hundreds of Web3 brands.

The rollcall of names may have expanded, but, according to Animoca’s co-founder and executive chairman, Yat Siu, the company’s vision remains unchanged.

“At the core of it, it’s still the same mission — just to deliver true digital property rights to all,” Siu told Forkast in a video interview.

“We believe that ownership generally is a driver of innovation and is the driver of growth overall, in the same sense that property rights in actual countries that actually do have real property rights and enduring ones, they have very good economies, and the ones that don’t tend to have very small economies,” Siu said. “And so (Web2) economies — despite the size that they are, being very large, obviously, and companies like Facebook and so on — are still equivalent to that of a sort of despotic, feudal society. In other words, the economic size is small.”

According to Siu, confidence in Web3 technology remains high despite the Crypto Winter, and he says the current bear market may turn out to be an opportunity for the industry, leading to a more decentralized and democratic future than Web2.

“When you look at the investing scene, despite the fact that it appears like this pullback, most of the pullback is in traditional business models, in the Web2 space. In Web3, people are still investing very heavily … It’s still, I would argue, a pretty healthy climate. And, in fact, for companies like us, there’s even better opportunities to have because now the competition isn’t quite the same,” Siu said. “And the reason why is because I think it’s not just about the opportunity, of course, the disruption, what Web3 is. It’s also the fact that people believe more blockchain should go where Web3 is going, where the metaverse is going … People don’t like what they’re seeing in Web2. They feel the threat that it’s arranged in their society — the threat to democracy, the threat to our personal rights, or the fact that we don’t have, actually, any digital freedoms whatsoever.”

He said that by introducing digital property rights with technologies like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), new economies can be created that empower ordinary people. 

Watch Siu’s full interview with Forkast Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau to learn more about how Web3 can foster financial literacy, help people such as teachers to gain digital ownership as content creators, what decentralization means for metaverses, and how Axie Infinity is faring amid the Crypto Winter.

Highlights

  • Pixels and property: “So, the ecosystem that we’re building is all about delivering traditional property rights to all … We believe that ownership generally is a driver of innovation and is the driver of growth overall, in the same sense that property rights in actual countries that actually do have real property rights and enduring ones, they have very good economies, and the ones that don’t tend to have very small economies … And so (Web2) economies — despite the size that they are, being very large, obviously, and companies like Facebook and so on — are still equivalent to that of a sort of despotic, feudal society. And what happens when you have people owning assets and people can construct their own network effects on top of it?”
  • Lessons in lucre: “(Axie Infinity) just demonstrated how a society like the Philippines — most of those people don’t have a university degree that ended up playing Axie, nor do they have a strong education in this area of financial education — however, they were completely able to sort of grasp the use of a crypto wallet and start playing and making money — in this case, playing Axie Infinity — helping them survive basically the Covid crisis at the time. So, it just shows that it’s not really sort of a difficult thing. In fact, I would argue that learning how to use, for instance, MetaMask at the time, or using basically Axie Infinity is much, much easier than opening up a physical bank account, for instance.”
  • Tokens for teachers: “Our most recent acquisition … is a really exciting Israeli-based education company called TinyTap. TinyTap has created, I’d say, the world’s largest mobile teacher marketplace … And so what they built was a kind of Netflix-type marketplace model where people can basically subscribe to this content … Now that this content generates a kind of yield, the value that a teacher receives might only be a couple of hundred or maybe US$1,000 a year … But if it now becomes an asset-generating yield in which you can actually give it the kind of capital formation that property rights can give, then you might be willing to pay for a 10% yield 10 times the amount … In some ways, you could say it’s not that different from NFT art, nor is it that different from blockchain games, but it’s just moving it into new segments.”
  • Decentralized metaverse: “I think at this point, it’s already been established that Web3, or, more specifically, the metaverse, is the sort of next iteration of the internet. And I think there’s a little bit of a battle going on in terms of what that should look like. And we very much believe in the decentralized version of this … And what we want to prevent is that people are going to create sort of an API-based, permission-based, metaverse alliance where people give access to each other and then they can turn it off whenever they want to, almost like sort of a trade war style. It’s supposed (to be) that the end user actually has most of the agency. It’s their assets. You can’t take it away from them. And they have the freedom to move where it is.”
  • GameFi, game on: “My perspective on the Axie drop is a blip. Because people are like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s dropped from US$160 as a token.’ But people forget that, say, when the token was listed, barely maybe two some years ago, it was $0.10, so it’s all relative to sort of the broad bracket. So then the question becomes: ‘What is your conviction in a game like Axie or any other game, for that matter, for the long term?’ So, the macro picture from our perspective is that we still only have millions of people in the blockchain gaming space, in the metaverse, in the open metaverse, and you have today 3.4 billion gamers.”
 

Transcript

Angie Lau: There are dreamers, and then there are doers. Well, Web3 is making it possible to turn all your dreams into reality, even if it’s an augmented one. And one firm that’s been doing this and working tirelessly since 2014 — building tokens, games, metaverses, incubating innovation, creating a whole new ecosystem, really — is one firm that we are sitting down with today — a unicorn, if you will. Today we find out what’s next.

Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into blockchain and all the emerging technologies that shape our world at the intersection of business, politics and economy. It’s what we cover right here on Forkast. I’m Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau.

Well, today we’re in conversation with Yat Siu, co-founder and executive chairman of Hong-Kong-based unicorn Animoca Brands — 200 Web3 brands, to be precise, companies and projects, and more are coming. Thanks for joining us, Yat. It’s been a while. It’s great to catch up with you. Two-hundred and counting — it’s incredible to see what you’ve built.

Yat Siu: Well, thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure being here. And, in fact, I need to update you on the number. It’s 340-plus at this point.

I remember when you first interviewed me on sort of the idea and the vision of Animoca brands. I think that was maybe 2019. It was quite some time ago. And it’s been quite a blessing and a privilege to see just how the industry has grown to where it is today. And at the core of it, it’s still the same mission — just to deliver true digital property rights to all. And I think back then — and it’s still very much playing out right now — we felt that approaching it from the gaming angle originally was the best way to obtain and get mass adoption into the space, because gamers already had a sense of virtual ownership.

Of course, we’re still at the early innings of all this, but it’s really exciting to see where it is. And when we spoke some years ago, our organization was maybe, like, 150 people. Today, we are 900 people worldwide. We have, obviously, many large projects that you might know of, such as The Sandbox. We’re involved, obviously, with our partnership with Yuga Labs and our involvement with Apecoin and many other projects.

But then also, we’ve made many, many investments in our belief in investing in the space. It’s similar to what was before, which is (that) we’re trying to spur on an entire ecosystem. We’re trying to sort of grow the open metaverse, which is very different from what some other companies are trying to do — to sort of control the metaverse. Because I think at this point, it’s already been established that Web3, or, more specifically, the metaverse, is the sort of next iteration of the internet. And I think there’s a little bit of a battle going on in terms of what that should look like. And we very much believe in the decentralized version of this, and the one that has to be user-owned in order to not have happen what happened in Web2.

Lau: I remember those conversations very well. In 2019, you were already so highly respected in the space, already seen as enormously successful. And I remember those conversations very well, where you explained with such detail why the gaming ecosystem could be well served by blockchain and crypto, and vice versa. Building on that thesis, what are you building out now with 340 (Web3 brands). What is this ecosystem that you’re building?

Siu: So, the ecosystem that we’re building is all about delivering traditional property rights to all. And one of the big theses that we have is — investing in companies outside of the ones that we’re building — is to try to invest in companies that can either aid in mass adoption — so, basically new users joining the ecosystem, or (which) can add more powerful network effects to the ownership of things.

We believe that ownership generally is a driver of innovation and is the driver of growth overall, in the same sense that property rights in actual countries that actually do have real property rights and enduring ones, they have very good economies, and the ones that don’t tend to have very small economies. And there’s plenty of examples of this. And so we feel that the internet as it is right now, with Web2, is very much an internet with zero property rights.

And so the economies — despite the size that they are, being very large, obviously, and companies like Facebook and so on — are still equivalent to that of a sort of despotic, feudal society. In other words, the economic size is small. And what happens when you have people owning assets and people can construct their own network effects on top of it? But not all of these companies exist today. It’s a little bit like building a country. Well, when you’re building a country, you can’t just have people — that’s great, that’s a good start — but you need to have infrastructure, you have roads, you need to have all these things, which is why we invested in many layer-1, layer-2 protocols, which is why we also invested in DeFi (decentralized finance) protocols as well, and, of course, in NFT gaming and all these other areas, where we can also now see (that) because of ownership, capital formation take place.

And I think one of the other things that we also spoke about is how blockchain, broadly speaking, and the whole space, is also creating, I think, broadly better financial literacy. So, one of our stock portfolios is Axie Infinity. We were the lead investor back maybe three or four years ago. And they just demonstrated how a society like the Philippines — most of those people don’t have a university degree that ended up playing Axie, nor do they have a strong education in this area of financial education — however, they were completely able to sort of grasp the use of a crypto wallet and start playing and making money — in this case, playing Axie Infinity — helping them survive basically the Covid crisis at the time.

So, it just shows that it’s not really sort of a difficult thing. In fact, I would argue that learning how to use, for instance, MetaMask at the time, or using basically Axie Infinity is much, much easier than opening up a physical bank account, for instance. So that’s how that sort of spurred along. And we’re still early, so we still continue to invest in many gaming models to help drive that adoption.

But the other area that we’re focused on a lot now is in education. And one of the reasons why we like the education field is because teachers, in and of itself, are amongst some of the greatest content creators and perhaps the most prolific content creators in the world. But they’re actually just like the artists before, or maybe even people who are sort of gaming in these developing countries. Actually, their value was not ever truly realized. Teachers are amongst the sort of least paid members relative to their value to society. And that’s partially because the content that they create is actually not something that can really have capital formation because they either don’t own it or they don’t have a way in which they could own it.

So, that sort of was one of our new focus areas, as well — to try to spur along an industry, and hopefully we can do something similar to how we assisted and helped grow the GameFi space. If you think about it today, almost no game that isn’t doing Web3 can raise money, in the sense that, I would say that, if you’re doing a Web3 game, then the chances of you raising money is quite high. There’s billions of dollars being poured into this space. It’s not all us. In fact, we’re a small part of that now, which means that there’s an entire movement.

Lau: It is. It’s a movement that you’re funding that you identified.

Siu: We do have a lot of capital.

Lau: You do. Let me ask you about that. You kicked off with some fundraising recently — a cool US$75 million in July. It now values the firm at — what is it now — US$5.5 billion, is that right?

Siu: Yeah. So it depends. You see, the reason why is because even though it’s a U.S.-dollar fundraise, we’re still an Australian public company, so the share price is measured at an Australian dollar price. So, depending on what the currency of the Australian dollar is, we’re somewhere between US$5.5 billion and US$5.9 billion. And it’s funny, because normally these are not a big deal, but at the scale and size of these valuations, a 5% or 10% swing in currency actually has a material impact on the valuation. So the pricing is at an Australian dollar term. 

Lau: Thank you for that clarification. But it happened in the summer, (and) we’ve had this Crypto Winter. How difficult was it to organize that fundraise, and why do you think that people are still investing so vociferously in this space, despite what we’re seeing in the headlines?

Siu: The main thing I’d say is that when you look at the investing scene, despite the fact that it appears like this pullback, most of the pullback is in traditional business models, in the Web2 space. In Web3, people are still investing very heavily. The only difference is that maybe valuations have come down, or maybe the amount of funding size might be a little smaller, for instance. But it’s all relative still. It’s still, I would argue, a pretty healthy climate. And, in fact, for companies like us, there’s even better opportunities to have because now the competition isn’t quite the same.

And the reason why is because I think it’s not just about the opportunity, of course, the disruption, what Web3 is. It’s also the fact that people believe more blockchain should go where Web3 is going, where the metaverse is going, and it’s also what people want to see. People don’t like what they’re seeing in Web2. They feel the threat that it’s arranged in their society — the threat to democracy, the threat to our personal rights, or the fact that we don’t have, actually, any digital freedoms whatsoever.

I mean, if a company the size of Epic can’t even launch the app on the (Apple) App Store, then we have a problem. It’s not even the battle of the giants. It’s just the fact that they’re just excluded. So if a big company like this can’t have digital rights, then what does it mean for the everyperson who has absolutely no rights whatsoever and is a complete dependent? So, it’s more than just money, I’d say. It’s a mission — it’s a purpose. And the investors who are participating in this believe in this vision, but they also believe that this is a better future, because they also understand that a more decentralized, distributed property rights framework is actually one that provides better prosperity. And so unless you’re the monopoly, unless you’re the power, then it’s to everyone’s benefit that we see this world happen rather than have one that is controlled by the few.

Lau: A lot of people are paying attention to exactly what you’re saying. You’re often at the leading edge of these trends. Axie Infinity really triggered an entire wave of investor dollars into the GameFi space. What are you looking at, very specifically? I know you said education, but when you say yes to something, what is it that speaks to you and what do you think the future needs?

Siu: So, I think that  what we typically look for when we invest — obviously we look at the purpose of the companies and entities that are involved, and, therefore, we also seek for the impact that they might deliver. And in this particular case, let me just give you our most recent acquisition that we did, which is a really exciting Israeli-based education company called TinyTap. TinyTap has created, I’d say, the world’s largest mobile teacher marketplace, which serves about 8-plus million families as hundreds of thousands of content creators — mostly teachers, private teachers who in schools make, like, US$5,000. (In) some cases they might even make thousands of dollars basically a year with their content. And so what they built was a kind of Netflix-type marketplace model where people can basically subscribe to this content.

And now this content is generating a kind of yield. Now that this content generates a kind of yield, the value that a teacher receives might only be a couple of hundred or maybe US$1,000 a year. And that’s great income because we know teachers don’t make that much money, for the most part. But if it now becomes an asset-generating yield in which you can actually give it the kind of capital formation that property rights can give, then you might be willing to pay for a 10% yield 10 times the amount.

Now, you give a teacher a thousand dollars? That’s good. You give them US$10,000? That changes their life. And we’ve seen basically what happened when we did this with NFT artists. We see what happens when you give it to people who have gaming assets and items. And one of the big troubles that a lot of people have in the traditional sort of Web2 world is they don’t understand why a gaming item can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, why digital art could be worth millions of dollars — because they themselves don’t understand that the value of these assets are already heavily financified, except they all go 100% to the institution that technically owns it. You’re just simply using it, so they get the value for this. But actually once it’s released from this, other people can start playing into this, and … they can basically start investing if they want to or participate in this as well.

Now, what we’re hoping it will do — and it will obviously not be done just with TinyTap — is that it sort of demonstrates a new model in which an entirely new segment of society can benefit from this type of capital formation with digital property rights. Because after all, teaching content is a kind of content as well. And what we do know is that once you take content — and basically in Web3, all content becomes a kind of asset because it is a property — capital formation can then begin to whatever level that may be.

And we’re very excited about that also because, as we’ve seen, for instance, with The Sandbox, we’ve seen with NFT artists, The Sandbox flourishes because of all the creators that are building on top of it, and they have creative freedom and the ability to do things. And in fact, what are teachers? Teachers are creators. If you look at, for instance, the biggest learning platform in the world, funnily enough, it’s YouTube, actually. YouTube is where — you would argue — most of the educational content is. So, it’s not necessary that it has to be something that’s specifically like a curriculum. People can learn all sorts of things from each other on these platforms. But again, who owns the content? Who owns the platform? It’s not the creators themselves. So we’re hoping that we can continue to push that narrative.

So, in some ways, you could say it’s not that different from NFT art, nor is it that different from blockchain games, but it’s just moving it into new segments, and hopefully we can encourage more growth in other areas, as well. But obviously education is an area that we feel really passionate about.

Lau: Three-hundred and forty brands — as you shared, you’re continuing to expand. But we talk about this bear market, and the recent bear market hit crypto investors and companies like a brick wall. This was also visible in the play-to-earn space, the valuation of GameFi tokens and play-to-earn games really took a hit. Axie Infinity — we saw the rise of it come through the Philippines, and it was extraordinary really to see, and it also has plunged since then.

How do you view the sustainability of the space of Axie Infinity compared to other play-to-earn games? Do you think the model needs to change? How have all of these play-to-earn entities and properties behaved in a bear market and been able to react to the impact?

Siu: So, first of all, we remain super-bullish on Axie. And I think one of the things that’s interesting to note is that it’s similar to the development of a country, as we typically like to give examples in sort of the metaverse. While you’ll always have downturns in markets as the market shifts and there’s obviously going to be a mix of people coming in that might not naturally want to play the game — the speculators, all that type of stuff — as we see in every economy that’s developing. From our perspective, it’s a little bit of a blip. Obviously, it’s a downturn, but relative to where Axie was even two years ago or three years ago, it’s still a rising trend upwards.

So, my perspective on the Axie drop is a blip. Because people are like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s dropped from US$160 as a token.’ But people forget that, say, when the token was listed, barely maybe two some years ago, it was $0.10, so it’s all relative to sort of the broad bracket. So then the question becomes: ‘What is your conviction in a game like Axie or any other game, for that matter, for the long term?’ So, the macro picture from our perspective is that we still only have millions of people in the blockchain gaming space, in the metaverse, in the open metaverse, and you have today 3.4 billion gamers.

So, if you believe that somewhere between that area is basically an adoption that will take place, that there should be general sort of growth that happens — and also remember that about a year or so ago, Axie was really one of the very few ones that are out there — and today, because of all the investments and competition that is out there, there’s a lot more choices, and what typically happens in those environments is that as venture capital money pours into this, the gamers themselves have more choices. In some cases, maybe there’s been a degree of overinvestment, in the sense that there’s more content available for people to play and try, and not enough gamers necessarily to sort of play all of them, although that is actually changing quite quickly. So there’s a little bit of that dynamic.

So, I would say it’s not just the fact that the market itself is down. That’s a broad macro. Macro is relatively poor in comparison to even six months ago, but it’s also just a whole sort of scene. And we’ve seen this, by the way, with mobile gaming. We’ve seen this with console gaming. We’ve seen this with PC gaming. All the history of these industries goes through these cycles.

But talking about Axie, in and of itself, I mean, a lot of people were critical of Axie because they looked at the numbers and they said, ‘Oh, look at the engagement rates. It’s small and everything or it’s dropped almost zero.’ This is the problem when people aren’t actually in it, so they don’t actually know that Axie Classic was being sunset for Axie Origin. And Axie Origin actually has shown very promising numbers, but they weren’t actually releasing rewards just yet. They just started doing that. The only issue is, of course, that there was this period of time in which we were doing the transition on top of the fact that Axie had to deal, as you know, with this hack situation, which has been resolved, but they had all these other things that they had to deal with at the same time. But to me, actually, the fact that they could resolve the hack situation is just a demonstration that they’ve got a very strong community, and the growth of Axie, as well as the whole industry as a whole, we remain very bullish on.

Lau: Obviously, people pay attention very closely to the micro events against a macro backdrop, which you’ve explained. But I remember, in our early conversations, your greater thesis, which is that blockchain and crypto is here, there’s enormous value, and gaming is a way to onboard people into this new world, almost, of crypto. Does that remain true?

Siu: Yes, it does remain true. I think there’s a couple of factors that are actually making this. I would say maybe it was a prediction back then, but I would say it’s becoming very much a reality now. When you take a look at the amount of money that’s being invested in Web3 gaming, broadly speaking, it sort of eclipses everything that we call ‘trad’ gaming, if you will. So that’s the first one. So, a lot of money going in.

The second thing is that a lot of really smart people are developing in that space. And in fact, the smartest people are actually thinking, ‘You know what, there’s something there.’ And this is what’s important, because you could argue that maybe some of the very first builders in the space, not all of them had maybe the best of intentions because they saw money, as you see often in these cases where you have opportunists come in and just take advantage of a market. But the people entering now, people building in a bear market, they’re the kind of people who have a long lens on this one, because, again, if it was just about the money, maybe there’s better, easier ways to do it. But they really believe in this future because it gives new forms of gameplay and it gives ownership to the end user. And one thing to understand is that many of the people who design games aren’t necessarily in love with the game companies they work for because their particular agenda is very different, necessarily, to that of what they want the players to experience.

Now, I think there’s one other element here that probably needs to be said, which is that there is a diverging sort of narrative that’s going on between the West and the East. In America, for instance, there is generally a sort of — I wouldn’t say generally, it’s not true for everyone — but there’s a large sort of vocal group of people that don’t like NFTs. And I think it comes from this history of game companies with free-to-play having really abused their customers and heavily monetized it. And they don’t quite understand that, in fact, this gives them more freedom and it gives them a way in which they can actually benefit from this sort of financification that game companies have done on them. But they also don’t understand, because they are not that financially literate. And also, they play a game, presumably not because they want to make money, understandably so.

Now, in Asia, this doesn’t exist at all. You go to Korea, for instance, where I was just at. Every game company is talking Web3. Everyone’s doing something, and, more importantly, the gaming audiences are welcoming it. So, it’s not that dissimilar from where free-to-play was, say, a decade-plus ago, where, again, the West was like, ‘You know what? We’re not so sure about that.’ But actually, Asia was like, ‘Let’s go, this is great.’

Lau: Fully embracing it. And that’s really the story that we’re seeing from our vantage point at Forkast. It really is this often cultural divergence, but also the acceptance of Asia of a lot of these innovations that you’re building out, which I think really speaks to why you’ve been able to build out to the success of what you’ve achieved at Animoca Brands.

I want to finally ask you about Open Metaverse Alliance for Web3, or OMA3, you call it, and why it’s different from the other metaverse we know. Tell us about this. Tell us about what OMA3 is, and why we should be paying attention.

Siu: So what the Open Metaverse Alliance really is, is a group of companies that is ever-growing to come together and agree on essentially the open metaverse construct and essentially create not so much even a standards-based system — although that could be part of it — but it’s really sort of to create a framework in which we agree that we’re all going to build in an open framework collaboratively.

There are some other metaverse alliances that have been set up that have a conspicuous absence of anyone in Web3 and blockchain, for instance, so that’s kind of interesting. And we don’t think that’s a good idea. In fact, you could argue that the desire to create OMA3 is because of the fact that we saw other groups formed together to create another kind of alliance that was really in some ways perhaps trying to exclude sort of the blockchain narrative out of it.

And what we want to prevent is that people are going to create sort of an API-based, permission-based, metaverse alliance where people give access to each other and then they can turn it off whenever they want to, almost like sort of a trade war style. It’s supposed (to be) that the end user actually has most of the agency. It’s their assets. You can’t take it away from them. And they have the freedom to move where it is. It actually is a much better system. That’s kind of what we’re really trying to push forward.

So, true digital property rights sort of lies at the heart of what the Open Metaverse Alliance is about, whereas I would argue that the other metaverse alliances out there, that’s not even part of the conversation. The conversation is not about owning your stuff. The conversation is how these other companies can work together to create, maybe, a method of interoperability. But that’s a very different narrative.

Lau: It’s been great to catch up with you since 2019, when we first chatted, and (about) building out something that’s enormous right now, and where it’s going. Anyone can guess, but we’ll be speaking again — don’t you worry. And for our audience, this is a fly-on-the wall moment for the thinking of where this industry is going. Yat, you’re truly one of those crystal ball readers, and you’re making it happen. Thank you.

Siu: Thank you so much.

Lau: And thank you, everyone, for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block. I’m Angie Lau, Forkast Editor-in-Chief. Until the next time.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not offered or intended to be used as investment or other advice.
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