When Nick Vossbrink was growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980s, baseball cards were something to treasure. All his friends collected them. Once, during a soccer tournament in Fresno, he escaped to a nearby card show, where he bought his favorite card: a 1960 edition of Giants first baseman Orlando Cepeda. Vossbrink never gave the cards up. As his life shifted—he moved to New Jersey, had two kids—his collection followed.
Vossbrink, who has since carved out a niche blogging about baseball cards in his spare time, belongs to one of the last generations to collect them. In 1993, the baseball card market began a decadeslong slide. Young people stopped buying new packs. Baseball card manufacturers like Topps have unveiled a suite of static digital cards to reinvigorate the marketplace for the internet age, but collectors like Vossbrink are avoiding them.
You can date the first major shift toward digital collecting to 2012, when Topps released an app called Bunt. On Bunt, collectors buy sealed packs of cards that they can tear open with a click and swipe through like plane tickets in an Apple Wallet. They look like physical cards, scanned into an app; as with the physical kind, one side of the card features a photo of the player, and the other features their stats. Bunt has become a minor hit, but it still averages fewer than 5,000 downloads per month.
What made physical cards work is that collectors could put faith in their longevity. They stay yours until you decide to sell them or, if they become sentimentally precious enough, pass them on to family or friends. But the digital economy has done little to recreate that trust. It’s a problem that extends well beyond the world of card collecting into all digital “purchases.” When you buy a song on iTunes or Amazon, you are actually purchasing a license to that song. You can’t resell it, and the platform can revoke your access at any time. In 2019, Microsoft users learned this the hard way when the company mass-deleted e-books as a part of its effort to shut down its book division.
That fuzzy notion of ownership holds true for any manner of purchases: movies on Google Play, language-learning software from Rosetta Stone, even Tesla cars or upmarket sex toys. The dilemma that collectors face is a magnified version of what any of us have to confront. As technologies shift and companies blinker in and out, the photos, e-books, and blog posts we cherish are much more tenuous than we care to admit. So do baseball cards—and even video games, the other major site of digital collecting—operate on equally precarious grounds. Most free-to-play games offer a suite of internal purchases: everything from bobbleheads in Fallout 4 to specialty designs called skins that have sold for as much as $61,000 a piece to make Counter-Strike or Fortnite look cooler. But customers have almost no legal rights to these items. Citing intellectual property theft, game developers have shut down efforts to resell skins in secondary markets. “If the developer wants to restrict transfer of those assets, devalue them in some way, or eliminate them all together, players are at the mercy of the developer’s whims,” said Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University who co-wrote the book The End of Ownership.
Although the idea of collecting a digital object might sound odd, the appeal is similar to physical collections: You have this token, sticker, or playing card that you can trade or show off to friends. Both get their value from their scarcity. And like with regular cards, when you open a pack of digital cards, you don’t actually know what you’re getting beforehand. For those who have made the transition, collecting digitally still feels like a game.
MLB’s Bunt app was in part the brainchild of Michael Bramlage, who worked at Topps from 2012 to 2016. Soon after leaving, Bramlage launched Quidd, a competing marketplace for selling digital cards and stickers. “I do believe that within 10 years you’re going to see digital collectibles far exceed the sales volume of physical collectibles,” Bramlage said.
Quidd has landed partnerships with Disney, HBO, CBS, and the MLB to offer digital cards modeled on Bhad Bhabie or the cast of Golden Girls, making it one of the largest digital collecting services. The platform functions like eBay: Collectors can buy and sell memorabilia among themselves, thereby reserving the right to liquidate their purchases for dollars at any moment. But like Bunt, Quidd has its limitations. A digital card on either app only exists on the company’s platform. If Quidd disappears (or if the MLB gets cold feet), then so do the collectibles.
But as digital collecting grows more popular, a new group of companies is trying to regain that trust. They’re putting out collectibles that, they claim, can truly be “owned.” The key is the blockchain, a system that may feel a little fringe to most of us. But these so-called crypto collectibles are already gaining traction—and if they spread far enough, they might make us rethink ownership on the internet writ large.
You can think of blockchain as an open-source ledger. It records each transaction and pegs it to a location, represented by a number string, that allows a digital good to exist independently of the company that sold it. A blockchain-based trading card, for instance, can be moved between online platforms in the same way that collectors can sell physical baseball cards wherever they want.
The beginnings of a shift are already apparent. This June, the collectibles company Dapper Labs launched a digital marketplace with the NBA called Top Shot. On Top Shot, users can buy and trade game highlights called “Moments,” sort of like a basketball card in GIF form. The cost varies significantly, but most are in the range of, say, $35 for a pack of 20. In its first few months of life, Top Shot brought in $2 million in revenue and saw about 58,000 transactions. Dapper Labs claims that its collectibles will exist no matter what happens to the company. To guarantee that, it’s using the blockchain.
There’s now a miniature economy of blockchain-based collectibles. In 2019, the blockchain company Stryking Entertainment sold a set of Christmas-themed playing cards for the German soccer team FC Bayern Munich. Cards for 24 players sold for about $16,700 total. CryptoPunks—a set of 10,000 digital characters launched in 2017 by another entrepreneur—uses a subset of the blockchain, called non-fungible tokens, to verify the authenticity of each of its characters. Meanwhile, WAX, a blockchain marketplace, announced a forthcoming partnership with Topps. And the Bank of Lithuania recently put out the first government-sponsored digital collector’s coin.
To hear Vossbrink tell it, the initial announcement of blockchain collectibles was “met with a resounding ‘What the hell?’ ” from the collecting community. But the more Vossbrink learns, the more seriously he has taken the blockchain concept. “It seems to bridge the purely digital and the physical marketplace,” he said.
Not all blockchain collectibles are created equal, however. Take Gods Unchained, a trading card game that allows users to store their collectible cards on the blockchain. Because blockchains can’t store large files like images, when someone owns a trading card on the blockchain, what they actually have is the number string that identifies the card and associates it with an image, according to lawyer Greg McMullen, who spoke to Slate. But Gods Unchained maintains a copyright in its designs and controls the image files, which means that if a separate company buys the intellectual property in the future and decides to, say, dye all of the cards blue, collectors can’t stop them.
Some sites have protections built in for this. When you buy a painting from the digital art marketplace SuperRare, you receive the same ownership rights that you would if you purchased a physical painting. The original artist retains the copyright, but your digital painting isn’t going anywhere: Buyers get a limited use license to keep and display their art on their website—on a digital screen hanging on their wall, or potentially any customizable online platform—so the image can’t be altered down the line. A system like this, if adopted more widely, could usher in a golden age of digital collecting.
Blockchain collectors, though, aren’t generally the same hobbyists who collect offline. On Top Shot, most early users appear to be crypto enthusiasts who see buying up Moments as soon as they drop on the site as a way to make extra money. Some are reselling packs of Moments for thousands of dollars in secondary markets on Discord. But the site has drawn a few hardcore basketball fans. One user, Jay Smalling, got into Top Shot through basketball Twitter. Smalling is used to buying up NBA memorabilia—he owns two Carmelo Anthony jerseys—but regards Top Shot as ultimately “an investment opportunity.” So far, he’s collected more than 700 Moments.
Still, he says, “the thrill in opening packs is almost addictive.” Buying from Top Shot works a lot like buying a physical basketball card pack: You don’t know what’s in the deck, and you could either have landed a LeBron Moment or a pack of unexceptionals.
That anyone would spend thousands of dollars on digital cards shows the faith that people have in this new system. But while some physical collectors do flip their cards for profits, blockchain collectors so far seem to skew much more toward those investment-focused collectors. The ones like Vossbrink, who do it for the nostalgia, rarely show up on these platforms.
Yet growing concerns about ownership—driven by big events like Microsoft’s mass deletion of e-books—seem to be shifting the tide in favor of truly ownable collectibles. Last September, a French court found that users should be allowed to resell digital games bought through the platform Steam—a decision that could open the door to greater ownership of all kinds of digital goods.
More and more, collectors are demanding digital cards that exist outside of corporate whims. As they do, they might accidentally rewrite the rules of the entire digital economy, too. If blockchain-based collectibles gain traction, the pressure is on companies like Apple and Google Play to fortify their e-books, music, and movies with a radical slate of consumer ownership protections.
The key variable is our expectations. Right now, most of us accept the internet as a black hole of ownership. Should the idea of crypto collectibles spread, though, many of us will wonder why our online movie downloads don’t have the same protections.
That’s what Vossbrink wants, too. “We’ve had enough cases now where Microsoft decided to stop doing e-books, and then all of the stuff that you bought vanished from your reader,” he said. “That’s not something I’ve ever felt comfortable in trusting.”
The beauty of collecting, to him, is a constant cycle of connection. In October 2019, his then-10-year-old son announced that he wanted to dress up as a baseball card for Halloween. Vossbrink obliged. He bent over a slab of cardboard and cut a circle in the style of a 1959 San Francisco Giants baseball card, an attempt to bring the costume to life.
When Halloween night rolled around, Vossbrink and his son stopped at the house of an older man. The moment the man saw them, his face lit up. He said he’d collected baseball cards as a child in 1959. “He got all excited about the baseball card costume and started talking about collecting with his kids,” Vossbrink said. You can imagine the decades collapsing: This one card, issued during the man’s childhood, was binding together total strangers. In the digital economy, replicating that still feels like a distant dream.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.