What Is NBA Top Shot, The Digital Collectable Taking Over The Internet

If you’re even on the fringes of NBA Twitter you might see people lament being “in line” behind thousands of others on some nights. Eventually, you might see them express frustration that whatever they’re in line for is out of stock. And unless they’re getting vaccinated en masse, they’re probably hoping to snag the latest packs of NBA Top Shot.

You’ve probably seen people talking about Top Shot, or even reveling in the big purchase they made of a “moment” from their favorite player. There might be talk of rarity, new pack releases, and challenges they need to complete in order to acquire even more moments. It all sounds vaguely like trading card collecting, or maybe stock day trading. That’s because it’s kind of both. Top Shot has seen a huge leap in popularity in an extremely small amount of time, especially in recent weeks. The company literally can’t keep its product in stock, and in a world where a bunch of people on Reddit can band together to cause chaos on the stock market, there’s a lot of talk about NBA Top Shot as a commodity in and of itself.

But if you’re still confused about what Top Shot even is, we’ve got you covered.

What Is Top Shot?

NBA Top Shot was announced in the summer of 2019 as a partnership between the Association and Dapper Labs, which maintains the technology behind the blockchain-based platform where people can buy, sell, and trade numbered versions of officially-licensed video highlights from NBA games. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s the simplest way to describe what Top Shot is: video highlights from games, packaged in various forms and bought and sold by people who want them.

It’s part digital sports trading card, part highlight, and part commodity. It debuted in the fall of 2019, and in just over a year, it’s become a phenomena all its own. But it’s a phenomena that absolutely requires explaining, as it sits at the intersection of our present moment’s commodification of virality, obsession with collectability, and evolving understanding of blockchain technology. Tech nerds, NBA fans, and people looking for the next big collectable all seem hooked by Top Shot for one reason or another.

What’s The Blockchain?

OK, I am definitely NOT the person to explain that. But what you need to know is that it’s a secure list of records linked together by cryptography that’s used to keep things safe and secure. It’s why tech people are so excited about cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, and it’s used to keep Top Shot secure.

If that sounds confusing, that’s reasonable. So let’s try to answer a few more questions and I’ll try not to use the word “blockchain” again.

What’s A Moment?

NBA Top Shot is, absolutely, having a moment. But it’s also made of Moments, or video highlights from a particular player. There are dunks, passes, blocks, and even lay-ups all available for sale from some of the NBA’s biggest stars. And some Moments are rarer and more valuable than others. While common packs of moments start at $9, more rare packs cost $999 for 10 random Moments. The most rare Moments have routinely topped six figures on the resale market, and people expect them to eventually sell for much more than that.

Moments can be sold off right away, but Top Shot has a reward system for collecting certain Moments, which unlock exclusive reward Moments that also have value in their own right. It’s a game, kind of, and one that can get expensive if you want certain moments added to your collection.

Why Does This Sound Familiar?

Well, it’s something that’s sort of been done before online in various forms. Cartoon Network and Turner once had a website in the early 2000s called Cartoon Orbit that had hundreds of thousands of kids acquiring tradeable images from cartoons, usually animation cells from shows. You could buy them using virtual currency you earned, and even auction them off for huge windfalls if they were particularly rare. There were challenges to unlock others, and there was apparently even a plan to turn the currency into real money. Which, in a way, is exactly what NBA Top Shot is now, just with basketball highlights instead of images from Dexter’s Laboratory.

But Isn’t It Just A Bunch Of GIFs?

Well, kind of! The actual video contained in a Moment is probably available elsewhere, including on team Twitter accounts and YouTube and basically every sports channel if the highlight is cool enough. But avid Top Shot collectors insist there’s more to it than just seeing a clip online. There’s an ownership element with Top Shot that those who’ve bought in rave about. Here’s how Mavericks owner Mark Cuban explained away the difference in a recent blog post about collecting and Top Shot in particular:

I get to enjoy knowing I own my Maxi Kleber dunk Moment, along with knowing the serial number and much more. Some people might complain that I can get the same video on the internet anywhere any time and watch it. Well guess what, I can get the same picture on any traditional, physical card on the internet and print it out, and that doesn’t change the value of the card.

You’ll find this comparison made in a lot of places: sports trading cards are often created from images you can find elsewhere, printed on cardboard in varying quantities to create their own value. For NBA Top Shot, the value theoretically comes from the quality of the video, the digital packaging Top Shot creates with additional stats and info, and the scarcity attached — not to mention the security of the blockchain. (whoops) For many, it’s a commodity as much as it is memorabilia, one that’s just starting to build its value as interest increases and the number of moments remains tightly controlled.

How Is Scarcity Controlled?

There’s a whole other guide to that, which sort of speaks to how complex that whole formula may be. There are generally two different kinds of Moment: Limited Edition (LE), which have a finite number of versions created and are generally more valuable, and Circulating Count (CC), which has an amount that may change as more packs are released.

Right now I can tell you there are zero new packs available at all, and a lot of different Moments available on the secondary market. That peer-to-peer marketplace has its own spikes in popularity, price, and scarcity that’s driven by what people want to buy and sell, along with what Top Shot makes available. It’s all pretty interesting to watch, and unlike the stock market, the people in charge of the market are pretty transparent about how things are going (for now).

As much as NBA Top Shot is a sports phenomenon, it’s not. It’s a tech product, still technically in beta, and there seem to be changes constantly happening. Releases don’t always go smoothly, things break, and others get fixed as the product itself evolves in real time. What’s refreshing here, though, is that the company seems to be pretty forthright about, both good and bad.

Should I Start A Top Shot Collection?

Listen, friend, I am far from a financial expert here. I’m just reading the news, so to speak. But it’s absolutely interesting to watch, and there’s a considerable sense of FOMO that happens when new packs hit the market and people share their successes and failures.

The secondary market sells individual clips starting at $2 each, so even with demand causing thousands of people to miss out on new packs, it’s a pretty cheap entry point into the Top Shot game. But know that, like all collectable items with gambling-adjacent odds and emotions, it’s a slippery slope with a costly mountain of rarity and exclusivity waiting on the other side. And until further notice, you’ll see considerable competition, which means it will be tough to find any easy deals.

There is plenty of information and data available, though: The folks running things at Dapper consistently update people on what’s going on with Top Shot, including tweaks and what’s essentially a video game roadmap-style update on what’s next. Top Shot is very good at sharing detailed breakdowns of just what you’re buying, and their Discord also shares updates on just who managed to snag packs and how they’re battling users taking advantage of the system to score large amounts of packs. It’s a nice change from commodities where ordinary people are woefully unprepared to battle the big guys.

But it’s far from perfect. Saturday’s release of $999 legendary packs of 10 Moments, for example, saw a glitch let people buy packs without waiting in the queue if they joined at just the right time — a frustration for some trying to get one of the 2,331 packs made available, to say the least. But the release did have one bright spot: Each pack went to a different collector, according to Dapper’s data, which means the rare stuff went out to lots of different people, an improvement over an earlier common release pack from earlier in the week.

Dapper says they want to keep Base Set packs available at all times but are struggling to keep up with demand, and they’re selling out in minutes, just like the rarest of packs with the highest-value cards. But that means there are plenty available on the secondary market, and there are lots of more-common moments available to buy right now if you’re willing to pay a bit of a premium. And if you’re a fan of a less popular players, there’s a bevy of good highlights for you to acquire.

Get-rich quick commodities seem all the rage online these days — especially when the blockchain is involved — which is certainly part of the appeal of Top Shot for some speculators. Telling financially-strapped people to pay for anything right now is certainly a tough ask, but we live in a world where gamers sink millions of dollars into virtual currency to bulk up create-a-players and packs of virtual soccer stars in sports sims they may play for less than a year before upgrading. With NBA Top Shot, at least in theory, these packs will have some actual value. That value may only exist when a video is sold, but believers in the market hope Moments become a collectable on par with trading cards, sports memorabilia, and player autographs.

If not, at least they’ll have quite an impressive highlight reel to watch.