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This week: sports sponsorships, hacks and Tolkien
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A short, fun history of the development of the tech industry as represented by sponsorships on football shirts at Rest of World:
But these sponsorships actually reveal something about the tech industry as a whole: when you trace the history of these commercial deals across the decades, patterns emerge. Rather than individual companies, entire sectors of the industry — from cars to consumer tech to gambling websites — seem to jump into the sport at once, signaling their rise to, or the desire to, dominate global markets where football is also part of everyday life. It’s no coincidence, for example, that mobile phone companies turned to sponsoring football clubs during the beginning of the new millennium: with handsets becoming increasingly common and 3G just around the corner, companies like Samsung and Vodafone wasted no time in paying record amounts to some of the most successful clubs in England.
This is not just limited to association football. The most recent cross-code development, which is discussed in the article, is explosion of cryptocurrency exchanges and blockchain companies investing the spoils of the recent bull market in sponsorships, like Crypto.com splurging $700 million on the 20-year naming rights to the former Staples Center in LA. Regardless of your views on crypto more generally, the increasingly rapid turnover in tech empires these days makes the continuing existence of Crypto.com in twenty years a reasonably open question.
The funny thing about this trend is that as you move deeper into the crypto ecosystem, the products themselves become increasingly alienated from something your average sports audience would know or care about. Case in point: the latest sponsor for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs of Australia’s NRL:
Illuvium is an Australian-developed “open-world exploration, NFT creature collector and autobattler game” which is still development and currently not playable outside of a very limited private beta for early users, which only covers a small slice of what the game is supposed to do and attracts very mixed reviews in the project’s Discord. Despite not being a viable product yet, it is built on a crypto token ecosystem which has already made its creators phenomenally wealthy, and it clearly has cash to burn on empire-building like sport sponsorships. The first reply on Twitter to the Bulldogs announcement is representative of the rest:
It’s an interesting development in the long marriage of tech and sport marketing. One promise of tokenisation is that you can raise capital for projects from both eager participants and outside investors in a sort of supercharged, financialised crowdfunding effort. That’s all well and good when you’re talking to the sort of crypto-native degenerates who might be inclined to dump money and time into that sort of project, but it’s funny to watch the mindset collide with that of your average rugby league spectator.
It’s also not really clear if this big global push into sponsorship and massive marketing campaigns is actually doing much to move the needle on getting people into crypto. From a report in the Washington Post:
Now a core metric of how successful they were has been returned, and experts say it’s an eye-opening one: not successful at all. The number of people who invested in crypto has not expanded since last September before the push began, according to a new study led by Pew Research Center.
The monoculture reasserts itself
A sad day for all the tweets and thinkpieces about how Game of Thrones crashed through the culture without a trace because of the last couple of seasons.
Hole in the sky
Fired Twitter security boss Peiter Zatko filed a whistleblower complaint arguing the platform displays "extreme, egregious deficiencies" in everything from security and privacy to content moderation.
I’ll let you read and decide for yourself what’s accurate and what’s sour grapes — as some are alleging — but a particularly interesting bit relates to the 2020 hack, when a number of high-profile verified accounts like Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Kim Kardashian started tweeting bitcoin scams. It’s long been reported that it was some sort of social engineering hack, but there’s detail here:
The 2020 hack was then the largest hack of a social media platform in history, and triggered a global security incident. Moreover, the hack did not involve malware, zero-day exploits, supercomputers brute-forcing their way past encryption, or any other sophisticated approach. In fact, it was pretty simple: Pretending to be Twitter IT support, the teenage hackers simply called some Twitter employees and asked them for their passwords. A few employees were duped and complied and — given systemic flaws in Twitter's access controls — those credentials ‘were enough to achieve “God Mode,” where the teenagers could imposter-tweet from any account they wanted.
Changing of the guard
Here’s a reasonably major media acquisition story that went by without much fanfare this week, but seems like a signpost for the moment.
After a massive and protracted bidding war, the long-held rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were sold off to Swedish video game holding company Embracer Group, which owns a mammoth 120 game studios and properties like Tomb Raider. These include “motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights”, though Warner Bros. still seemingly retains some licensed rights thanks to the Peter Jackson movies.
The rights for the massively influential Tolkien novels now sit with a video game conglomerate which insists it plans to release not only games but also make "additional movies based on iconic characters such as Gandalf, Aragorn, Gollum, Galadriel [and] Eowyn”. The famously rapacious company also announced a handful of other acquisitions at the same time as the big Middle-Earth Enterprises purchase, including developer Tripwire Interactive, which produced Maneater, a video game where you play a killer shark eating beachgoers on the Gulf Coast. (I’m sure Maneater is as seismic a work as The Hobbit for some people.)
In February, I wrote a story for subscribers about the enduring fascination of tech culture with The Lord of the Rings, from midcentury programmers peppering their code and documentation with references, to today’s industry elite naming their companies and products after various features of the legendarium. Despite the fact Tolkien himself was famously critical of the technological and industrial character of modernity, they persevere with the love affair regardless.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have had a particularly weird relationship with intellectual property and film rights over the years. Without getting too much into the gory details, the exclusive rights to key elements of those novels have sat with Saul Zaentz since 1976, when the Hollywood producer acquired them from United Artists. When noted Tolkien freak Jeff Bezos become singularly obsessed with making a Lord of the Rings show for Amazon Prime, he went straight to the Tolkien estate to nab television rights for $250 million, which came with all sorts of byzantine restrictions on what could and couldn’t be addressed by the new show.
It’s a neat little indicator of where the gravitational centre of popular culture is moving. It feels weirdly appropriate — if maybe a little grim — that the rights to Tolkien’s wildly popular universe are now split between a video game company and what can very crudely be described as a sophisticated logistics and web hosting firm.
It’s converging in the other direction too, with the major Hollywood studios beginning to pack their slates with blockbusters based on video game properties. From The Verge: “As it stands, the number of upcoming projects listed from other studios on the Wikipedia page for movies adapted from video games is almost half of the total number of movies ever historically released within the genre.” (Even cultural hegemon HBO is giving it a crack with The Last of Us.)
You can read all of this as just the flavour of the moment and the entertainment industry trying to locate some spark, but I think there’s something deeper going on here: tech — and I include gaming here — continuing its long march through the institutions and flexing cultural muscle. The tail is wagging the dog.
Interesting interview with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman on the company’s blockchain and digital asset efforts, which very deliberately do not use the labyrinthine in-group language of web3 — even less obscure words like ‘wallet’. One quote: “One of my frustrations with the crypto community is like, you know how everything in open source is just a little bit worse? But they're like, ‘it's amazing! Look at this Microsoft Word replacement, it's just as good!’ No it’s not. Crypto’s like that, again."
This came out last week while I was off, but a good feature on the collapse of crypto hedge fund Three Arrows Capital.
Binance chief comms officer Patrick Hillmann claims that hackers impersonated him on calls to prospective clients by using a a deepfaked AI hologram. I haven’t seen any actual evidence of this beyond his claim, but sounds cool.
A dispatch from FWB Fest, the “first IRL festival” from the influencer social club Friends with Benefits, which is operated by a DAO.
A good rundown of the planned Ethereum merge set to take place next month.
Interesting on residencies becoming a strategy for big-ticket touring music artists, whereas they used to be basically a death knell for an someone at the end of their career. (I’m reminded of when Pink did 58 shows in Australia back in 2009 for a total audience of 660,000 people. Underexamined moment in the culture.)
On the increasing spread of worker tracking software, especially as remote work becomes the norm.
An interview with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul creator Vince Gilligan.