To provide players with bitcoin payouts, gaming developers also started incorporating Bitcoin’s Lightning Network into their games and existing titles.
This in-game payout economy provides a “stake” in the game to everyday gamers and an incentive to monetize their hobby, a luxury usually enjoyed only by the professional esports industry’s Goliaths. The Lightning Network is a payment protocol that facilitates fast, near-feeless network transactions under different rules than the primary Bitcoin network.
There was nothing special about the end of the match. It looked like every other Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO) esport match from the outside before the final results rolled in. A QR code popped up in the corner of the screen with the message: “You won 8,673 sats!” after the winners were announced. (Sats is short for “satoshi,” a bitcoin micro-unit).
Sats reward corresponded to the player’s match points, an in-game score system that traditionally exists only as a means to gain “level up” experience in the game. They were real money that could be withdrawn from the game, except that these points were not just in-game currency.
This is made possible by a play-for-pay plugin from software developer ZEBEDEE named Infuse. To facilitate instant, near-feeless payouts to players, it uses Bitcoin’s Lightning Network. ZEBEDEE’s CS:GO servers, previously in closed beta, are now open to the public.
For the first time, the release brings connectivity with Lightning Network to a popular game title, and it’s something of a breakthrough for a young industry that uses Lightning-powered games to reimagine how players communicate with their favorite pastime and monetize it alongside.
Lightning Network gaming
In the growing intersectional industry of bitcoin and video games, ZEBEDEE is only one of a few pioneers. However, they are treating Lightning-integrated games a little bit differently. They’re taking the Lightning Network to a game with 28 million monthly active players instead of creating a Lightning game from scratch.
The push to add bitcoin to already famous games was a fascinating development in the past year. “It is widely known that it is a monumental task to develop games that reach any level of success,” Des Dickerson, Lightning Labs VP of Business Operations and a MintGox organizer, told CoinDesk.
“In response, businesses such as ZEBEDEE are restructuring their strategy and allowing bitcoin to be integrated into games that have already reached massive adoption.”
A collective featuring games from ZEBEDEE, Mandel Studios, and Donner Labs is the MintGox esports tournament series (that is “magic internet gathering,” in playful homage to the Mt.Gox exchange and its roots in Magic the Gathering).
The monthly tournament series pays out prize pools in bitcoin, with each game offering its Lightning functionality twist. Like the CS: GO integration, Donner Lab’s Bitcoin Bounty Hunt, the first-to-launch Bitcoin shooter, pays out satoshi per kill. Bitcoin Rally (a Mario Kart clone) litters the road in sats, one of ZEBEDEE’s from-scratch games; players can collect these digital coins and chuck them opponents to stun them, or at the end of the game, they can keep them for payout.
Dickerson said that the tournament series “has grown significantly over the past year, with much of the growth going on in the last few months.” MintGox’s viewership was about 100 at launch, she said, and the inaugural event saw less than 1,000 transactions.
Now, with 11 events in and counting, Dickerson said that MintGox regularly has 6,000 viewers per installment and about 15,000 transactions.
In addition to a new economic norm for the video game industry, the developers driving this development believe they are at the forefront of a whole new dynamic for how you attract attention and engage players and spectators.
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Shootin’ caps and stackin’ sats
In the case of ZEBEDEE, the new dynamic gives skin to eSports players in the game.
“The idea is that having a stake that has value, rather than just time invested and in-game points, creates a greater connection to the game. It’s the classic theory of having skin in the game. So you have some value that represents your invested time, and it’s there, it’s permanent, you can take it out of the game,” said ZEBEDEE CEO Simon Cowell.
And it works the other way around, of course, too. “There’s a real economic impact when you get shot,” he said.
For specific matches, the gaming studio can have sponsor sats in the future, but for now, users can spend their own money playing on one of three servers: 100 sats, 1,000 sats, or 10,000 sats. A maximum of 16 players are allowed for each match (so a game in a 10,000 sats server would have a total prize pool of 160k sats)
“If your 1,000 points are 1,000 sats, you’re going to want to play better or play more matches to recoup anything you’ve lost,” said Cowell.
Satoshis Game’s Lightnite, one of the first first-person shooters to conceptualize Lightning gameplay, is a Fortnite-inspired, entirely from-the-ground-up, battle royale; it debuted at The Lightning Conference in Berlin in 2019. By eliminating others from the sudden-death, one-player-take-all match, players earn satoshis. The game uses the Liquid Network from Blockstream to tokenize the skins of non-fungible players and weapons.
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The rewards economy
It takes a cut from the advertisement revenue when ZEBEDEE offers the award, Cowell said. This model was used by Jack Everitt of THNDR GAMES, which allows the mobile games Bitcoin Bounce and Turbo 84 to fill prize pools for his games. bIn Bitcoin Bounce, Everitt’s flagship game, players collect tickets bounding across the bitcoin’s blockchain. Said Everitt, these tickets can be entered into a raffle paying out sats from ad revenue from THNDR GAMES.
It is a way for players to monetize their game time and receive a share of the ad revenue associated with it. It doesn’t hurt that Cowell said that it’s still an excellent way to keep users coming back for more.
“You can take the bitcoin that funds your games out of your existing marketing budget. And it’s more effective than traditional advertising because by giving users sats rewards in the game, you incentivize them to come back,” said Cowell.
This model is becoming a common new standard for startups in the Bitcoin world, a reward economy that gamifies user attention. Flagship rewards systems such as Lolli and Fold have grown into bitcoin-back debit cards (such as Fold App’s own) and sats-back programs at gift card exchanges such as Bitrefill, offering users sats-back rewards for transactions at participating retailers.
Sarutobi, a game created by Christian Moss, creator of ZEBEDEE, pays out satoshi prizes, all from ad sales, for collecting in-game coins.
Turbo 84 of THNDR GAMES features a spin wheel for regular prizes, and in Bitcoin Bounce, players earn tickets that are randomly put for satoshis in a daily raffle, all of which are paid out of the ad revenue of THNDR.
The spin wheel’s idea is to get them to come back with the spin wheel [and the tickets]. Oh, what did I win today? What did I win today?’ said Everitt.
With the Lightning Network, Cowell said, “you can have more direct interaction with users.” For example, he speculated that sponsors or viewers could drop Lightning payments in-game powerups, in-game advertising could have QR reward codes, and corporate sponsors could drop a bot in-game that you shoot for sats.
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Bitcoin gaming, not blockchain gaming
The gaming community of Bitcoin is still limited, and a lot of its creation comes more from the side of the track than from the side of the gamer. Lightnite has about 2,000 users, said Carlos Borlado, COO of Satoshis Games. Bitcoin Bounty Hunt leaderboards reveal that Donner Lab’s shooter has some 1,200 subscribers.
“MintGox and these bitcoin gaming companies have captured the attention of the Lightning and bitcoin communities over the past year. But we haven’t even begun to penetrate the traditional gaming space,” said Dickerson.
She went on to say that the initial coin offering (ICO) bubble popped a lot of the video game industry’s excitement for cryptocurrency integrations because “blockchain solutions” were peddled to the video gaming industry in the last market cycle.
That’s why “on the blockchain” these builders don’t build anything; they’re only creating new payment rails. Borlado said esports players need to “lose their fear of Lightning wallets” to increase the adoption of these games, but that they will never go back “once they do.”
For its part, ZEBEDEE built Infuse and its Lightning-gaming-focused wallet that can synchronize a player’s Twitch streaming accounts with their Lightning games Gamertags and payout QR codes.
Esports meets bitcoin
For Cowell, tips from the Lightning Network will democratize the competitive gaming industry and allow gamers beyond the professional esports arena to monetize their skills. It is expected that the international esports industry will rise to $1.5 billion by 2023. For example, the winning teams in Dota 2’s global tournaments have been known to take home $15 million in prize money.
While only a fraction of gamers would ever be good enough to enter the big leagues, in public bitcoin matches, any gamer can earn bitcoin playing, Cowell said.
“Instead of having to go to a professional esports tournament, you can play online to earn money. That’s the whole point of it. This isn’t my phrase, but it’s the ‘democratization of monetization. Once the money is software, any stakeholder in the gaming industry can create mini-businesses in the game.”
It’s too early to say the gaming industry has changed with bitcoin. But Dickerson said as bitcoin sees more adoption into mainstream titles such as CS:GO, the real transformation comes.
Millions of eSports players are waiting for Bitcoin on board, and gaming is how to get them a seat on the trip, Dickerson said.
Exposing the possibilities of bitcoin to specific consumers would alter the video game business as it currently stands. When merged into other popular games like Fortnite, Call of Duty, Minecraft, and more, imagine the possibilities. This is when we will see the adoption of bitcoin in the masses.