Mimi Nguyen: You’ve been at Dapper Labs for nearly four years. How have you found the transition from CryptoKitties to NBA Top Shot?
Denise Schwenck: When I joined Dapper Labs, CryptoKitties was already launched and had built itself a very passionate community. There was a lot of experimentation going on and CryptoKitties became my real introduction to the NFT world. I was able to learn and observe from different perspectives how the team and the community would create, iterate and respond to different features and campaigns and also learn a lot about how a cross-disciplinary team works together.
However, it was when we started working on NBA Top Shot that I could really put into practice everything I had learnt. At that time, there was no other reference even close to our vision for what a sport NFT collectible should look like. As a result, our team did a lot of testing, exploration, user interviews, and went through tons of trials and failures before we got to the closed beta launch. This was a huge opportunity for me to experiment and create a product and brand from scratch together with a stellar team. Since then, it has been really incredible and rewarding to see how not just basketball fans but also non-basketball fans like crypto enthusiasts got into Top Shot.
MN: The NFT explosion has created an expanded field of digital art with many different art forms emerging in recent years. Do you consider Dapper Labs to be a creator of “collectibles” or does its work blur into “art”?
DS: Defining art is a really complicated thing. I don’t think anyone can define it properly nor set out to do it. In terms of the “meaningfulness” of moments, we can argue that sports are an artistic expression and it is confirmed financially when it comes to the prices for memorabilia. Perhaps there are conflicting arguments around historical value versus true “artistic” value.
Certainly, museums and stadiums serve different audiences. Sports are more accessible and democratic so we try to ensure that those values are reflected in all aspects of the product. Nonetheless, the NFT space is changing the way people perceive and consume “art.”
It started in a similar fashion to the collecting and trading that goes on in the analog market but social media such as Twitter and Discord have helped to build a “closer” relationship between artists and their audiences. I think we are now in a “utility” phase, exploring how NFTs can leverage the community and open new collective paths to storytelling (through DAOs or other affordances of the technology). It is all very new and I think the definitions are blurry at the moment, with one influencing the other.
MN: As a Creative Director, what defines your personal approach to a project? How does that relate to Dapper Labs’s wider vision?
DS: My personal approach is, first, to put together a diverse team. In our space, everything is new and we need to trust each other because we are all doing something that has not been done before. Second, we need to work very closely with other disciplines — from product and game design to live ops and marketing — in order to cast a wide net over new possibilities and ideas.
When you have built a good team, next it is all about looking at the audience and iterating. Working with a brand provides a good starting point but it is a mix of what they are — in this case different sports leagues — how fans relate to them, and what we can bring in terms of innovation, technology, and a new way to relate to each sport.
It is a fractal thing: Dapper Labs is innovating through its technology and, within the company, Dapper Sports is innovating in sports fandom. There is a lot of effort made to understand how all this is resonating with the audience, how niche it still is, how accessible we are, etc. From these learnings we iterate over and over to get closer to meeting the intersection. Dapper Labs has been doing it for years and all our products keep that ethos.
MN: How does Dapper Labs distinguish itself from other NFT projects?
DS: For sports fans, we see NFTs as a unit of fandom but with a wider lens — NFTs are the building blocks of Web3. Dapper Labs, since its founding, has been focused on accelerating the move to Web3 by building new apps and platforms that enable great user experiences while being accessible to hundreds of millions of fans of organizations like the NBA and NFL.
We’re still at the very beginning of Web3 and Dapper Labs seeks to innovate through new technologies. For example, Flow is an open source blockchain originally developed by Dapper Labs and now managed by a decentralized group of organizations. Flow is built to enable creators of all kinds to collaborate, own, and benefit from the value they create.
MN: Are you conscious of working within a lineage of sports collectibles and, if so, how is your digital practice impacted by the analog past?
DS: Of course we are. Sports cards were the first concept that came to mind and would have been much simpler to ship. But we can’t simply emulate the analog in digital as it would be a disservice to the actual possibilities and advantages of this space. There are many learnings that we take from sports collectibles, the most important being to keep a sense of familiarity and hook onto the nostalgia of collecting.
MN: The NBA Top Shot and UFC collectibles appeal to memorable sporting moments, reanimating mental images of our past. Do you see these collectibles as an alternative to YouTube?
DS: You can’t collect YouTube videos like you would NBA Top Shot or UFC Strike Moments and say you have true ownership. Traditionally, we have compared our NFT Moments to trading cards instead. That being said, the exciting part of NFTs compared to physical goods is that they are not simply collectibles.
The data involved, unlocked by blockchain, and the ability to ID true ownership, can create different kinds of relationships between athletes, brands, fans, leagues, and teams. So it’s more than merely collecting the Moment but also the experience and rewards outside of that collection that make NFT collectibles unique.
MN: We’d love to get an insight into the creative process at Dapper, from ideation to the final product. Could you paint a picture for us?
DS: It’s tricky because we are very nimble in product iteration. We start with the product goals and these fold into the company’s wider goals. It gets very collaborative from there. This was especially true at the beginning when we were going through many trial and error phases with NBA Top Shot. We tried lots of ideas and kept iterating, failing as fast as possible. For NBA Top Shot we had a “eureka” moment when the team decided to take the video of a specific play and center the NFT around that. Likewise, the “cube” design emerged from our discovery that fans were interested in the depth of information that can be preserved in the digital object, not to mention the story behind specific Moments.
Each product runs its own course though. After Top Shot the ideation on NFL ALL DAY and UFC Strike was definitely shorter because we had learned so much from the previous rounds. But no project is the same so we keep doing user tests, engaging with the community and trying to push forward creatively in each and every project.
MN: Simon Denny recently collaborated with Guile Twardowski on his Dotcom Seance. What do you remember about working with Guile for CryptoKitties?
DS: Guile was extremely creative and fun to work with. He has a very characteristic visual style that we all just loved. One of the best things about Guile is how practical he is, as he will adapt the vision to the technological constraints (and there were many for CryptoKitties) and come back with things that are even better. The classic saying that “constraints foster creativity” is very true when working with Guile.
MN: How do you think gamification helps to engage collectors in the community? Do you see collectors as co-creators of NFTs?
DS: In the case of Top Shot it surely does. Gamification is a complicated word but when we talk about “incentive systems to foster activity,” it is most definitely true. Incentives make the activities more fun and can also onboard collectors into this space by providing them with a clear “golden path.” If we want to bring more people into this space, such incentives are really important.
The NFT experience also goes beyond the token itself. We see NFTs as building blocks, or game pieces, if you like, that are manipulated and valued by the community. That’s where the creation lies for most of our collectors, fostering a healthy and active community. At the end of the day, I think markets are fundamentally social.
MN: Is Vancouver becoming a Web3 hub, given the presence of Dapper Labs alongside Looking Glass Labs and Tokens.com?
DS: There definitely is a good concentration of talent here in Vancouver. At the same time the Web3 boom happened during the pandemic when so many of us were locked down that it feels like remote working is now embedded into our culture. Dapper Labs is now a remote first company and I like how, today, “place” matters less. Ultimately it is about the amazing people I work with.
MN: You made a bold move from a traditional creative job to Dapper Labs right in the midst of the “great crypto crash.” What prompted that decision and do you have any advice for someone wishing to work in Web3 today?
DS: Advertising agencies are very limited in the time and flexibility they afford for exploration, especially of new technologies. Collaboration and exploration of other disciplines are more suited to startups.
Web3 may seem daunting due to the novelty of the technology as well as the high price tags, but, in the end, it’s all about a deeper and more direct connection with an audience. Web3 also offers more responsibility and benefit to the consumer or collector, who now becomes an agent with the freedom and potential to benefit financially through their interactions. At the moment, there is so much noise surrounding Web3 that it can be overwhelming. Keeping an open mind and a focus on learning is the best mentality to start out in Web3. The industry is still so young that different opinions and values are very welcome.
Denise Schwenck is the Creative Director at Dapper Labs, leading the brand identity and strategy, art direction, and campaign conceptualization and development for Dapper Labs sports projects, from its flagship NBA Top Shot to UFC Strike. Prior to Dapper Labs, Schwenck worked as an Art Director in a number of advertising agencies, shaping creative experiences and digital campaigns for brands such as Amnesty International, Lindt, and Unicef. Schwenck holds a degree in Advertising from The University Center of Belo Horizonte (UniBH) and a degree in Animation from the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
Mimi Nguyen is an associate lecturer of MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. She is a Doctoral Researcher and MEng Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London, Faculty of Engineering, and the founder of Nguyenwahed. Her research on creativity and human-computer interaction has been published by Cambridge University Press, Design Research Society and TIME Magazine.