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Nike’s next pair of sick kicks? Virtual shoes that exist only in the metaverse

On the blockchain, you'll never have to worry about dirty shoes…unless that’s the look you’re going for.

By Benjamin Bullard
Nike Shoes Getty Images

Will our online avatars all be standing in line one day to scoop up a hot pair of virtual kicks? Right-click and save, Web3.0, or the metaverse: Call it whatever you like, but sneaker giant Nike is calling it the future — at least when it comes to making one-of-a-kind digital versions of its high-profile footwear.

In a first-of-its-kind play from a global lifestyle brand for the blockchain-based future of stylin’ and profilin’ online, Nike has snapped up RTFKT Studios, a maker of virtual sneakers and other digital swag that exists online in the form of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). While plenty of internet-savvy people are still trying to wrap their heads around all the possibilities of the emerging NFT arms race, Nike’s apparent goal is to explode the popularity of virtual footwear in the online world much as it did, back in the 1970s, with its real-world, swoosh-adorned kicks.

If that sounds like a strange concept, look at it this way: Just like social gamers craft online identities by mixing and matching Fortnite skins, there’s a wider universe (or should we say metaverse?) of online culture where people want to show off all the signs of real-life conspicuous consumption. From shoes to jewelry to NFT art that doubles as its owner’s online avatar (just check out the Solana-based Degenerate Ape Academy for an example), people are paying tons of very real moolah for the opportunity to bring the bling into their online social lives.

Nike’s buy-up of RTFKT comes in the wake of the studio demonstrating that it’s got what it takes, big time, to tap into the pop-culture zeitgeist of Web 3.0. Via The Verge, the studio appears to have scored a huge sneaker success earlier this year, collaborating with online artist FEWOCiOUS to sell footwear NFTs alongside the artist’s bespoke real versions, in the process scooping up a cool $3.1 million (and selling out of all 600 pairs) in only a matter of minutes.

Nike’s acquisition announcement doesn’t get into the details of how it plans to use RTFKT’s NFT know-how to put the company permanently on the metaverse’s must-have list, and it doesn’t disclose how much Nike spent on the buy-up. But the company is making it clear that it views all the fun virtual stuff you can call your own by spending Ethereum, Solana, and other NFT-friendly cryptocurrencies as a big business priority.

“This acquisition is another step that accelerates Nike’s digital transformation and allows us to serve athletes and creators at the intersection of sport, creativity, gaming and culture,” Nike CEO John Donahoe said in the company’s press release.“We’re acquiring a very talented team of creators with an authentic and connected brand. Our plan is to invest in the RTFKT brand, serve and grow their innovative and creative community and extend Nike’s digital footprint and capabilities.”  

NFT’s don’t need Nike or other companies to survive and thrive online; they’re creator-based bits of grassroots swag that anyone with a little crypto know-how can buy and transfer on decentralized exchanges (as well as major centralized auction sites like OpenSea). But it’s easy to see why the corporate world wants in on the action: Once you strap on a limited-edition pair of virtual kicks, you’re not just constrained to wear them only in one little gated online spot (like skins in a video game).

Instead, the minute you set foot outside your digital doorway, your shoes can follow along anywhere in the metaverse that you choose to stroll. And that’s just the kind of casual, organic brand evangelism that’ll likely have more clothing companies racing to win their own piece of Nike’s early blockchain action.

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