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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Jeffrey Zirlin (YC 15), Growth Lead of Axie Infinity

Jeffrey Zirlin is Growth Lead at Axie Infinity: a digital pet universe with a player-owned economy facilitated by blockchain technology. In the Axie universe, players can battle, raise, collect, and breed fantasy creatures called Axies. As Growth Lead, he spearheads strategic growth initiatives including partnerships, fundraising, user acquisition, and community engagement. Mr. Zirlin received a BA in History from Yale.

The Politic: Tell me about your background and how you got involved in the space!

Jeffrey Zirlin: After I graduated, I was working at a conventional startup. We made a resume-creation platform for Ivy League students and were matching them with hedge funds like D.E. Shaw. I decided to quit after reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel– I became obsessed with the idea of creating new markets rather than improving on existing paradigms.

Some of my friends from Exeter were interested in Ethereum and Smart Contracts. To incentivize myself to start learning, I usually buy a small stake in whatever I’m researching, so I bought some Ether to keep an eye on it. However, it wasn’t until I learned about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and their potential to upend how game makers interact with their users that I knew this space was something in which I wanted to be professionally involved.

An NFT is a unique token. If you tokenized a house, a pet, or a game token, those would all be non-fungible tokens because you can’t divide them into equal parts. I learned about NFTs from an early, primitive blockchain game called CryptoKitties. Basically, you can breed digital cat pictures, but each one of them is a unique token. Actually, Andreessen Horowitz invested in the team that built the CryptoKitties project. There’s a lot of interest from the top venture capital funds in tokenized game assets.

I got super involved in the CryptoKitties community. I was a streamer, and I did some analysis of the market. I was also running a small equity fund on the side, mainly for intellectual stimulation– that was my side hustle. So, I have a background in investing, and I took that knowledge into this new world of tokenized, Ethereum-backed game assets, and I did pretty well, so I thought the area was quite compelling.

I think Web 3.0 is about giving people sovereign control of their own data. Your money , your social media profile, and your game items are all controlled by companies. In computer science, that’s called a master-slave relationship.

The first step is giving people control of their own money: allowing people to be their own bank. The natural next step is to give people complete ownership of their data on other platforms. Eventually, that might be social media profiles, but I’m most interested in how it applies to game assets. Currently, there’s a black market for game assets. Companies don’t really support secondary markets for their assets, and in fact, they own the items on their servers.

I used to play Neopets when I was a kid, and if you wanted to sell the Neopet, there was a pretty active secondary market. However, you had to figure out if you were going to accept money through PayPal, Ebay, or other platforms, and the problem was that these platforms would usually side with the buyer on chargeback disputes. If you do the transaction on the blockchain, transactions are irreversible, so you don’t have that issue as a seller. This allows for trustless exchange of game assets. 

I know the issue of game asset ownership comes up with Team Fortress 2 and Counterstrike. What got you interested?

Growing up, I played Neopets, Diablo II, and World of Warcraft (WoW). I actually made $20 thousand playing WoW. We used to help Chinese mining farms gear up because the Chinese people weren’t able to do raids and coordinate well enough to take down large bosses, so they had to come to the Americans or Europeans to get access to the best items. That’s because you couldn’t buy these items– you had to be part of the party that killed the boss, which they weren’t able to do, so they would buy slots in our parties.

Blizzard actually ended up banning my entire guild– over 200 days of hard work gone with the click of a keyboard. So, I think that experience primed me for being open to a model where we give more ownership to gamers.

Why do people want control over their in-game assets like that?

There’s a small subset of gamers, maybe 15 to 20 percent, that understand the abusiveness of gaming companies: they have very restrictive control over their in-game economies– and this stems from the fact that they have complete control of the data associated with their games.

That’s one of the fundamental problems that’s solvable. So, I started playing early crypto games and became an influencer in the space. That’s how I got connected with the two original Axie founders.

One of my core beliefs is that blockchain has been discriminatory against non-technical people, because in the past, if you wanted to participate or earn crypto, you had to be a miner or a trader. For Bitcoin, if you want to contribute to the network as someone who doesn’t know how to mine, you don’t have many options. You can Tweet or write some articles, and that’s pretty much it. But when it comes to gaming, you can stream the games, you can make guides, youtube videos, art, you can help onboard new players, and so on. There are many ways for artists and creatives to participate in our network.

How big is the Axie Infinity platform right now?

We have around 3000 thousand players so far. It’s still super early, but the average amount of money invested in the game is $600 per player. Our users have gotten tattoos, they’ve created a league with sponsorship from other projects, they’ve made paintings, they’ve made a musical, so the level of engagement is high. I’m a believer that to start a movement, a revolution– you need to start with 1,000 core believers, or fanatics, and I think we have that right now.

What projects are you working on?

Right now we’re super focused on launching our mobile application. We think it’s going to be a huge improvement in how Blockchain-based games can start onboarding users. Rather than requiring a digital wallet, we’ll allow users to sign up using email or a social profile and then gradually introduce the crypto-economic aspects to them after they’ve already fallen in love with our universe.

I’m also really excited for land gameplay. We raised over $700,000 USD in a crowd-funding campaign where we sold digital land plots that Axies can live on. We will stock resource nodes on top of the land map with tokens and items, and we’ll let our players harvest them by attacking the monsters protecting them. So we’re moving away from the pure collectible model which has defined many early blockchain games– it’s an unsustainable model in the long run because it requires a constant stream of new players to buy assets from the earlier players. We find it more interesting to create a stream of tokens and items with real monetary value that can be earned from interacting with our network. We have some pretty big companies like Kakao that are interested and will be sponsoring our “play to earn” model.

In addition, we’re quite interested in user-generated content. I see Axie as a protocol for internet monsters. Right now, we have a very open API, and ownership data is on the blockchain, so people can make their own experiences. One example of someone building on top of our API is a minigame called “Axie Sushi Race.” The owner/creator put up part of his own money as a prize pool. We’re making an SDK that will allow people to build on top of our platform. We want to do hackathons at college campuses and get people into Web 3.0 development through our game. It’s more fun when you’re doing it for a community that can give you real-time feedback as you go. Roblox taught a lot of kids how to program for Web 2.0; our long-term vision is to occupy that niche for Web 3.0.

What do you think draws people to your platform?

People are interested in Axie for a few core reasons. First, they’re intrigued by the idea of a game where they can actually earn money if they play well or by contributing to the success of the game. Second, they love how social and welcoming our community is– Axie Infinity is becoming the blockchain version of playing golf. You’re making connections, and there’s social capital in this network.

Out of curiosity, how’s the real-world community engagement?

Wherever we go in the world, our players will come and hang out with us. I was in Manilla recently, and people were asking me for selfies after my talk. That was the first time that happened and it was pretty eye-opening. The Axie Universe fanbase is super fanatic. We have kids who’s under 10 years old learning about blockchain. Their moms really like our platform because we’re teaching their kids how to save money and value different assets. The dads also appreciate it because they’re more interested in the investment aspect and meeting other crypto whales, and the kids will manage their father’s collections. I collected butterflies with my dad growing up; so I see a similarity there. Final note: check out our Discord server!