I was recently sitting around on yet another boring weekend induced by the coronavirus pandemic. My friend had recently texted me about a new type of digital blockchain-based NBA trading card that people were buying and selling and making money on. The idea, which is made possible through a platform called NBA Top Shot, sounded completely ridiculous at the time.

But it's hard to completely write off anything in the cryptocurrency space these days. I'm no NBA fan and can't tell you the last time I watched a game, but after going through several YouTube videos explaining the new platform, I gave NBA Top Shot a try. My first purchase -- a highlight of the Golden State Warriors' Andrew Wiggins going up for an alley-oop dunk -- got me started, and I bought three other digital cards after that. Here's what I learned.

Picture of basketball court in bright colors.

Image source: Getty Images.

What is NBA Top Shot?

Each card (or "moment") in Top Shot is an actual video highlight of a certain player -- it could be Lebron James dunking or Steph Curry draining a three-pointer. You can get these moments by purchasing packs or buying them on the marketplace. Each moment is part of a series and is assigned a serial number. These things can make a big difference in a card's value -- some have already sold for six figures, and Top Shot has surpassed $200 million in total sales. More on all that shortly.

Moments are like trading cards in the form of a blockchain-based item known as a non-fungible token (NFT). Blockchain is the encrypted, decentralized technology that makes cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (BTC -1.05%) possible. Blockchain's advocates like to promote its value as a secure digital ledger, and unique collectibles like NFTs show how the technology can be used in ways that don't depend directly on cryptocurrencies.

Top Shot is the brainchild of the NBA, which licenses the video highlights, and a company called Dapper Labs that uses blockchain technology to create digital experiences. Top Shot, which is currently in beta mode, is just one of several experiences Dapper Labs has helped launch -- including CryptoKitties, another NFT collectible -- and The Block recently reported that the company has raised $250 million in funding for a valuation of $2 billion.

Getting a pack

The market is still pretty new, and who knows if it's something that can stick around, or if cards will continue to hold as much value. But here are some basic tips for beginners.

Packs are the cheapest way of getting new moments, but right now -- likely because the platform is still in beta mode -- they aren't widely available. Once you find out about a pack drop, you go to the site at the time of the drop and elect to "get in line." You'll be assigned a random line number, and then, if you're lucky enough to get a pack, the site will redirect to a new page and you'll have five minutes to complete your purchase. 

At first, I only found out about pack drops through word of mouth. Demand was intense, because packs can cost as little as $9 and yield cards valued much higher. The site has been doing a lot of drops where they will release 5,000 or 10,000 of one pack -- I participated twice and my line number was over 60,000 both times.

But lately, pack drops have been picking up. You can sign up for an email list that will alert you when they're available. Recently, the platform did a drop that allowed everyone who signed up in a certain time slot to pre-order a pack -- and I finally got one!

Top Shot also holds challenges, laying out 10 different cards or highlights for a user to collect -- collect all 10 in a set time period and you'll get special bonus card. This kind of reminds me of Bitcoin mining, where people solve certain puzzles or equations as quickly as they can to earn a coin.

The marketplace

The surefire way to get cards is through the marketplace (the platform charges fees on transactions to sellers), which is what I did for all four of my current cards.

As I mentioned earlier, I bought a series 1 Andrew Wiggins, my most expensive purchase, for $122. Then, on a recommendation from YouTube on young players with potential, I bought series 1 Donte DiVincenzo and Ky Bowman highlights, both of which cost between $70 and $75. I made my last purchase, a series 2 Al Horford highlight, for $30 because I liked Horford when he was on my home team, the Boston Celtics. Since making the purchases a few weeks ago, my small portfolio has appreciated more than 70% and at one point had more than doubled.

Like Bitcoin, the market seems to use the concept of scarcity to value cards. Series 1 cards seem to carry more value than series 2 cards because there are usually fewer than 4,000 copies of the highlight made, while series 2 cards typically have 15,000 in circulation. The serial number of the highlight appears to matter as well. Lower serial numbers of the same highlight tend to list for more money than higher serial numbers. I am a little skeptical that collectors -- even diehard fans -- will continue to value the same highlight more because of a lower serial number, but it's early days. 

Another interesting phenomenon is that a player's jersey number can affect the value of a card. For instance, if you get a Lebron James highlight and the serial number matches his jersey number, 23, it's likely going to be very valuable. Rookie highlights also seem to be in high demand, similarly to how they are valued in the traditional sports card market. Player performance seems to move the needle as well. If a young player with potential has a breakout game, his highlight may be worth double the next day. My Wiggins card has dropped $100 in value as he has slumped in February.

The last thing I think is important to mention is that the way people are valuing cards is based on the lowest ask price of a particular highlight, which makes sense. But that also means your card could fetch a higher price based on its serial number. It also means your card may not warrant that price at all, because at the end of the day, you can list the card for whatever price you want, and it won't make you any money until someone buys it.


The idea of collecting digital highlights is certainly a very cool concept, and for real fans, I can certainly see the appeal. Now, would I personally pay for highlights that anyone can theoretically watch on the internet if I didn't see an investment opportunity? Probably not. I invested because I do see the potential for the value of these cards to appreciate, and as always, I am prepared to lose all of the money I have put in.

But if you really think about it, is a digital highlight card really so different from a regular cardboard sports card? I suspect many collectors hold both for the same reasons -- because they are sports fans, because they view them as art, or as potential investments. I also think there is something to be said about younger generations like Gen Z viewing and valuing digital assets differently than generations before it, although I have no evidence of that.

Overall, the idea of someone paying tens of thousands of dollars for a digital highlight is pretty silly to me. However, I thought the same thing when cryptocurrencies began to get really popular a few years ago, and look at how that turned out.