What is NBA Top Shot? Why these digital trading cards are blowing up

NBA Top Shot
(Image credit: NBA)

NBA Top Shot, an online marketplace for digital trading cards that can be bought and sold, has already pulled in $230 million in transactions since its launch in October. Ninety percent of that money has come in the past month.

As the crypto market and Bitcoin reach record highs, it seems that NBA's blockchain-backed digital trading cards are seeing increased interest. Earlier this month, a clip of an epic LeBron James dunk was purchased for $208,000. 

If none of this makes sense, we don't blame you. Below is everything you need to know about NBA Top Shot.

What is NBA Top Shot?

Simply put, NBA Top Shot is an online marketplace where people can buy, sell and trade digital trading cards. You buy packs as if you were buying Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, or football cards, except on your computer. 

The thing that separates these from other digital trading cards is that instead of a flat image, each card features clips from NBA games, from an epic slam-dunk to a deep three-pointer.

Of course, these clips can be viewed on YouTube and Twitter for free, so how does one have ownership of one of these highlights? Well, these specific cards are tied to your account. 

To ensure that these cards can never can be stolen or duplicated, they're backed by blockchain technology. It's the same ledger technology that's used for Bitcoin, and it's also why people simply can't duplicate cryptocurrencies. 

Blockchain is essentially really complicated accounting technology. It assigns a unique identifier to a person's account, and when things are traded, it ties the item to that account. It also builds in the record of the trade to everything that happens afterward.

The power of having an unmodifiable ledger means that everything can be publicly tracked. If I send a clip of Steph Curry shooting a 3-pointer to a friend, that person will get the clip and the blockchain will know exactly who sent it and who received it. 

It's why, as the clip above shows, a person can buy a slam dunk of LeBron James for $208,000 and feel safe that nobody will be able to duplicate their highlight. 

NBA Top Shot Common Pack

(Image credit: NBA)

How can I sign up for NBA Top Shot?

Because of the sudden surge in interest, signups for the NBA Top Shot beta are currently closed. It will likely open up as soon as the NBA can get a handle on things. At the moment, there's no iOS or Android app.

NBA Top Shot Rare Pack

(Image credit: NBA)

How to buy NBA Top Shot cards

At the moment, it's not possible to open an account. But when systems do open back up, users can either buy packs, which are sold in limited quantities (much like actual basketball cards), or individual cards from the marketplace.

Because of the current surge in demand, prices are much higher than you would expect. Right now, the cheapest card on the marketplace is $17, with the most expensive being $240,000.

As the clip below shows, there are also extra collectibles available to those who gather a certain collection of moments. 

Why are NBA Top Shot highlights so valuable?

There isn't a very clear answer to this, other than that the market has dictated their value — they're valuable because some people are willing to pay that much. 

It's probably not the answer you were looking for, but this question was also posed to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. He had a clever response on his blog.

"I get to enjoy knowing I own my Maxi Klieber dunk Moment, along with knowing the serial number and much more. Some people might complain that I can get the same video on the internet anywhere any time and watch it. Well guess what, I can get the same picture on any traditional, physical card on the internet and print it out, and that doesn’t change the value of the card.

And when I want to sell the card, NBA Top Shots offers a marketplace I can sell it in, which by virtue of the site being created on Flow BlockChain offers me the ability to see every Maxi card being offered, the serial number, its price and more. All the foundations required for a consumer friendly, efficient marketplace. But I do have to add that I don’t know why anyone would sell a Maxi Moment. Maxi is a top 10 defender in the NBA, just saying!

With digital goods, I still have the same sense of ownership as with a physical good, and again the value is still set by supply and demand."

Of course, traditional cards also have other value indicators, like condition. There's inherently more risk to owning a physical Michael Jordan rookie card as your dog, a house fire, or a hurricane could ruin your collectible. That's not the case with digital collectibles. 

Are NBA Top Shot highlights worth it?

This is a question we cannot answer. The value is totally market-dependent, and also down to how much you care. 

Is there a chance that a $208,000 LeBron slam dunk highlight could increase in value to $300,000 and beyond? Sure. Could it go down in value? Absolutely. 

This is a new frontier in blockchain-based collectible goods. Where things go from here is anyone's guess. 

Imad Khan

Imad is currently Senior Google and Internet Culture reporter for CNET, but until recently was News Editor at Tom's Guide. Hailing from Texas, Imad started his journalism career in 2013 and has amassed bylines with the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN, Wired and Men's Health Magazine, among others. Outside of work, you can find him sitting blankly in front of a Word document trying desperately to write the first pages of a new book.