When most people think of the entities behind non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the picture that comes to mind is a group of anonymous individuals who go by social media handles and avatar pictures. But for some of the top players in the space, nothing could be farther from the truth.
This article covers the movers and shakers behind the biggest names in NFTs. They control the gates for some of the most profitable parts of the industry — sports collectibles, blockchain gaming, NFT profile pic collections, and NFT marketplaces.
You’ll get to know them, their stories, when they were founded, and why they are built for years rather than months or weeks. At the end of the article, we’ll include a small section about investing in NFT companies, the regulations, the red tape, and the ropes.
Let’s get started with the king of sports collectibles, a multi-billion dollar company that has looped major North American sports leagues into the wild world of NFTs. Can you say #TopShotThis?
#1 – Dapper Labs
- Year founded: 2018
- Major projects: NBA Top Shot, UFC Strike, NFL All Day
The company known as Dapper Labs was founded in 2018, having been given birth from an unlikely source: the blockchain breeding game CryptoKitties. As the story goes, CryptoKitties became so popular that at one point, 25% of the transactions on the Ethereum blockchain came from the game. It clogged down the network, and a team of elite engineers realized something needed to be done. From there, Dapper Labs was born.
Dapper Labs was integral in creating the Flow blockchain among its different and varied achievements. This proof-of-stake (POS) blockchain splits transactions into four parts, which helps avoid congestion on the network. Dapper Labs helped with CryptoKitties, which became the impetus for a company that would reach unicorn status in just a couple of years.
Today, it is more well-known for its sports collectibles franchises than its initial role as the creator of the Flow blockchain. It has generated hundreds of millions in revenue within the franchises through proprietary NFT marketplaces. Dapper runs the market, makes the NFTs, and distributes them to customers on its platform.
Three popular sports NFT franchises it runs are:
- NBA Top Shot
- UFC Strike
- NFL All Day
Today, the company is worth $7.6 billion after raising $250 million in September of 2021 and securing a deal with La Liga to create soccer NFTs for the sports league. It has been in talks with several sports leagues to recreate the formula and success behind its No. 1 product — NBA Top Shot. It also has strong marketing, looping in sports stars to sponsor its products.
Dapper Labs, along with another sports NFT collectible company mentioned in this article, is the top dog in sports NFTs and it’s hard to imagine them relinquishing that spot.
#2 – Yuga Labs
- Year founded: 2021
- Major projects: Bored Ape Yacht Club
You may not have heard of Yuga Labs before. The organization is quiet by nature, rarely seeking publicity and often letting its works stand for itself. But you likely have heard of their NFT collections, which have been among the most successful. They are:
- The Bored Ape Yacht Club
- The Mutant Ape Yacht Club
- The Bored Ape Kennel Club
According to data from its latest funding round, the small organization, created in 2021 between two founders — Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow — is now worth a reported $4 to $5 billion. And that’s based mainly on the weight and influence of its top NFT projects.
The Bored Ape Yacht Club, Yuga Labs’ flagship collection, caught lightning in a bottle when it launched. The collection, comprised of 10,000 digital disinterested-looking Apes, quickly became the standard-bearer of 2021 NFT collections, garnering attention from the mainstream media, celebrities, athletes, and the crypto community. And all with little marketing. It catapulted its creators to fame, although they seemed to shun this.
Yuga Labs has also been at the forefront of innovation within the NFT space. They popularized the giving of free licenses to Bored Ape holders so that they could use their Bored Apes in commercial ventures. To help their holders realize the potential of these licenses, Yuga Labs created a community grant program.
The company gave value to the holders of BAYC Apes in other ways. The Mutant Ape Yacht Club and Bored Ape Kennel Club were initially part of airdrops to the community, two gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars in ETH today.
Today, Yuga Labs is working on roadmap 2.0 of the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Some of the major highlights on its roadmap include Voxel Ape characters so that Bored Ape holders can use their Apes in the metaverse and the drop of $APE.
Rumors also have it that Yuga Labs might drop another project in the future, though any intel on what that project might be is hearsay at this point. But credit where credit is due — Yuga Labs has created the top profile picture project around.
#3 – Sky Mavis
- Year founded: 2019
- Major projects: Axie Infinity
Founded in 2019, Sky Mavis is a small Vietnam-based company with between 11 and 50 employees. It boasts $161 million in seed funding from various sources, including Andreessen Horowitz. But its most formidable achievement lies not in business specs and organizational maxims. It is the undisputed leader of blockchain gaming and the creator of the most popular NFT game: Axie Infinity.
The game is perhaps most responsible for NFT adoption in developing countries and has a reach extending beyond any other blockchain game on the market. More than accolades, the numbers tell the story of Axie’s influence:
- $7.8 billion market cap
- 2.8 million active monthly players
- 2.2 million active daily players
Along with Axie Infinity, Sky Mavis also launched the Ronin Wallet and Ronin Ecosystem to complement the game. One implementation is that players of Axie Infinity keep their Axies — digital Pokemon-like monsters —in their Ronin wallets.
Sky Mavis isn’t just a pioneer of blockchain gaming but has helped build Web3 infrastructure to surround the game, support the players, and add levels of operability to the world and its economy. Sky Mavis has released a couple of cryptocurrencies to support the game — $AXS and $SLP. $AXS is one of the top traded coins, currently ranking 36th out of all coins with a market cap of $4.1 billion.
For all its success, however, Sky Mavis keeps a low profile. But some clues about the company’s culture are present on its website and other materials. For instance, it writes on its home page that it builds the virtual worlds of the future and the “infrastructure that enables them to function.
“Putting users first” and not mining players for their data are also two crucial precepts within the organization. In particular, the company and its employees are “mission-focused” and speak of the “dedication” needed to pursue its stated missions.
Sky Mavis is also adaptable, having made multiple adjustments in the past couple of months to Axie Infinity amidst players’ complaints. Axie itself remains one of the top ways people in Southeast Asia are exposed to NFTs and has no sign of slowing soon.
#4 – OpenSea
- Year founded: 2017
- Major projects: OpenSea NFT Marketplace
Founded in 2017, OpenSea was the brainchild of Devin Finzer and Alex Atallah. Both men saw the excitement surrounding the CryptoKitties boom and the possibilities of a new kind of digital asset — provably scarce, verifiable ownership, for which all information was available on a type of digital ledger called the blockchain.
Since its founding, OpenSea has grown from a small company to over 70 people. Its most current valuation occurred in January of 2022 — a cool $13.3 billion. It is one of the biggest unicorns in the NFT space and has a stranglehold on the NFT marketplace industry. Although it has seen countless competitors try to topple it, it has remained unbowed so far.
There are two main facets to OpenSea: the company and the market. The company (which is private) has grown significantly throughout the years, soliciting seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz and other tech giants. Although it has had its failings (including customer service and scandals involving insider trading), the team supports a marketplace that serves the majority of NFT traders.
That marketplace, while simple upfront, has stood the test as other markets have fallen. On OpenSea, you can sell and buy your NFTs in various ways, including different types of auctions and time limits on fixed-price sales. Its Wyvern code for transactions allows for bundled interactions. The buyer and seller complete the transaction in a single instance, and neither is left holding the bag.
On OS’s platform, you are not limited to a single type of NFT like most other marketplaces. You can buy NFTs related to gaming, art, profile picture collections, and more. And credit to OS — It has (mostly) stayed afloat while other marketplaces have suffered from hacks or manipulation.
Still, despite its stranglehold on the top NFT marketplaces spot, OpenSea has suffered from some costly blunders. Recently, blockchain sleuths exploited a loophole in OpenSea’s code and bought many NFTs on the cheap using old listings. Consequently, a Bored Ape owner has filed a lawsuit against OpenSea, seeking reparations for an exploited Ape sale.
Time will tell if OS stays on top of the NFT market hierarchy. But for now, it’s not just one of the top dogs in the NFT marketplace space, its a big player throughout the entire NFT industry.
#5 – Sorare
- Year founded: 2018
- Major projects: Sorare soccer collectibles
Based in Paris, Sorare has risen the ranks of the top NFT companies with a strong product, plentiful partnerships, and a monster Series B funding round. It is one of the leaders in sports collectible NFTs, with some of its non-fungible tokens selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Everything with Sorare begins with its product. Also titled Sorare, this trading card soccer game enables users to take the role of soccer managers, assemble teams, and play in “tournaments.” These tournaments can have big-time effects for the users, leading to prizes, additional trading cards, and boosted statistics for the cards played in the tournament.
Each card corresponds to a particular player and, generally, a specific team. Each player has a certain number of statistics associated with it. A user isn’t limited to creating a team with players from the same IRL team. Mixing and matching happen, which can make the game intriguing.
This simple format has led Sorare to become the de facto #1 soccer NFT collectibles product around, even dwarfing Dapper Labs’ La Liga collectibles. And it has led to a great deal of funding — first in the hundreds of thousands, then the millions, and finally in the hundreds of millions.
Its Series B funding round, which occurred in 2021, led to $680 million. It was the largest all- time Series B round in Europe and underscored the potential that top investors like Softbank saw in the company. Its valuation was $4.3 billion, making it yet another Web3 unicorn.
The company is relatively small for one with such influence — around 84 employees, according to estimates in February of 2022. But it has grown fast.
The fantasy trading card game has one of the biggest user-bases outside of the powerhouse game Axie Infinity.
Sorare has also signed up 180 clubs to the game so far. It plans to add dozens of more clubs, including the premiere leagues throughout the world, which would increase the pool of players available in the game.
#6 – Decentraland
- Year founded: 2017
- Major projects: Decentraland metaverse
Decentraland began as the brainchild of two Argentinians — Ari Meilich and Esteban Ordano — in 2015. The initial premise was simple, though perhaps difficult to execute: a shared virtual reality space where people could participate in shopping, building, gambling, and more.
It launched in 2017, and with an initial coin offering that raised 86,260 Ether ($26 million at the time), Decentraland entered Web3 as one of the first functioning metaverses. Today, it is one of the Big 4 metaverses, sees hundreds of thousands of active monthly users, and supports the development of digital land, for which people are paying a premium.
To date, several high-profile companies, including Tokens.com and Miller Lite, have bought land in the Decentraland metaverse with the intent of creating experiences that users can enjoy. It will also play host to the first Web3 Fashion week later in March.
It might seem strange then that the people who will benefit the most from Decentraland’s growth are the users themselves and anyone who holds the metaverse’s native currency $MANA. This arrangement makes Decentraland far different from any “company” on the list thus far.
As part of its initial coin offering in 2017, the team behind Decentraland — the Decentraland Foundation — created a little over 2 billion $MANA tokens. This fungible token focuses on governance, which means that anyone who holds it has a vote in the platform’s future direction.
The ability to influence governance decisions is of significant value in some ways. The coins also mean that as the platform does well, the price of $MANA rises, leading to those holders having more money.
The Decentraland Foundation has a sizeable portion of the $MANA supply and can wield power in governing decisions. The team is relatively small for a project of Decentraland’s scope, with between 51 and 200 employees. Part of its marketing comes from articles spotlighting the project.
Decentraland supports both cryptocurrencies through $MANA and non-fungible tokens. In the past, galleries on Decentraland have housed artwork from top NFT collections like the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Furthermore, at least one top NFT whale, Pranksy, has chosen this metaverse to display his digital art collection.
In the future, companies will likely sell NFTs of their brand on the Decentraland metaverse, bringing NFTs to a larger audience than most marketplaces. Its innovative ownership structure, team, and NFT compatibility make Decentraland one of the top NFT companies around.
#7 – RTFKT
- Year founded: 2019
- Major projects: CloneX
Founded by three friends —Benoit Pagotto, Chris Le, and Steven Vasilev — RTFKT burst onto the Web3 scene in 2020, right around the time the coronavirus pandemic started. The organization’s goal was simple: combine different Web3 technologies (blockchain, augmented reality, and NFTs) to create products at the intersection of the metaverse and culture.
Within this two year time-frame, it is fair to say that they have succeeded.
RTFKT, pronounced “artifact,” initially started with virtual sneaker NFTs, collaborating with artists to create collections in line with Atari, Fewocious, a Stormrider collection, and others. It would rise in the ranks of NFT companies quickly, eventually collaborating artist Takashi Murakami to produce a 20,000 NFT PFP collection called Clone X.
This collection would catapult it into a position that a young private company can dream of — an acquisition from a leading company.
That company that came calling after the two years of building and Clone X success was none other than apparel giant Nike, who bought the RTFKT for undisclosed terms. The acquisition would spur a frenzy of trading in RTFKT collections, notably Clone X, which quickly became a “blue-chip collection.”
There’s no telling quite yet how the acquisition has affected RTFKT or if it has lost any of its scrappy, young company vibes. But reports suggest that Nike would inject cash into the organization, perhaps pushing it to further heights.
So far, since the acquisition, RTFKT and Nike have co-released an NFT project called “MNLTH” (pronounced “monolith”), a mysterious digital black box with RTFKT and Nike inscriptions. There’s no telling what is in the box yet, but it could be a reward for holding other RTFKT NFT collections.
However, the company hasn’t been without controversy: NFT research detectives found that Nike now owns the intellectual property rights to some RTFKT NFT collections rather than the owners of those NFTs.
#8 – Pixel Vault
- Year founded: 2021
- Major projects: PUNKS Comics, MetaHero Universe
Pixel Vault, founded in 2021, is a crypto- and NFT-native media company. It has released a handful of products with utility — two series of PUNKS comics, thousands of characters and planets in the MetaHero Universe, and a complex structure of decentralized autonomous organizations.
When it comes to NFT media companies, Pixel Vault is clearly at the top. The PUNKS comics are a string of storylines following a museum busboy Beanie trying to uncover crypto art. There are 16 core characters, and buyers of the PUNKS comics NFTs can read the comics on a dedicated viewing site only available to holders.
Although its valuation is unknown at this point, Pixel Vault has produced 100,000 ETH in revenue, well over $250 million. It raised $100 million in seed funding from 01 Advisors and Velvet Sea Ventures at that revenue point.
Pixel Vault is unusual from an NFT native company’s standpoint in that it has produced actual products that include and correspond to NFTs. Its marketing is primarily through social media, notably Twitter.
Its stated dream is to become the Marvel of Web3, and it is building out an extensive list of superhero characters to fill out its universe. These include MetaHero Core Identities, MetaHero Generative Characters, and soon to be revealed MetaHero Sidekicks.
To further its ambitions as a media company, Pixel Vault signed with WME to help bring its products to television and film. This deal makes it just one of three NFT companies that have signed with talent agencies, joining the CryptoPunks collection and Jenkins the Valet.
For now, Pixel Vault continues to build, with plans to further elaborate on the PlanetDAO rewards and the MetaHero Sidekicks. It remains to be seen what it’ll do with the PUNKS Comics after a lousy launch of issue #2 and the public downfall of its early leading investor (and PUNKS Comic main character) BeanieMaxi.
But it deserves credit: Pixel Vault is a company with grand ambitions, business acumen, and one worth looking at for utility-focused NFT collections.
#9 – The Sandbox
- Year founded: 2011
- Major projects: The Sandbox metaverse
The Sandbox metaverse, an outgrowth of two successful voxel-based builder games, made our list of the top NFT companies out of sheer popularity. Out of the four significant metaverses, it possibly has the most upside. And its style of gaming puts it in direct competition with two heavyweight builder games — Minecraft and Roblox.
The history of The Sandbox dates to 2011. That year it developed a universe where players could create their own gameplay experiences, in this case on mobile devices and the PC. Giving players “Deity Mode,” they could craft their universes within the universe, using elements like water, soil, sand, and glass, as well as more complicated elements like humans and machines.
When released first in 2012, the game was successful and built on an unusual game type — one where the user could create rather than just play from a strict storyline. After a takeover from Animoca Brands in 2018, The Sandbox would launch a pure metaverse version of the game. The aim was simple: to allow players to monetize their games through non-fungible tokens rather than the company-owned items in Minecraft and Roblox.
Three governing bodies regulate the metaverse. Two are the Sandbox company and The Foundation. It is also partially community-owned through the $SAND token, of which The Sandbox company owns 22% of the supply. In 2021, it raised $93 million off at least a $3 billion holding of $SAND tokens, with SoftBank leading the way.
The Sandbox is notable among metaverses from its partnerships, which can be seen as marketing. These partnerships include NFT native companies. The Bored Ape Yacht Club, Jenkins the Valet, the Lazy Lions, and more all hold Sandbox land, with plans to develop them into metaverse headquarters. Further, Snoop Dogg and other celebrities also own land, though their goals are unknown.
Although The Sandbox already has a governance token, it is developing a decentralized organization for launch in Q2 of 2022 and other governance tokens in Q4 of 2022. The platform is a builder’s paradise, with even laypeople who have no coding experience able to participate.
With the current price of $SAND and governance developments on the way, it is easy to see The Sandbox leading the charge in the metaverse industry for the next few years. As they say, builders are going to build.
#10 – VaynerNFT
- Year founded: 2020
- Major projects: Budweiser NFT collection
To know VaynerNFT, you need to know one man, its founder: Gary Vaynerchuk. One of the biggest celebrities in NFTs, Gary Vaynerchuk, is both a lightning rod in the community and its most prominent proponent. Recently, a video of him “schooling” a mainstream media journalist about NFTs became a meme, and Gary’s legend grew.
VaynerNFT is his brainchild, a part of VaynerX that brings Fortune 500 companies into the wild world of NFTs. Its clients are renowned leaders throughout their fields, including Budweiser and Shopify, and they come to VaynerNFT looking for guidance. For companies that have been around for decades and are worth billions, it can be hard to stay hip and cool, especially in the ethos of Web3.
But VaynerNFT tries to package these companies’ collections best for younger audiences. Its marketing positions itself as a long-term thinker in a space that is, by its nature, engulfed in the short-term.
So far, the launches have been moderately successful, with NFT collections ranging from slightly bland to innovative. But there is little doubt that VaynerNFT has a role to play, guiding Fortune 500 companies in the technology, the jargon, the power dynamics, and more of a community gaining more clout by the month.
VaynerNFT has extended the branch to more than just the companies with billions of dollars. Anyone who controls intellectual property and wants to utilize it in Web3 can approach the organization. In the past, they’ve allowed regular collections to apply for assistance, helping young artists and showrunners get their feet wet in this industry.
There’s no telling what it is worth yet or if Gary Vaynerchuk will ever try to raise money in seed rounds with it, but if Gary’s reputation is anything to consider, the company will be around for some time and have an impact.
How to Invest in NFT Companies
With all the talk about the top NFT companies and the big dollar signs being thrown around in funding rounds, you might want to know how to invest in them or join them. While most of these are private companies, there are still ways you can contribute.
There are four common ways of investment: angel investing, crowdfunding, stocks or tokens, and conscious buying. Compare them easily in the list below.
Angel investing is a term that refers to a single or group of individuals who invest in a private company early on. Generally, angel investing occurs during “the seed round” before the “series” funding rounds. It comes with a great deal of risk — statistics show that most investments angel investors make go to $0.
But it can have great rewards as you receive an equity stake in the company, so any profits the company makes bounce back to you. Often, you need at least $200,000 active annual income or $1 million in investable funds to be an accredited angel investor.
Crowdfunding is similar to angel investing in that a crowdfunder invests in a company early on. Usually, however, the amounts invested in crowdfunding campaigns are smaller, and as an investor, you can invest much less money than an angel investor would. There are many crowdfunding websites, for instance, that will allow you to invest for as little as $150. It’s a smaller risk than angel investing and also a smaller reward.
There are no actual “red-tape” requirements for crowdfunding other than the stipulations of the platform.
NFT stocks or tokens are another way to invest. Because more established companies are entering the NFT field, they already may be publicly traded. One example is Coinbase, which is rolling out an NFT marketplace. Another area to look into is companies that acquire an NFT company. An example of this is Nike, which acquired RTFKT. To invest, sign up on any number of stock trading sites or apps, find the company’s symbol, and purchase stock.
Because this is Web3, you might also be able to invest in the cryptocurrencies of companies. Decentraland and The Sandbox are two companies on this list that have publicly traded cryptos. You can also purchase game coins of Web3 blockchain games you like, such as Axie Infinity’s $AXS.To invest, sign up on an exchange and buy some of the coins with cash. When the company or game does well, the price of the coins could rise, benefitting you.
Conscious buying is a little trickier but may suit you well if you have a limited cash flow or amount of money you can invest in. When you consciously buy, you are actively participating in the product that the company has created. For instance, if you like Dapper Labs, you might invest in NBA Top Shot moments. Or if you’re a gamer and like Sky Mavis, you might buy some Axies and battle them in the company’s game.
Investing in the assets that the company creates is a bet on the company itself. If the company does well, the demand for that company’s NFTs or products could rise. This rise could enable you to reap profits down the road.
In all situations, remember the popular investing maxim, “Don’t invest any more than you can afford to lose.” Don’t invest using credit. Have a way to compare and track investments. Research business components like marketing. And never hesitate to take profits.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out our article “How To Invest in NFTs.”
A Final Word on NFT Companies
The top 10 NFT companies in this list run the gamut from sports, gaming, media, marketplaces, and more. They all represent a push towards a new style of living, born out of Web3 technology and anchored on the blockchain.
You can join them by participating in their product or service offerings, crowdfunding, becoming an angel investor, or waiting to buy NFT stocks when the companies have an IPO.