What Does Nike’s Metaverse Adventures Mean For Sneakers?


Whilst the biggest designer of rare sneakers on the market and a digital world that had its origins in ancient multi-user dungeons and a science-fiction book seem like somewhat strange bedfellows, Nike has always had a reputation as a forward-thinking company, one that the rest of the sneaker world follows.

Given that through their unique sneaker designs, marketing and a pioneering deal with the greatest of all time so noteworthy that a film about the endorsement deal was not only released at all but was positively received by critics and made its money back at the box office.

Alongside trying to be the brand all athletes want to associate with, the Swoosh also wants to pattern themselves as a company that constantly looks to the future. 

After all, this is a company that designed self-lacing sneakers and released them close to when the sci-fi movie Back to the Future Part II was set and made endurance running shoes with soles that literally help marathon athletes run faster.

They have also designed shoes for sports on the ascendency, such as the work with Olympic Breaking athlete Sunny Choi as breakdancing makes the transition from art to sport.

Within this context, Nike’s dive into the metaverse is perhaps less surprising, even given the eye-watering financial commitments they have made. Was the investment worth it, and what does it mean for the sneaker world going forward?

Dot Swoosh

Before going any further, it is important to define what the metaverse is to the uninitiated, as it is a concept that is somewhat nebulous in practice, with ideas that range from those that have been widely seen for decades to those far in the distant future.

A metaverse is, in its broadest description, a virtual world where users can interact with each other through the use of representative avatars, often with the ability to buy and sell apparel for them, either for money purely earned in-game, real-world money or some combination of the two in the form of cryptocurrency.

The name comes from the 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, depicted in that book as a virtual reality three-dimensional version of the internet.

This definition likely has led to more questions than answers so for simplicity’s sake the best definition to use is the one Nike does in its first blog for “.SWOOSH”, a general hub for Nike’s myriad forays into the Metaverse, which is that the metaverse is a hub for all of their Virtual Creations.

The terminology has changed repeatedly in response to the constantly changing tides of the metaverse. Whilst initially prominently touting the benefits of Web3, the blockchain and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in their early press material, the language has somewhat distanced itself from this.

It all started with Nikeland, a virtual world in the game creation tool and metaverse progenitor Roblox. The partnership allowed players to play games in a world patterned after their Beavertown, Oregon headquarters and allowed players to spend “Robux” to get virtual versions of apparel and sneakers

Not long after this, Nike bought the company RTFKT (pronounced “artefact”), a company that specialises in virtual wearables that bridge the gap between virtual and physical fashion.

Most of this takes the form of NFTs that allow holders to buy rare sneakers and apparel inspired by a particular collection. The most notable example of this was an exclusive version of their Air Force 1 Low silhouette under the moniker of “TINAJ”, or “This is not a JPEG”.

Before this, there was a collection of posters known as Our Force 1 and a costume drop inspired by Air Max for the popular video game Fortnite, which whilst not universally considered a metaverse is often considered somewhat adjacent to the technology.

In January 2024, in the wake of the successful Airphoria collaboration with Fortnite and the outright collapse of the NFT market starting in 2022, Nike pivoted to make .SWOOSH more explicitly focused on the game aspect of the metaverse rather than the Web3 part

This means that their metaverse offerings are typically linked to either in-game items, physical items or both, often with tie-in minigames and alternate reality quests to undertake.

They also stated explicitly that they will not be creating their own marketplace but instead allowing members to move NFTs and other digital collectables into their own wallets to trade on the open market.

Much of their recent drops have been apparel pieces that tie into internet culture and online gaming.

This suggests that the future of the metaverse when it comes to Nike and other designers is about tapping into gaming culture and releasing tie-in in-game outfits for already popular games tangentially linked to the metaverse and adapting as the virtual world changes.