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Will this hyped Bellevue startup leverage AI to restore investors’ faith in NFTs?

  • Mike Pearl

Maybe (literal) crypto cockfighting is just what the crypto world needs right now.

Investors’ faith in NFTs — non-fungible tokens, which most famously take the form of web art, that are traded on the blockchain — is understandably shaken after crypto’s rough month. The bloodletting was serious enough that on May 16, a Morgan Stanley analyst warned investors against inflated crypto-assets with “limited real user demand” — a thinly-veiled swipe at ugly, pixelated NFTs. But just before all this trouble with crypto started, a small flood of money hit a Bellevue-based startup called Irreverent Labs, makers of an AI-heavy NFT video game that now has some serious hype to live up to.

If you’ve ever sat through an overheated description of crypto investing and thought to yourself, this sounds a little like high-tech cockfighting, you’re not alone. But Irreverent Labs’ still-in-development AI-based NFT game called MechaFightClub has gone a step further: It is literally high-tech cockfighting.

And in the pre-decline days of crypto mania — meaning earlier this month — that bluntness apparently appealed to the crypto-loving venture capitalists at Andreessen-Horowitz, because they had just given Irreverent Labs a second round of funding. After pumping $5 million into the company in February, they dropped $40 million into it earlier this month, just before the crypto mini-crash.

Also, on May 10, Bollywood mega-star Sonam Kapoor Tweeted that she had invested an undisclosed amount in Irreverent Labs, and that was around the time the Terra and Luna cryptocurrencies were seriously starting to lose value, likely triggering the recent crypto sell-off.

Amid the decline, Irreverent Labs CEO Rahul Sood tweeted that “Rampant irresponsible speculation takes the air out of the market quickly,” and recommended reading the original Bitcoin whitepaper. “Back to building,” Sood added.

So MechaFightClub may be one heavily hyped crypto project that actually gets finished, rather than just leaving early investors with a surfeit of useless tokens and some nice vaporware memories. Yet it remains to be seen whether it will live up to the buzz and produce real value for its investors.

To recap: according to Irreverent Labs, the company will mint several rounds of NFTs — there will be 41,000 total — each of which correspond to a procedurally-generated fighting “mechabot” — meaning a robotic chicken. Each chicken will have unique attributes and abilities, and behavioral preferences vis-a-vis fighting. Each one will also have to be trained on some kind of in-game, playable version of an adversarial neural network in order to succeed in the ring. The actual fights, which Irreverent Labs promises will be “hysterical,” will be a hands-off experience for the human player, just like actual cockfighting.

But this is a Web3 game, so the actual bloodsport is just a small part of the MechaFightClub experience — thus the “club” part of the name. Sood, founder and former CTO of VoodooPC, a Canadian gaming PC company acquired by HP all the way back in 2006, told CNBC last year, “The future of gaming, I believe, is where the assets are decentralized, and there’s open economies, and open ways for people to earn while they play.”

To that end, would-be early-adopters on YouTube, perhaps drawing on discussions from the MechaFightClub Discord, have provided deeper analysis of the MechaFightClub social and economic dynamics: prize tokens will reportedly be tradeable crypto-assets awarded for victory in a fight, and sizes of purses for winners will apparently be determined by the number of spectators streaming the match, meaning players will be incentivized to promote their fights, Don King-style. A well-marketed fight will bring in eyes, and therefore possible new investors, who will then get in on the action by buying their own chickens and using in-game currency to train them.

The actual AI at MechaFightClub is being built by David Raskino, who is an Irreverent Labs co-founder with Sood, and an expert in “agent simulation.” According to a job posting at Irreverent Labs seeking an AI engineer, fighter training will involve “deep reinforcement learning algorithms such as PPO, self-play and inverse RL algorithms such as GAIL and BC.”

There will also reportedly be a breeding process, involving the pairing of male and female chickens, the laying of eggs, and the raising of hatchlings into full-grown fighting machines with unique artificial genomes.

All that’s missing from the cockfighting experience is the misery of the doomed losing chicken, but since this is a game in the crypto world, those who need someone else to suffer in order to have fun should be pretty satisfied.