NFTs in 2021: A Year In Review
January 8th, 2022

NFTs were a major crypto theme of 2021. OpenSea users grew ~23x and did ~$15B in sales. I use public OpenSea sales data to highlight a few major themes from the year.


Critics dismiss NFTs as .jpegs. But the data shows a diversity of project types, which can be clustered into at least 7 categories. Below is a subset of popular projects, with price plotted relative to growth. Each project type has a unique color in the chart, showing that top-performing projects spanned a wide creative range in 2021.

Popular Opensea NFT projects price versus growth in 2021
Popular Opensea NFT projects price versus growth in 2021


Many high value NFT projects in 2021 had historical provenance. Cryptopunks (not listed on Opensea) are the “Citizen Kane'' of collections and established the ERC-721 NFT standard. Autoglyphs (the highest price in the chart, middle right) by the creators of Cryptopunks were the first generative art project to store instructions on-chain.

Art Blocks (one of the highest growth projects on the chart, top left) featured important generative artists. Notable digital, generative, and AI artists all had major NFT sales in 2021: a Fidenza sold for over $3M, an XCOPY sold for $7M, a Ringer sold for $6.9M, and Beeple sold a piece for $69M. AI artist Robbie Barett was the first to ever tokenize on SuperRare. In 2018, he gave away 300 NFTs gift cards at a Christie’s event. Only 12 of the “Lost Robbies” were claimed. This year, one of the Robbies sold for over $1M.


As with most collectables, rarity was valued: one (of 24) ape Cryptopunks sold for $10M. One of 9 aliens with a surgical mask (“Covid Alien”) sold for $11.8M. Only 4% of Fidenzas have the micro-uniform feature and these have recently sold for ~$1M.

Many high art sales in the above chart are inherently rare 1-of-1s: Beeple became the third most expensive living artist by auction with The First 5000 Days and Mad Dog Jones became the most wealthy living Canadian artist with his self-replicating NFT.

Alien punk, a micro-uniform Fidenza, and REPLICATOR
Alien punk, a micro-uniform Fidenza, and REPLICATOR


Because of the visible community and personal identification, collections had strong crypto economic feedback. BAYC (high growth and high value, top right) stood out with a remarkable >300-fold increase in price (since minting in April) and flipped punks.

But, as Cobie pointed out, maintaining momentum is hard even for blue chip projects. Community engagement (e.g., airdrops like MAYC), merchandising, full IP ownership, and / or IP-building (e.g., Pixel Vault’s Punk Comics) may create sustained attention.

Daily sale price floor for several collections on OpenSea
Daily sale price floor for several collections on OpenSea

As in prior cycles, low effort clones fueled by FOMO also exploded in 2021. This is common in any bull market and should not distract from the interesting, broader trends.

Projects with similar names as BAYC
Projects with similar names as BAYC


Punk 4156 observed that projects can be “opinionated” (e.g., a game with clear rules) or open-ended (e.g., “a primitive for building other things”). Nouns DAO mints one noun every day for perpetuity. Auction sales feed a (>$70M as of this writing) treasury, giving owners a vote in fund allocation towards various proposed projects.

Loot was also open-ended, initially creating a set of gaming primitives (game items in “Loot Bags”) for a user-organized evolution into a playable game experiences. The price initially ran up, but, as Cobie observed, achieving sustained attention without a game is challenging. As the price stagnates, the level of attention may further drop.

Loot sales floor over time
Loot sales floor over time

Open-ended Metaverse games saw significant appreciation in land value during 2021. Land in The Sandbox ran up >7x following the Facebook Meta announcement (below).

Land in The Sandbox price before and after Facebook's Meta announcement on Oct 28
Land in The Sandbox price before and after Facebook's Meta announcement on Oct 28


NFTs emerged as entry points to experiences or physical goods. Tom Sachs Rocket Factory bridged art NFTs with the physical world: rockets digitally assembled via NFT components are built and launched by Tom’s team. Similarly, NFTs in Damien Hirst’s The Currency correspond to a physical works stored in a secure vault in the UK.

Chris Le of digital fashion studio RTFKT notes NFTs can serve as the digital proxy for fashion, allowing owners to “forge” NFTs into physical goods (e.g., sneakers) if desired.

Finally, an emerging set of utility tokens, such as Veefriends or Proof collective, provide access to experiences (e.g., meet-ups, conferences) with popular creators.

Example of NFT-to-physical world bridges, Tom Sachs Rocket Factory and RTFKT
Example of NFT-to-physical world bridges, Tom Sachs Rocket Factory and RTFKT

Looking towards 2022

2022 will probably see NFT interest grow further, in part fueled by the ~3M people on the waitlist for Coinbase’s NFT marketplace (~3x larger than the OpenSea user count).

The digital-to-physical trend is showing strong signs: LinksDAO is purchasing a golf course, Flyfish club will have a dining / club space, BAYC has a balance sheet over $100M and will likely deploy this to purchase physical spaces (e.g., club(s), island, etc).

DeFi x NFTs is a major theme with the pending launch of $APE token; utility and the regulatory implications will be interesting to watch in 2022. Gaming is also widely anticipated theme for 2022. Metaverse integration with collections (as seen with Worldwide Webb) is gaining traction and the play-to-earn trend (popuarlized by Axie) will extend to metaverses and newer games such as Orcs, Wolf Game, or Furballs.

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