What Is Play to Earn Gaming?

Mikey Caloca / One37pm

Play-to-earn is a new business model that is sweeping the video game industry and allow players to earn assets they can sell for money in a marketplace. As users play the games they earn a tradeable currency that can be exchanged for real money. Some of these assets are NFTs or non-fungible tokens. NFTs are digital items that can be an in-game skin, a cool weapon, or even an animal you can breed (think pokemon eggs). So instead of pouring money into a game for items, you don’t own you can actually benefit from your gameplay out of your game. 

What is the current economy of video games?

Most mainstream games do not use a play to earn economy. Their business model is like a one-way street to a dead-end for the players. Money gets into the ecosystem but it doesn’t leave. And once it is in there it does not circulate among players or peer to peer. They will have a ton of small cosmetic purchases like skins and emotes that don’t affect the game balance but will instead bring in a constant trickle of income from a player base after the initial download. Raid Shadow legends is a top-tier example of the freemium model. Players get the game for free and can then pay for the ability to get good champions via buying a ton of summoning tickets.

In recent memory, video game studios have been hammered over having loot crates. Loot crates are consumable digital items that have randomized game items. Encouraging players to buy boxes in bulk in order to get cool cosmetics. These cosmetics are often times locked to the player and can not be traded or sold. So they will sit in their inventory gathering dust. Using blockchain technology non-fungible items-aka items that cant be divided like a dollar into pennies- can be traded between players and be moved both in and outside of the game.

Mainstream mobile games are notorious for the freemium pay-to-win model. The freemium model is based on a player gets a game for free and are then encouraged to buy packs and boosts to skip hours of grinding. So a freemium game is often called “pay to win”

How will play to earn change the economy of video games and esports?

Let’s use an example of a popular game and how it’d look with play to earn. Call of Duty warzone is a free-to-play battle royale where the last player standing wins. As it stands now players buy new add ons, packs, and character skins. But players also have the ability to unlock blueprints from boxes found in the game. In a play-to-earn economy, players can earn a currency from kills, completing tasks or achievements, or surviving the second chance arena the gulag. They can take that currency and use it to buy packs with items they can sell or they can take that currency out of the game and exchange it for real money. Imagine having a daily task/achievement of committing a squad wipe (kill an entire team). That daily task could give you a couple of dollars in the currency that you can then turn around and buy the sniper blueprint you have been eyeing. As it stands now you could only purchase that skin with your own money from outside the game.

In a play-to-earn economy, every item now can have a verifiable rarity. So if a super popular COD streamer like Dr. Disrespect decides to make this into a time-limited NFT he can. A time-limited NFT is when a creator makes it to where anyone can claim a free NFT over a certain period of time or there is a sale that once it’s sold out it’s only available from other parties. And anyone who owns one can see the rarity of the item and sell it inside the in-game marketplace.

In the esports realm, everyone loves a champion. It’s a tradition that some games will do time-limited skins to celebrate a certain esports team winning the championship. As esports grows in popularity and the teams increase their brand their special in-game skins will become sought after. Like how rookie cards blow up when a player has a great career, imagine how popular the first championship skin be for the next big esports team. Typically these assets are not tradeable and players who try to sneak around often end up getting banned or scammed. And with influencers and sponsored assets, viewers can claim NFTs and say I was there when x happened and I have the NFT to prove it.

One of the biggest selling points for developers is that they can earn a percentage off of trades and sales in their marketplace. Say for example Fortnite has its own marketplace. And players buy and sell skins in USD. If say five percent of each sale goes to Epic games, it would not be long until they have a passive income from just releasing new skins and content and leaning on their healthy fanbase.

What type of play to earn games are currently available?

There seems to be more play to earn games popping up by the day. Some of the trends I have noticed are games that focused on breeding NFTs, you take two NFTs and make another one and sell that new one. And there’s competitive skill-based where you earn on how you place or after a win. One game in fact utilizes both breeding and win-based earning.

This revolutionary combination of game mechanics has led millions of players to try out Axie Infinity, the undisputed champion of play to earn. showcases that in the past 30 days there has been a monthly average of over 18,000,000 users play Axie Infinity.

I spoke with Tyranitar, a popular streamer in the NFT gaming space who is also a manager for Axie Infinity, about playing to earn with Axies.

“The play-to-earn aspect of Axie Infinity changes how I view gaming as a whole. When you start playing video games as a kid, it's all about the fun. Nothing else seems to matter. I feel like as I grew older, I always looked for opportunities to try to earn money while playing video games. The idea of earning money while having fun gaming seems to be every kid’s dream! Who doesn't want to make some cash while you game? Axie Infinity embodies that concept. Not only can you play a game that has both PvE and PvP, but you can earn money doing it. Each victory is money in your pocket, and I feel as though this is just the beginning!”

Each victory is money in your pocket, and I feel as though this is just the beginning!

- Tyranitar

Axie Infinity has given players the opportunity to earn from their dedication and their skill. Usually, video games like Fortnite and Call of Duty give players a morale boost or bragging rights when they win. They can floss as much as they want, but they don't get any IRL gains. Axie Infinity has shattered the stigma that video games are a waste of time. When players play and win matches against the AI in PVE or against other real people in PVP, they earn an in-game currency called SLP or Small Love Potion. It is what’s needed to “breed” axies or make another axie, like when you used to grind eggs in Pokemon. That ecosystem deserves its own dedicated article, but luckily you can see some of my Axie Market Recaps here

SLP can be withdrawn and traded on exchanges for crypto, meaning a player can play Axie Infinity, win some matches, cash out their winnings, and then sell it for crypto to turn into USD.

We have actually seen the ripple effect of Axie Infinity helping groups in the space. Yield Guild Games, or YGG, is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization dedicated to play to earn mechanics. They are investing in multiple games letting the players earn through the ecosystem. Some of these games are OGs in the space or are on the up and coming. Games like Splinterlands and ZED RUN are discussed below. But one game they are investing in is League of Kingdoms, an MMO where players can own land and earn rewards for leveling it up.

Axie Infinity is not the only game that has adopted play-to-earn mechanics. Here is a list of other games that utilize it to some degree. Several projects promise that they might implement or are looking into play to earn. These games are ones that have or are currently doing so.


Cryptofighters bills itself as one of the oldest, if not the first, play to earn game in the space. I was there at the very beginning and still own a few dozen fighters—some of which I minted from winning fights, back then it was super expensive to battle and cost hundreds of dollars in ETH to confirm. They have since taken the battle contract offline to preserve the rarity of the fighters. But as stated in this interview, it could be resumed. It’s hard to determine what the winnings are 4 years later but some of those NFTs that were won can be sold for approx 0.2 ETH as of this writing. 


Splinterlands is an OG NFT project. Formerly known as Steemmonsters, it is a variation of trading card games like MTG. But instead of in real-time battle where you take turns playing cards and swinging for damage, the battle is automated based on where you placed your cards before the match. Players can earn cards from placing in the rankings and even compete in tournaments. Your earning capabilities are tethered to what tier you end up in at the end of the season, but you can do daily quests that give you free cards. And sometimes cards in this game go for a significant amount. 


This is an NFT-based game horse racing game, in which users can bet on and breed racehorses in their digital stable. Each horse has its own unique characteristics, meaning you could end up with a champion stallion, or perhaps your horse is better equipped to be a stud. You can go to websites like know your horses and see the past earnings of your horses or even if the ones listed for sale are bad ROIs who never won a race.


Lost Relics another project that lets players earn, but not by payouts at the end of the season or race. Players can earn NFTs via drops, which is no different than when you kill a boss in WOW or Runescape. However, if you finish the dungeon, then you can claim the NFT and add it to your wallet. This is one of the more active forms of play with higher risk where you could technically get a drop but lose it forever if you die before finishing the level. If you’re curious about Lost Relics, I’ve covered this game before and how it looks to win items.

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