Atari Goes All-in on Cryptocurrencies and NFT

It’s taken Atari less time to introduce its own Ethereum-based token, a crypto casino, and an NFT licensing business than it has to finally release the Atari VCS not-quite console it revealed in 2017 under the Ataribox moniker. Now the company’s going even harder on crypto and NFT: It announced yesterday that it’d created two new divisions, Atari Gaming and Atari Blockchain, as well as a reshuffle of its leadership team.

The company said in its announcement that its now-previous chief executive, Frédéric Chesnais, would “focus on Licensing and Atari Blockchain.” He was replaced by board of directors chairman Wade Rosen, who said that Chesnais “inherited a situation burdened with debt” and “eliminated debt and enacted a meaningful turnaround” during his tenure by pushing Atari beyond the gaming market.

That push is where Atari started to get weird. (Even weirder than the Speakerhats it announced in 2017, which is saying something.) 

Let’s start with the Atari Token. The company said its “primary objective is to be a means of payment for the interactive entertainment industry, but we believe the token will be beneficial for other industries as well” and that “eventually, we envision the Atari Token being available worldwide as a means of payment.” 

Then it announced a partnership with Decentral Games to create an Atari-branded casino in the “Vegas City” gaming district on the Decentraland metaverse, which is also based on Ethereum, with a two-year lease. Think that’s confusing to read on an enthusiast-focused website in 2021? Imagine saying that sentence to someone playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 in the ’80s. Yet here we find ourselves.

But then Atari managed to cross all those decades by embracing the NFT, or non-fungible token, market that went from a meme to a mega-hit seemingly overnight. The company said yesterday that it “has seen a tremendous amount of success in licensing the Atari related brands for the use in NFTs” and that it “anticipate[s] this playing an even larger part of our licensing strategy in the coming years.”

That’s all happened very quickly. Meanwhile, it seems the Atari VCS is perpetually close to—but not quite ready for—release. The console was revealed in 2017, rebranded to the Atari VCS in 2018, and expanded to a “Raspberry Pi for the living room” in 2019. Atari said it would start shipping the device in July 2019, the end of 2019, March 2020, and spring 2020; it finally started to reach buyers in December 2020.

However, there didn’t appear to be much stock because the Atari VCS is currently limited to pre-orders that Atari claims will ship in spring 2021. We’ll believe it when we see it, especially given the global chip shortage. The device’s former architect also filed a lawsuit in 2020 claiming the company owed him six months of back pay, which doesn’t exactly support the idea that Atari VCS is a priority for Atari… Gaming.

The company’s announcement also suggests that it’s no longer focused on hardware. Here’s the section of the release devoted to the Atari VCS:

“Atari will continue to support the Atari VCS through meaningful third-party content and exclusive first-party content. The VCS community has shown an ingenuity and creativity in adapting the system, and Atari will work to support this by releasing tools that will allow creators the ability to design their own classic Atari games (beginning with the Atari 2600). With an eventual goal of making it easier to create, share and play retro gaming content in the modern era.”

It’s not clear how those efforts would differ from introducing official emulators for the Atari consoles of yore—many of which can already be emulated by other means—or why developers would make retro games for a device that very few people own. But at least there’s some hope for the Atari VCS; the Speakerhat’s all but disappeared from Amazon. So much for the future of listening to music.