highly detailed CGI sneakers

among 'among drip'

On October 6th, as Among Us fever was sweeping the globe, the company RTFKT Studios (pronounced “artifact”) posted the following tweet, depicting hyper-realistic renderings of the game’s crew members wearing custom sneakers.

The image quickly made the rounds, and became known unofficially as Among Drip (for those who need it, the UrbanDictionary entry for “drip”). This type of digital art comes up every so often, as people are forced to confront the notion of what it means when cartoon forms are rendered in real-world terms. I am reminded of the ancient Realistic Super Mario that still makes the rounds, floating out there as one of those JPEGs that seems to have always been around.

The framing of the personality-less Among Us crewmates as hypebeasts also feels particularly polarizing. An anecdotal survey of years of hypebeast chatter on social media leads me to believe that all people either are hypebeasts or hate hypebeasts. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground.

“We love to merge gaming culture with general fashion culture, streetwear culture,” Benoit Pagotto, one of RTFKT’s founders, explained. For a few months, the image sat mostly dormant, traveling between Among Us fans.

“Right at the end of December, it [#AmongDripForever] was the #3 hashtag on Twitter. It was beating Biden doing the COVID vaccine,” Chris Le, RTFKT’s designer, recalled. A teenager created a limited-run, now-dormant account named @AmongDrip strictly to promote the idea of Among Drip. “We were always about fueling the creator community. We’re always creator-first with the kids who create Fortnite banners and stuff,” Le said.

The rendering also led to image macros like this, which I honestly can’t parse as ironic or sincere. It feels like those macros that feature Minions characters in Joker facepaint — a projection of worldview onto a blank canvas — and evokes the cringe factor of Gangster SpongeBob or Tuxedo Bugs Bunny. Except that unlike the Minions, adopted by Facebok moms, the crewmates are a mascot beloved and adopted by popular streamers and tastemakers on Twitch, and so they became by-default good, simply by virtue of being upheld by a certain crowd.

Anyway, who cares about me psychoanalyzing people I don’t know? A couple weeks after dropping the Among Drip image in October, RTFKT also released it on Sketchfab. Here’s what it looks like as a wireframe model, and this is where I got sent down a rabbit hole.

3D models are composed of polygons — the more polygons in a model, the more detail a model contains. As you can see from the above image, the shoes are incredibly detailed and the crewmates body is less so. People noticed. According to one member of a modding Discord server who dug into the files, the Among Drip model contains more than one million triangles, but if you remove the shoes, that number drops to around 5,000. Mathematically, the shoes make up 99.5% of the model’s geometry.

“That was unintentional,” Le said. “What happened was: we’re a startup, so we set deadlines for everything we do. Benoit was like, ‘we gotta get this model out.’ Initially when I made the Among Drip model, I had the idea of putting it in AR.” Making a model work in an augmented reality environment, like a Snapchat Lens, means reducing its size by reducing the level of detail.

“Due to timing constraints, I didn’t have time to do retopology on the shoes itself,” he admitted. Now they exist as a sort of easter egg.

Who needs highly detailed CGI shoes? Well, a lot of people. Or more specifically, a lot of companies. Many seemingly realistic product renderings for commercials and ads are actually CGI models useful for promotional purposes. It wouldn’t surprise me at all that there is a robust market for CGI renderings of commodities.

But standard advertising is not really the reason for the Among Drip shoes. RTFKT describes itself on its website as “a collective of creators merging worlds of gaming and craftsmanship to create virtual and physical next-gen collectible sneakers for the best esports, gaming and entertainment celebrities.” I’ll admit that this description alone did not really help answer my central questions of “…what?” and “…why?”

I’m already a bit behind in that I — a man who has worn the same low-cut Converse shoes for the last 11 years and buys a new pair of the same when they get worn out — do not understand sneakerhead culture as it pertains to physical objects. Buying expensive shoes that you can’t wear? Not for me. Now, applying that same concept to digital shoes you can’t even hold? That’s even more not for me. (Which is why I called up Pagotto and Le to help me figure it out.)

Last month, RTFKT sold a virtual shoe for 22 Ethereum, a cryptocurrency worth roughly $13,000 at the time to a pseudonymous collector named Whaleshark. The shoe was an AI shoe whose design was randomly generated and changed as more people bid on it. Here is what Whaleshark won: a phsyical pair of the shoes, as well as an Snapchat Lens of the shoe in AR, as well as an avatar for a blockchain-based virtual world called The Sandbox.

It’s at this point in my research that I learned about a thing called an “NFT,” which stands for “Non-Fungible Token.” Unlike how one Bitcoin or dollar bill is equivalent to any other Bitcoin or dollar bill, an NFT is a unique digital item, authenticated by the blockchain ledger. NFTs, according to one Wikipedia entry I scanned, “are used to create verifiable digital scarcity, as well as digital ownership.” (If this paragraph made you scared or confused, you have my permission to tap out now.)

Whaleshark spoke to CoinDesk about his purchase last month:

Although he denied being a sneakerhead himself, WhaleShark told CoinDesk on a call that when he researched the world’s 17 most expensive pairs of sneakers, he found these shoes can be priced up to $50,000, primarily due to scarcity. 

“So when I noticed there was going to be an NFT edition, they were pulling at my heartstrings,” he said. “I would love to hang that up on a mural or digital screen in my office.”

Buying digital products is very common now, but usually these items are inifinitely reproducible — MP3 files, design templates, video courses. But increasingly, digital items are becoming collectors’ items due to artificial scarcity. A few years ago, the free online game Counter-Strike: GO became a point of concern after various reports that its weapon skins were functioning as a currency used for gambling. Because the skins could be traded and exchanged, they could be assigned a real-world monetary value.

Skins and other virtual cosmetics are big business. It’s how Fortnite, and other free-to-play games, make most of their money. Crucially, Fortnite does not let players trade skins, and so they cannot be assigned a monetary value. But they do still have value.

Digital cosmetics also function as social markers. If a player is using the default skin, one can assume they are a new player, or a kid lacking discretionary income. If a player has a skin that can only be acquired by playing a lot, they can be quickly identified as a skilled player. If a player has a skin that was only on sale for a limited time long ago, they gain clout by having a limited-edition item. They don’t make you better at a game, but they tell people that the person who controls the skin probably is better at the game (or rich, in which case, who gives a shit about skill?). All that gives someone clout online.

What RTFKT is doing is mapping video-game skin culture over the real world. “We saw this trend happening for a while, because we come from gaming and the skin scene. We watch kids collect skins,” Le explained. “Everyone’s identity now lives through the internet, so people are now putting more value on virtual assets over physical goods.” Again, this makes sense, given how much of hypebeast culture is driven by posting online — you don’t really need to have a rare shoe in your closet anymore, you just need to be able to post a photo of the fact that you own a scarce luxury. And skins can be put into production a lot faster than, say, actual shoes. And you can’t see anyone anyway because all the bars are closed.

Here’s RTFKT CEO Steven Zaptio explaining its collaboration with a blockchain-based marketplace called Wax in mid-2019:

We’re creating sneakers as a currency. The shoes are sold online, you buy the digital sneaker. And then as soon as you receive it you have the option to trade it, because the resale value will be there, so you have a digital asset. And then secondly, you can exchange the digital shoe for the real physical shoe.

My attitude towards all of this so far is pretty much the same as that one video of Waka Flocka Flame reading YouTube comments.

Buying virtual shoes to show off in an AR filter feels like something I understand instinctively in my gut, and not at all when I try to think about it. Go buy virtual shoes, I guess. Or, just download them for free and mod them onto Team Fortress 2 characters.


Thank you for reading BNet. I’m about to be among snacks.