DENVER — A few blocks away from the Colorado state capitol in downtown Denver is a place called the Sports Castle. The six-floor building is a retrofitted Chrysler car showroom, originally constructed in 1927, where instead of stairs, sweeping ramps wrap the perimeter of every floor. The degenerate grunge aesthetic is deliberate and perfectly fits the ethos of ETHDenver, an annual two week-long event drawing some of the brightest and most innovative minds in the ethereum ecosystem.
“It’s like we broke into an abandoned warehouse,” said John Paller, who first launched ETHDenver in 2017. “It fits the vibe of that emergent, sort of permissionlessness, where it’s almost like, ‘Yeah, we’re kinda building a revolution, and you don’t even know about it.'”
Five years on, and the cat is most definitely out of the bag. Paller tells CNBC that more than 20,000 people registered to attend this year — and he estimates that more than 13,000 descended on Denver for the official gathering, plus the more than 350 ancillary events. ETHDenver organizers say it is now the largest and longest-running ethereum event in history.
Ethereum is the world’s second-biggest cryptocurrency by market cap after bitcoin, and it is known for its smart contracts, which are basically programmable pieces of code that could someday replace middlemen like banks and lawyers in certain types of business transactions.
Paller tells CNBC that hackers are known as BUIDLers — an intentional misspelling of the word ‘builders’ in a sort of homage to the bitcoin meme, HODL, or “hold on for dear life.”
“We prefer to BUIDL instead of HODL,” said Paller. “That ethos is very ingrained in the community.”
The meme-off may seem silly, but it gets at the core of what separates these two very different sets of people.
Bitcoiners tend to move more slowly on development, prioritizing security and decentralization above all else, while ethereum programmers tend to be more cavalier. While they aren’t necessarily breaking things as they go, they move fast and tinker aggressively.
Ethereum serves as the primary building block for all sorts of crypto projects, like non-fungible tokens (NFTs), decentralized finance (DeFi), and web3, a still somewhat amorphous buzzword for a third generation of the internet that is decentralized and built using blockchain tech. Most NFTs and 74% of DeFi apps, or dApps, run on ethereum, according to the website State of The dApps.
The network is also on the verge of a years-in-the-making upgrade from a proof-of-work mining model to a consensus mechanism known as proof-of-stake. The makeover will move ethereum to a less energy-intensive mining process and, according to network founder Vitalik Buterin, could boost speed by over 7,000-fold to 100,000 transactions per second.
The ETHDenver vibe
As you ascend the ramps of the Castle, rooms unfold at the periphery like the chambers of a nautilus.
Beyond the stages and company booths doling out generous merch (enough to fill a few suitcases, which some attendees did), there are places for massages with crystals, a sensory deprivation zone, meditation rooms, gong baths (Google it), DJ “chill rooms” with NFT-enabled sound systems, NFT art galleries, coding zones (rows upon rows of banquet tables dedicated to letting coders do their thing), an open bar lounge decked out in plush leather sofas, workshops for circuitry tinkering, a life-size chess set, bean bags for napping and hanging, and in the spirit of inclusivity, a puppy play room.
And for those looking to break free of the main venue, satellite outings included tequila tastings, a Deadmau5 dance party, and a crypto-powered poker tournament with a buy-in of .05 ETH, or about $130.
During the conference, politicians, celebrities, royalty, and some of the biggest names in the development community took to the mainstage of the Castle to opine on web3, NFTs, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), the impending ethereum upgrade, and countless other subjects consuming the community at the moment.
Speakers included Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who recently announced plans to accept cryptocurrencies for tax payments; former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang; Elon Musk’s younger brother Kimbal, and Buterin himself.
But speakers and panels aren’t ETHDenver’s main draw. At its core, this is a hackathon. Think thousands of developers from around the world converging on Denver, pulling all-nighters for days on end, teaming up to build projects from scratch — and collectively battling it out for the $1.5 million in total bounties on offer. While hackathons are nothing new, many in the blockchain community consider ETHDenver to be the premiere destination for ethereum developers.
“It really is tech meets Mr. Robot, meets Burning Man festival, meets Celebration of Life,” said Dani Osorio, head of content for ETHDenver, who has spent the last several years working in infrastructure and developer relations. “So you have this very casual, collegiate, collaborative energy that’s very joyful.”
“It’s not a conference where you just sit and listen, and you’re wearing a suit and you act like somebody you’re not. You get to be you, and you get to participate in building this future in any way you see fit,” said Paller. “It’s choose your own adventure.”
One of the hackathon judges is Christine Perry, a former Defense Department contractor who got into crypto because she wanted to see what was underneath the hood of tokens. She explains that ETHDenver is where developers come to learn what’s been built and what still needs to be built, and then work together to make that possible.
“When I discovered ethereum, I was like, ‘This is it. This is the blockchain that’s really going to make changes, because there’s a lot of developers here, there’s a lot of people tinkering,'” said Perry, who before getting into blockchain, made the Guinness Book of World Records — twice — for group skydiving events.
“ETHDenver is a place of advancement for the space. Because after this, everyone goes back to the drawing board. They’ve already made their partnerships, and they just keep moving the project or the ecosystem further forward.”
But the ETHDenver scene isn’t all about developers. As the tech has matured, so too have the subcultures.
Parts of the summit felt more commercial than they used to, according to long-time ETHDenver goers. Companies aren’t shy about shilling products, and networking for the purposes of recruiting talent — and cash — is definitely a thing. The organizers who allocated space in the Castle apparently gave more precedence than earlier years to company booths.
“It’s a bunch of hackers that are developing and building projects, mixed with investors, but the investors aren’t like banker investors, they’re also hackers who made a bunch of money in crypto back in the day. It’s just so awesome,” said Keatly Haldeman, CEO of the recently launched Dequency, a web3 music sync licensing platform.
Ethereum’s sub-tribes also include artists like NFT star Emily Yang, better known as Pplpleasr, as well as humanitarians like Kweku Mandela (grandson to Nelson Mandela) and Princess Sarah Culberson of Sierra Leone, who spoke about the use cases for crypto in emerging economies.
But whatever sub-tribe they were part of, the party didn’t end on Wednesday. Buses departed for a group ski trip to Breckenridge on Thursday morning.