‘Ethereum killer’ has become a popular marketing term, but few of the L1 contenders can compare to Ethereum in terms of transaction numbers, volume, and TVL. I’ll examine the on-chain metrics to identify the most successful contenders - and then argue that the whole debate is missing the point because we should aim for adoption, not a monopoly.
Remember how, in 2017 and 2018, just about any crypto project was called an ecosystem? Or how in 2021, play-to-earn games that look plucked straight from 2000 suddenly became ‘metaverses’?
Crypto likes big words because they sell well. ‘Ethereum killer’ is no different. It sounds better than ‘smart contract platform’, just like how ‘ecosystem’ sounds better than ‘dApp’. But at the end of the day, that’s just all those ‘killers’ are – blockchains that support smart contracts and allow devs to build and deploy dApps, just like Ethereum does.
In 2021, ‘killer’ lists often include Solana, Avalanche, Fantom, Polygon, Polkadot, and Cardano. Others include Algorand, Near, Elrond, Internet Computer, IOTA, Harmony, etc. They all offer solutions to the same Ethereum problems: low processing capacity, limited scalability, and high fees.
These platforms are also often called L1 (layer-1), with various protocols and scaling solutions built on them being L2 (though Polygon is perhaps borderline between L1 and L2). However, some, like Polkadot, Cosmos, and Avalanche, can actually support a multitude of interconnected but independent blockchains, so perhaps it’s more accurate to call them L0.
Note that none of the L1 blockchains calls itself an ‘Ethereum killer’. Here are a few taglines from the official websites:
And so on. These projects define themselves through scalability, speed, security, and user-friendliness – not through a comparison with Ethereum.
The crypto media created the ‘Ethereum killers’ narrative, and its purpose – like with all media narratives is to get clicks and views. Which article will get more reads: ‘5 Ethereum killers to add to your portfolio’ or ‘5 L1 blockchains with time to finality below 5 seconds’?
Another interesting thing to note is that before Solana and Co. became the talk of the town, there was a whole earlier generation of smart contract platforms launched from 2016 to 2018, such as Tron, EOS, Waves, Wanchain, NEO, etc. Yet, they don’t make the ‘killer’ lists (with the rare exception of Tron). Why? Probably because they lack the attractiveness of novelty.
I head a blockchain consulting and marketing agency (BDC Consulting), where it’s part of our daily business to shape narratives to make them attractive to the media and the audience. Still, it’s important to distinguish the real advantages and potential from how they are presented in marketing materials.
What does a smart contract platform need to achieve to win the race against Ethereum? Several possibilities come to mind:
Ideally, the ultimate winner would have all of these. Are any of our contenders close?
I’ve asked the in-house research department at BDC Consulting to run some numbers, and here’s what they came up with:
(A note on BSC: we decided not to include Binance Smart Chain in this comparison because it’s very centralized. With just 21 validators, all of whom are selected by the 11 validators of Binance Chain, BSC is directly or indirectly controlled by Binance, and one can argue that a true ‘Ethereum killer’ should be decentralized.)
The most striking thing about this table is Solana’s dominance in terms of on-chain adoption. With just 4.3% of Ethereum’s unique addresses and 24.1% of its active addresses, it handles 177 times (!) more transactions a day than Ethereum.
The comparison is even more dramatic if you calculate the ratio of daily transactions per active address: 1,184 on Solana vs. 1.6. How is this even possible?
The fact is that Solana blockchain numbers shouldn’t be taken at face value. First of all, up to 90% of all transactions on Solana are voting transactions signed by validators, where no actual asset transfer takes place. ‘Real’ transactions’ (DEX swaps, loans, money transfers, NFT sales, etc.) should amount to around 2.2 million a day – which is still far more than on Ethereum, of course. Most of these happen on Solana’s DeFi platforms, such as Atrix and Raydium.
The fact that the same validators constantly submit voting transactions explains the very high number of transactions per active address on Solana. By contrast, Ethereum, which still uses Proof-of-Work, doesn’t even have validators on the mainnet (yet).
The final caveat is the difference in transaction volumes. Solana may process more operations daily, but there is 13.8 times less liquidity locked in its dApps, and DEX trading volumes are far lower. For example, here is a comparison of the TVLs of the top 10 DeFi dApps in both networks. As you can see, all those on Ethereum have a TVL above $5 billion, while on Solana, the biggest is Raydium, with just $1.6 billion.
Finally, let’s not forget Solana’s occasional blackouts. Even though it reached 50k tps in lab tests, this network isn’t immune to congestion: on December 13, it slowed down almost to a halt following the SolChicks token listing on Raydium. In September, Solana was down for 18 hours because of an IDO.
All this being said, Solana’s performance is extremely impressive: it routinely handles 2,600 transactions per second – and once volumes and TVL increase, it could become a real competitor for Ethereum.
Of all the other networks on our list, Polygon and (surprisingly) Harmony are the only ones to outperform Ethereum in terms of the number of daily transactions.
Polygon benefits from the presence of the major multichain DeFi protocols like Curve, SushiSwap, Aave, and Balancer. Many people have switched to using them on Polygon due to lower transaction fees than Ethereum. Actually, the only Polygon-native DeFi dApp with a TVL above $100m is KlimaDAO.
As for Harmony, the explanation is simple: DeFi Kingdoms. This Play2Earn game has overtaken Axie Infinity to become the most popular GameFi project in the industry, played by 22k users daily. The demand for its JEWEL token has also given a nice bump to the TVL and trading volume on SushiSwap Harmony.
The success of DeFi Kingdoms is proof that Harmony can support massive dApps – but it hardly means that the network is about to take over Ethereum.
By the way, if you are confused by the drastic difference between a blockchain’s average and maximum tps values, remember that the new L1’s are still underutilized. For instance, Avalanche could process 4,500 transactions per second or 388 million in 24 hours, but the current activity level is just 788k transactions a day, or 0.2% of the maximum capacity. So the actual speed works out at just 9 tps.
It’s been said many times that the only network that can ‘kill’ Ethereum is… Ethereum itself, or rather Eth 2.0. It doesn’t have a release date yet, but there are already more than 100,000 Eth 2.0 validators (full nodes), each of whom has staked 32 ETH. For comparison: Solana has around 1,000 active validators, Avalanche has 4000, and Polygon has only 100. If you consider the number of independent nodes as a measure of decentralization, no other network will compete with Eth 2.0.
Capacity-wise, Eth 2.0 should be able to scale to more than 100,000 tps on all its 64 shards. It’s less than Polkadot with its 100 parachains of 1,000 tps each but still more than Solana and other non-sharded chains.
The launch of Eth 2.0 – whenever it happens – will be a huge test of strength for Solana, Polygon, Avalanche, and the rest. They can compete with the lagging and expensive Ethereum 1.0, but it’s hard to predict if they can stand up to a faster, leaner network with all the weight of Vitalik Buterin and other core Ethereum devs behind it.
I believe that those who look for the most likely ‘Ethereum killer’ are missing the point. The ultimate goal is mass crypto adoption, and having many alternative smart contract platforms can help with that. A new user interested in trading might pick Solana, while a gamer may go for Harmony because of DeFi Kingdoms, and so on.
Competition fuels innovation and benefits customers, while monopoly leads to higher costs and limited choice. You wouldn’t want to have just one supermarket chain in your city, so why wish for a single network to monopolize the blockchain industry?