Pokémon collectors are playing for keeps
The pandemic ushers in trading card sticker shock
Adults with extra money on their hands and a flair for nostalgia have helped make the world’s leading toy brand less accessible for children. Big box retailers have empty shelves where new Pokémon cards should be, with stores reporting shoppers lining up for hours ahead of new shipments.
Pokémon, a shortened form of “pocket monsters,” started as a video game in the late 1990s and expanded into the world’s highest-grossing media franchise with cartoons, toys, and the signature card game. In both the video and card games, players collect cute and colorful monsters with varying characteristics and send them into battle.
More than 20 years after the release of the first Pokémon cards, low supply and unexpected demand have created a shortage and sent prices soaring. David Donohoo, the owner of Ettin Games in Humble, Texas, said manufacturers printed fewer cards during the pandemic, not knowing how lockdowns would affect demand. It turned out Pokémon enthusiasts wanted more cards in quarantine, not fewer. Donohoo said scalpers and speculators exacerbated the problem by buying up what little product existed to resell at inflated prices.
Robert Sanders of Moline, Ill., has been trading Pokémon cards since he was in the third grade. Now he owns Traveling Merchant, a store specializing in trading card games.
“Frenzy is very much the right word,” he said about Pokémon cards. He noticed their prices started to climb about a year ago, and he attributed the increase to the first round of stimulus checks: “Some people who play card games felt like they had gotten free money, and people were bored.”
After a couple of high-profile sales, Pokémon prices got another boost in October of last year and continued to rise. YouTuber Logan Paul paid $200,000 for a box of first edition Pokémon cards, which he opened as part of a livestreamed event for charity. He found a rare Charizard, the most sought-after card in the set. The same week, the rapper Logic bought a first edition Charizard at an auction for more than $220,000. Logic said he bought it because his family was too poor to buy Pokémon cards when he was young. It was “like buying back a piece of something I could never have,” he said.
Some adults who collected Pokémon cards 20 years ago are digging through their parents’ attics looking to cash in. But the rarest cards won’t sell for thousands of dollars unless they’re professionally graded, or inspected for authenticity and imperfections.
Over the past year, card-grading services began seeing an uptick in demand—then an avalanche of cards descended on them. On March 30, PSA, the world’s largest grading service, announced it had received more submissions in three days than in the previous three months, and it wouldn’t accept any more for the time being. Estimated turnaround times at all the grading services have increased from a few weeks to, in some cases, longer than a year.
Most of the people spending money to grade their cards will likely be disappointed. The highest grade of 10 might turn a $20 card into a $150 card or a $500 card into a $3,000 card, but even cards that appear perfect don’t necessarily score that high. One prominent YouTuber, Ludwig Ahgren, was stunned when most of his cards came back with a grade of 9 rather than 10, which lowered their expected value by about 80 percent.
The frenzy will eventually die down, but Sanders doubts the surging price of trading cards is a bubble waiting to burst. He views trading cards as an alternate investment type, noting the price increases of vintage cards mirror the increases seen in the stock market, the real estate market, and the market for cryptocurrencies. Even so, he warns people against speculating on trading cards unless they have extensive knowledge of the market. “Don’t go to the store and buy 40 booster packs of cards and call it investing,” he warned. “Don’t give in to the fear of missing out.”
Sanders advises parents whose children are interested in Pokémon that they don’t need to engage in the frenzy to enjoy the game. Kids can have fun playing with the cheap cards that don’t appeal to collectors. He also encourages Christian parents to use discussions about the Pokémon frenzy to give their children a Biblical perspective on material possessions. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s just cardboard.”
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