How the Pokémon Trading Card Game Boom Brought Back Pokémon Fever

The Pokemon TCG is more valuable than ever, but for many, these cards are about more than money.

Pokemon Cards Amazing Rare
Photo: The Pokemon Company

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The popularity of the Pokémon Trading Card Game was not an accident. While some might be quick to call it an overnight sensation, that actually sells short the effort that went into the Pokémon TCG (and the games it was based on).

Released in Japan in October 1996 (just 8 months after the debut of the first Pokémon games), the Pokémon TCG was one of the first major additions to what would become a vast pipeline of Pokémon merchandise. While clearly inspired by the incredible success of the Magic: The Gathering franchise, as well as Pokémon collectible cards released by Bandai earlier that year, the Pokémon TCG was no mere copycat. Along with being more accessible than other TCGs on the market, the Pokémon card game proved to be a natural extension of the things that made millions fall in love with the original games.

“Ishihara-san, President of The Pokémon Company, loved tabletop/card games and wanted to create a card game which would act as a ‘Physical’ Pokédex and give players another way to experience the Pokémon brand,” said Pokémon TCG director Atsushi Nagashima in an Evening Standard interview. “The idea of a trading card game fit perfectly in line with Pokémon‘s tenets of play, trade, and collect. It also encourages face-to-face play which has been key to the product’s success and longevity.”

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By Nagashima’s own admission, though, nobody predicted what happened in late 1998 and early 1999 when Wizards of the Coast brought the Pokémon TCG to North America with the release of the Base Set. Despite the increased availability of the cards, the growth of the Pokémon TCG during this time was partially driven by their scarcity. Mobs of fans stormed stores at the mere suggestion of a new shipment while the value of intentionally manufactured rare cards quickly soared. 

While the Pokémon TCG only grew more successful as the years passed, its dominance on the public consciousness seemed to fade for a while. No, it’s not like we’d look back on an old binder of Pokémon cards and shake our flushed faces in embarrassment, but for a time it felt like the Pokémon TCG had maybe reached its peak in the ‘90s, a pop culture moment meant to be cherished and preserved in our memory. 

But the Pokémon TCG’s story is far from over… In fact, Pokémon fever is back with a vengeance and has taught us all a little more about the true value of nostalgia.

Gotta Collect ‘Em All

“The market right now is insane,” says Peter “Arcashine” Chipouras, a mod on the r/PKMNTCGTrades card trading subreddit and professional card grader. “Stores used to be relatively full of product, and, if you were lucky, something lucrative might still be available. Nowadays, there’s nothing. Everything is bought out. Online retailers can’t restock quickly enough, and even if they do have the product in stock, they price it high to meet the secondary market.”

“Insane” is certainly the word for the sales records being set at the moment. A recent eBay report revealed that Pokémon trading card sales had increased by 574% from 2019 to 2020. Last year, a 1st Edition Charizard card sold for over $295,000. An even rarer version of the card commanded a price of over $350,000. In November 2020, Heritage Auctions sold a box of 1st Edition Pokémon booster sets for $360,000. A similar set had gone for $198,000 just two months before. 

You expect older cards to become more valuable over time. What’s impressive, though, is that this buying craze has extended to modern Pokémon TCG cards, too 

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“Even at the lowest level, we’re seeing sets that are normally printed to demand facing huge droughts of product,” Chipouras says. “Regular pack prices are typically $4.00 at retail stores, and usually around $3.00, give or take, on the secondary market. Recently, they’ve been pushing $7-$8.00 each.”

The extent of this shortage even impacted a recent McDonald’s promotion that offered limited supply Pokémon TCG cards with every Happy Meal. Across the country, stores were mobbed by enthusiastic buyers willing to buy dozens of Happy Meals simply for the card packs in their containers. Things have gotten to a point where The Pokémon Company has had to issue a rare statement regarding these shortages alongside a promise that more cards are on the way. 

This too may seem like it came out of nowhere, but that’s not really the case. As of March 2020, over 30 billion Pokémon TCG cards have been sold worldwide. Mobile game Pokémon GO has generated over $4 billion in revenue since 2016. The latest Pokémon games (Sword and Shield) have sold over 20 million units in a little over a year. The consistent success of the Pokémon franchise means it’s always been more “susceptible” to spikes that elevate the already impressive baseline popularity of the series. Millions are ready to become obsessed with Pokémon again at a moment’s notice.

But why is the Pokémon TCG specifically experiencing such a resurgence right now? It seems to come down to a couple of key factors. 

“One side is financial, where you’re seeing a lot of kids that grew up with the first Pokémon games finally hitting an age where they’re well into their careers and have access to disposable income,” Chipouras says. “Pair that with stimulus checks, and there’s a massive amount of capital available for those who want to invest in the hobby.”

There’s certainly something to be said about the influence of Covid-19 lockdowns on the growth of the Pokémon TCG market given the timeline of the boom. Last year, fans on Reddit were debating whether or not it was better to wait out the quarantine price surges and availability drops. Many suggested waiting things out, but the hype never really settled down.

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Pokémon as a long-term investment may sound about as solid as the recent GameStop stock boom, but it’s more than that. Beyond short-term sales meant to make the most of the current market, periods of Pokémon popularity spikes such as this one strongly suggest that cards can (and often do) retain value. That’s likely a big part of the reason why professional grading service Collector’s Universe was acquired for $700 million by an investment group.

The idea that the current market is being propelled by fans who now have the disposable income to spend on cards really is the most interesting and impactful factor at play, though. It’s a movement that many older Pokémon fans are contributing to, but there’s a specific group of buyers who are clearly leading the charge.

“Influencers [are] coming into the space and exposing, or re-introducing, a huge number of people to the hobby,” Chipouras says. “Not only are they driving prices for the most expensive collectibles in the hobby sky high, they’re also creating highly edited, viral content about doing just that.”

The Celebrity Factor 

In 2017, a man known as Gary “King Pokémon” appeared on Pawn Stars with a collection of Pokémon cards that can only be described as one of a kind.

While he asked for $500,000 for the collection, he insinuated he wasn’t really interested in selling the cards for even that amount. He was right to hesitate. Some of the individual cards in that collection now command prices close to that $500,000 figure.

Cut to 2020 when controversial vlogger Logan Paul decided to visit that Pokémon card trader with $150,000 in cash. After a highly produced spectacle topped off by negotiations, Paul was able to convince Gary to part with one of his Charizard cards. Earlier that month, Paul had posted a video that showed him unboxing a $200,000 box of 1st Edition cards. It’s one of the most notable examples of the kind of slick content that has propelled the market to often absurd heights. 

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The role of influencers certainly tracks with the timeline of TCG’s market resurgence. While YouTubers such as Derium and UnlistedLeaf have built careers off unboxing videos, card discussions, and similar Pokémon TCG content, it’s when some of the more mainstream names in the streaming and vlogging world got into the action that we saw prices and popularity skyrocket. Remember that box of cards that Paul bought for $200,000? It’s similar to the one that sold for nearly $400,000 a couple of months later. 

Sadly, that celebrity-assisted boom also unearthed some of the unfortunate elements of the scene. Consider, for instance, the story of Jake “JBTheCryptoKing” Greenbaum who was introduced to many people by Paul as a Pokémon card expert. Some who watched early Paul videos with Greenbaum expressed their concern that he was overvaluing cards either due to a lack of knowledge, a desire for personal gain, or a combination of both. In October 2020, Greenbaum helped the YouTube channel Dumb Money acquire what was described as a box of 1st Edition Pokemon TCG booster packs for $376,000. Shortly into the opening process, it was discovered that the box was fake. Examples of such scams and incompetency have been around for years, but the potential costs are higher than ever. 

Yet, the most prevalent negative impact of the Pokémon TCG resurgence is one that will be all-too-familiar to anyone who has tried to purchase high-profile items online, especially in the last couple of years. 

“One class of purchaser that’s come to the forefront this year are the botters,” Chipouras says. “Even normal collectors who just wait for a product to go live may miss out because the bots can immediately checkout hundreds or thousands of products in seconds.”

Again, the role of scalpers is nothing new, but just as with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X last year, a new generation of bot technology can make online purchases of Pokémon TCG cards from certain outlets nearly impossible. Scalpers and scammers aren’t necessarily misrepresenting the popularity or value of the Pokémon TCG market, but much like the online celebrities throwing unheard of amounts of money at these cards, they are contributing to a raised barrier of entry for more casual collectors who must navigate low inventories, high prices, and delayed productions just to get their hands on a few packs. 

Yet, it must be said that the role of celebrities and influencers has been far from a universal negative. The publicity generated by their content reminded people of the love they still harbor for the Pokémon TCG scene and gave many a new way to experience a sense of community during quarantine. Stories of such extravagant purchases may make your eyes roll, but they also open your eyes to a movement that is inherently fascinating.

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Besides, the pleasure of watching someone open and discover Pokémon cards goes beyond guilt. Dr. Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center says that part of the appeal of unboxing videos can be attributed to our “mirror neurons” which ensure that “people watching someone can experience the same emotions.” Incredibly, they can also trigger “the muscles in your body that would be required if you were trying to open the box.” Those of us who watched one of the many Pokémon TCG unboxing videos over the last year can attest to the unique thrill of that sensation. 

And yes, while there are some celebrities who undoubtedly only got into the scene to follow trends or flex their success, many more are just trying to recapture something important to them — or perhaps make up for lost time. There’s no better example of that than the rapper Logic, who posted these words to his Instagram account shortly after spending $183,812 to acquire a rare Charizard card:

“When I was a kid I absolutely loved Pokémon but couldn’t afford the cards. I remember even trying to trade food stamps for theirs and now as an adult who has saved every penny he has made being able to enjoy something that I’ve loved since childhood now as a grown man is like buying back a piece of something I could never have, it’s not about the material it’s about the experience.”

That’s what we mean regarding the value of nostalgia. It’s not just about money; it’s about our shared emotional investment in these cards and how the money strangely represents it.

Pokémon Party Like It’s 1999

Have you wondered why Charizard pops up so often as the star of the most valuable Pokémon cards? Some of it has to do with the power level of the cards in question and their relative rarity, but the most amusing contributor to their value is the simple fact that people love Charizard. 

In a 2019 poll that saw over 52,000 Reddit users cast a vote for their favorite Pokémon, Charizard was ranked number one. A 2020 poll conducted by the Pokémon Company named Charizard as the fourth most popular Pokémon following an extensive fan voting competition. Numerous outlets have named Charizard the coolest Pokémon or awarded the character similar distinctions. 

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The authors of the book Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon theorize that Charizard may be most popular with older male fans drawn to the character’s comparative toughness and the idea that this evolution cycle represents a departure from childhood. This theory meshes with the comments and demographics of notable top Charizard buyers, but when you get to the heart of it, there’s just something about Charizard’s design that has resonated with Pokémon fans and stayed with them throughout the years. 

There’s also something to be said about the impact of the 30-year nostalgia cycle. As noted by Patrick Metzger in an article for The Patterning, it generally takes about “30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture” to turn to the art and culture that “helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world.” More importantly, creators will “indulge in the ‘new’ nostalgic trend that’s being repurposed” in an attempt to “revive that same zeitgeist.” It’s part of the reason why the 1950s were big in 1980s America, why the 1980s were big in the 2010s, and it’s almost certainly part of the reason we’re seeing Pokémon re-emerge in such a big way now. 

It’s not just Charizard either. In the eBay sales report that revealed Charizard was the top-selling Pokémon card, the most popular athlete among sports trading card collectors was none other than Michael Jordan, another legendary figure from the ‘90s who recently experienced a popularity resurgence as a result of the success of The Last Dance documentary series

There’s something funny about Charizard and Michael Jordan sharing this pop culture moment. Both were superstars of their era, and both remain the faces of their respective fields: Pokémon and the golden age of ‘90s basketball. 

So before you begin to feel like you’re just caught under the wheels of nostalgia, consider that two of the earliest beneficiaries of what will almost certainly be a prolonged ‘90s revival never really lost value in the first place. We don’t look back on them solely because of nostalgic memories: we look back on them because their greatness never really left us. 

As a kid, you probably tried to justify your Pokémon collection to someone on the basis that it would one day grow in value. It’s not that it wasn’t true (it clearly was) but if you were really only thinking about the monetary value of Pokémon, you would have kept everything in mint condition rather than play with it all. It was really always about much more than that. 

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It feels like something similar is happening today. Yes, there are people who purchase Pokémon cards solely as an investment, but there’s a real sense that even some of those fans who talk about these cards as an investment are under the same spell as in the ‘90s. Pokémon cards do often go up in value, but if it’s just about the money, there are better investments out there. On some level, people are “investing” six figures in Pokémon cards because they want a shiny cardboard dragon and they’ve wanted it for a long time. 

That’s the true value of nostalgia. It’s not just about sales themselves but how these cards still make us feel decades later.

The high prices of Pokémon cards don’t speak to us just because they make us wish we’d kept those binders full of cards. Those absurd figures are also an easy way to convey how we felt when we shared the excitement of combing over those cards with friends all those years ago.