- Pokémon is celebrating its 25th-anniversary and its cards have never been more expensive.
- Nostalgic millennials and an influx of popular content creators opening packs have led to the boom.
- Top collectible Pokémon cards over $50 recently rose 466% in value.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Pokémon, the international franchise starring hundreds of battling pocket monsters, turns 25-years-old this week. First released in Japan in 1996 on the original Nintendo Gameboy, the series has spread across the globe and evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Worth an estimated $100 billion with ongoing games, movies, shows, and merchandise, Pikachu and his partners are still dominating the markets.
Though the Pokémon branded jet planes, consoles, and cars can hog the spotlight, pieces of cardboard are still one of the franchise’s most valuable exports. The Pokémon trading card game (or TCG) is a multi-million dollar-a-year industry, with a full set of rules and tournaments that in 2016 helped sell 2.1 billion cards.
“Until I collected Pokémon cards, I never felt like I was able to capture a piece of my childhood back,” YouTube star Logan Paul, who started opening packs in videos last year, told Insider. “I love how the cards look and how they make me feel: like a big kid with a lot of money to spend on cardboard.”
Over the past year, sparked by Paul’s videos and a pandemic, Pokémon card collecting has grown to record-breaking heights. DJ Steve Aoki started opening up packs on his own livestreams and rapper Logic spent $220,000 on a first edition Charizard at auction.
Pokémon cards charmed kids around the globe, erupting in popularity
The Pokémon card game was first released in 1999 by Wizards of the Coast and in 2003 switched over to a subsidiary of the Pokémon Company, Creatures Inc. Since launching, the series has produced 74 sets and over 9,000 cards in the United States.
The original, or base set of 102 cards, featured holographic staples of the franchise like Alazkazam, Lapras, and Machamp. Box sets flew off shelves and the game became an immediate success. First editions (containing a small number one on the left side of the card) are the rarest, with the three other printed runs (Shadowless, Unlimited, and 2000) still coveted by kids on playgrounds and in classrooms.
“Right now, the Pokémon card boom is even bigger than when it first came to the United States back in the 90s,” YouTuber RealBreakingNate told Insider. “It’s probably the biggest it’s ever been in its 25 years.”
With over 670,000 YouTube subscribers, Nate has been a full-time Poké-tuber for the past three years. Pack opening videos, where they open up cards in front of a camera for fans to watch, are incredibly popular and easily consumable. Though kids of the 90s’ could only open their own packs, modern enthusiasts and trainers can now get the joy of a fresh pack through other people’s videos as well. With an average of around 100,000 views a video, it’s clear both old and new trainers alike love to see silver foil wrapping get ripped apart.
“A lot of people are pulling up their old binders that they had in the closet, attic, or basement and they’re reliving their childhood. They want those cards back, especially if they got rid of them,” RealBreakingNate said. “They want those cards back and want them in their collection again.”
Card box openings aren’t anything new — other YouTubers have built up entire channels by showing off their pulls and purchases. Lee Steinfeld and Maxwell Stanley, who go by Leonhart and MaxmoeFoePokémon, each have around 1.4 million YouTube subscribers. But this revitalization in the Pokémon card collecting community has only charged up channels like these.
Why are Pokémon cards so expensive?
Following the massive popularity of Pokémon GO’s launch in 2016, which had people roaming the outdoors to catch Pokémon in the wild, card prices increased but 2020 was a year that kept Poké-maniacs indoors. With more free time and saved money, for some, nostalgia started to be a major driving force of the secondary market. Those classic cards with immediately recognizable artwork started to climb in value, alongside cards of popular franchise mascots like Pikachu, Squirtle, and Mewtwo.
This original set of cards has always had value, but 2020 caused their prices to skyrocket.
TCGplayer,one of the main Pokémon card resellers online, says it shipped over 16.2 million single Pokémon cards to players and local hobby shops over the course of 2020. Over that same period, TCGplayer says the top collectible cards priced over $50 in value rose 466%, becoming six times more valuable than they were in January of the year before.
“We have a lot more serious collector money influencing the market than what we had previously,”John McDonald, Senior VP of Product at TCGplayer said. “They have a little bit of spending money in their pockets, and they want the cards that reminded them of how fun it was to be 10 years old,”
Unlike other card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic The Gathering, where value is often created from cards that are popular or playable in-game, Pokémon is fueled mostly by scarcity and rarity. On TCGplayer, the top eight most valuable cards sold on their site in January 2021 were all Charizards, many of which would be absolutely abysmal or impossible to use in the actual game.
“I was buying vintage booster packs still sealed, unopened for less than a hundred dollars, five years ago,” RealBreakingNate said. ” Today, if it’s a first edition, you’re going to pay, depending on the set, hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”
Full boxes of first edition Pokémon cards have become collector catnip, with a base set in January 2021 selling for $408,000 at Heritage Auctions. In November 2020, Heritage sold a similar box for $360,000.
Though the popularity of Pokémon and the pandemic had a clear influence on card prices, YouTuber Logan Paul, led to the explosion in value.
When Logan Paul arrived, the market exploded in value
Logan Paul, the controversial creator who infamously posted a video of a dead man’s body on his channel in 2018, has spent the past couple of years rebranding his image. He started his ImPaulsive podcast, featuring interviews with influencers and celebrities, and boxed against fellow YouTuber Olajide William Olatunji, known as KSI in front of millions of fans.
On October 9 2020, Logan Paul waded into another type of content livestreaming himself opening 36 packs of base set Pokémon cards. Buying the box for $200,000, he auctioned off each pack before opening in, giving the cards out to winners and the proceeds to charity. The live stream was a massive success, with the stream having 300,000 concurrent viewers and pulling in 11 million views in the past few months.
“A friend of mine suggested it would be a great piece of content with so much room for optimization: feel like a kid again, put on a great show, turn a profit, raise money for charity, and amplify an industry,” Paul said. “I have to admit, I was really surprised when it worked!”
Almost immediately after the stream, card prices started to rise. TCGplayer noticed a spike in value in Pokémon cards that McDonald attributed “to a lot of popularity of YouTube influencers.”
“Paul definitely influenced the prices of the higher-end stuff,” McDonald said.
Over the past year, Paul says that he has spent $2 million on Pokémon cards and still hasn’t revealed all his purchases. He feels that he has had a “very positive” impact on the Pokémon card community and thinks that he “just reminded people how special Pokémon really is.”
“All I’ve done is highlighted how cool, meaningful, and grand Pokémon is. I’ve connected with such cool collectors,” Paul said.
With the success of his first auction, Paul is hoping that the thunderbolt will strike twice. In one of Paul’s most recent vlogs, he announced that he bought six first edition booster boxes and will be auctioning them off for charity on February 27 or Pokémon Day with Goldin Auctions.
“If I knew this was going to be this big, I would have bought the boxes before, I didn’t think people would care,” Paul responded.
With prices skyrocketing, some have been critical of Paul’s involvement in the TCG.
“At its core, the magic and fun of collecting Pokemon cards is now being lost for many,” Meg Bethany Koepp of Dexerto wrote. “Because of his influence, it’s just a new stock market, and if you don’t have the money, you can’t even participate.”
The future of Pokémon cards remains unsure but bright like a sunny day
In 2021, prices are higher than ever. Those invested think that they could continue to climb or it could all pop like a bubble beam.
“For Pokémon in particular, there’s always potential for it to be a bubble,” McDonald said. “I think that if you can get the quality of the new cards to build that interest in what’s happening in Pokémon now to the nostalgia users, while also retaining the kids who are into the games right now, that they could sustain at a high level for a long time.”
But there are only a finite amount of old Pokémon cards and if that well runs completely dry, who knows where the market will go. Still, not all diehard Pokémon fans feel that Paul has signaled the end times of their hobby.
“I think what Logan Paul did was a good reminder to a lot of people that Pokémon is still out there,” RealBreakingNate said. “He’s having fun with it in his way. And if that’s the way he wants to have fun with it, then that’s perfectly okay.”