YouTube’s on-call scandal hero Logan Paul entered last weekend’s WrestleMania match with the world’s most expensive Pokémon card around his neck, for which he paid 5,275,000 USD to be exact. This is the most expensive Pokémon card sold at private auction today, but it’s not the only time collectors have paid small (?) fortunes for these rare and valuable items.
Pokémon cards are a big business today! I myself have never understood the hype, but it is undeniable that 25 years ago this year, Pokémon went on a relentless media offensive, appearing not only in video games, but also on TV and, of course, on store shelves. It’s true that the franchise is still going strong after all these years, and it’s fair to say that it’s more popular than ever, with Pokémon GO, Pokémon Sword and Shield still with us today, and fans are still going crazy for the cards that go with them.
Target, the US department store, suspended the sale of Pokémon cards in stores last year after a dispute over the cards in Wisconsin turned into an armed conflict outside a store. In addition, sales of these cards have soared amid the pandemic. According to the auction site eBay, sales of Pokémon cards in the United States increased by 574% between 2019 and 2020. Across all card types (including sports cards), sales more than doubled in Europe and tripled in the UK.
Pokémon started small at the time. The game was developed by Tokyo-based Game Freak, which started out with just a self-published magazine for video gamers. “The games took about seven years to develop. We thought the game would be a success in Japan and we might sell a million copies”, said company president Tsunekazu Ishihara, who was part of the original development team. He was right, but they didn’t stop at one million. The first in the series, Pokémon Red and Green, were released in Japan on 27 February 1996. They became a generational hit, and players were even able to connect Game Boys with cables to swap certain Pokémon that were only available in each version. “We never thought about selling Pokémon abroad. The experts said there was no chance it would work because American kids wouldn’t play a game with lots of text to read, no action, and only alternating battles”.
Dani Sanchez is a Pokémon YouTuber from Los Angeles who attracts thousands of viewers every week when he opens packs. The first Pokémon craze of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a defining experience in the lives of many twenty-somethings. Images of the Japanese anime monsters were sold in schools around the world, and what started out as a video game eventually made a comeback in films, Happy Meal children’s menus, and cereal boxes. For Sanchez, a childhood interest in Pokémon turned into a 15-year collection obsession and eventually into a career.
The value of these vintage cards skyrocketed over two decades. A sealed box of Pokémon cards from the early 2000s or late 90s used to sell for around 100 USD, but today they can go for up to 50,000. But the most valuable cards are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes even millions, thanks to stars like Shawn Mendes and Steve Aoki, and the growing number of collectors who are driving the Pokémon-related card market upwards.