The Pokémon Trading Card Game just keeps selling out

Movies, concerts, and travelling have yet to return to our daily lives, but Pokémon is holding strong during the current pandemic. Opening a pack of Pokémon cards and shifting past the commons in search of a new shiny holographic rare offers a special type of dopamine rush that goes back to 1999, the year the Pokémon Trading Card Game first released in the United States. 22 years later — and a year into COVID-19’s impact on the U.S. — Pokémon cards have been booming just in time for the franchise’s 25th anniversary.

Pokémon commands loyal fans around the world and is one of the most lucrative franchises on Earth, maintaining a mammoth presence in video games, trading cards, toys, and other merchandise. Even so, its popularity tends to ebb and flow as people fall in and out of nostalgia. Pokémon cards are now spiking with products flying off the shelves at Target, Walmart, and local game stores, but it wasn’t long ago that the newest TCG sets could be easily found in the wild year-round.

Beginning trends

When COVID-19 cases began to spike in the United States, the modern TCG market was largely unaffected as products and singles continued to sell at reasonable rates — Sword & Shield Base Set Booster Boxes released in February of that year and remained between $90 and $120 at local game stores and on the open market. Pokémon’s next TCG set in May, Rebel Clash, maintained this trend as it sold for a similar price. Nowadays, both booster boxes sell for almost double the price on retail sites.

The TCG community took its own hit when The Pokémon Company International announced the indefinite suspension of competitive TCG play. Competitive TCG players across the world spend money on competitive cards, entry fees, and even plane tickets to qualify for Pokémon’s yearly World Championship. With the dissolution of live events, many Pokémon fans lost a reason to spend money on cards, but with the increased budget flexibility and incoming economic stimulus packages, the market began to take its first turn.

A Pokemon card shows Umbreon GX Image: The Pokémon Company

Highly collectable sets such as Hidden Fates — famous for its Shiny Vault, a collection of Pokémon reprinted in their Shiny form — began to see steady price hikes as more collectors entered the scene in the summer of 2020. Hidden Fates was a hot collector’s set on its release date of August 23, 2019 due to the aforementioned Shiny Vault and its incredibly sought after shiny reprint of Charizard GX SV49, a card worth over $600 ungraded on TCG merchant site, TCGplayer. TCGplayer acts as a middleman for local game stores across the United States and through its market price statistic — which averages out a card’s selling price — defines market value for many fans of the TCG.

If someone is lucky enough to pull a Charizard GX SV49 with perfectly aligned borders, flawless corners, and a scratchless surface, that tends to be a perfect target for grading with independent grading companies like Professional Sports Authenticator. PSA grades card conditions on a scale from one to 10, with the latter representing “Gem Mint.” A regular Charizard GX SV 49 might be worth over $600, but a PSA 10 Gem Mint version of the same card triples in value, and can be found on eBay for over $1,800.

As a mascot of the franchise and an exceedingly rare card, Charizard GX SV49 rose as the ultimate “chase card,” but the hype around Hidden Fates initially eventually petered out as TPCi continued to print the set to demand. Hidden Fates Elite Trainer Boxes, a TCG product featuring 10 booster packs, dice, and sleeves, were scarce, but fans could easily find Hidden Fates Tins at their local Walmart or Target.

Post-pandemic, though, single cards in the set began to skyrocket in price on merchant sites like TCGplayer and Troll & Toad. One of the first single cards to experience this price hike was Umbreon GX SV69, which prior to the boom casually sat around a value between $30 and $40 before rising to $80 on TCGplayer in the first half of 2020. Today, the card is valued between $150 and $200, almost six times more than its value at the beginning of 2020.

TCG fans initially saw this and other price hikes as a form of market correction. Collectable sets are rare and the “pulls” tend to be valued highly, especially when it comes to popular Pokémon like Umbreon and Charizard. These initial spikes were only a symptom of the market boom that followed in the latter half of 2020 and early this year, though. The hobby was developing, but on a smaller scale in a dedicated pack-opening and competitive community.

The Logan Paul effect

Fast-forward to October 9, 2020 and the hobby experienced its most significant catalyst yet — Logan Paul’s livestream opening of Pokémon’s first TCG set, Base Set (1999). The 25-year-old YouTuber is known for his share of controversy, but commands an audience of 22 million subscribers, and to many of them he streamed a group “break” of a Base Set Booster Box valued at $200,000.

A break is an opening organized by a streamer where individuals buy packs to be opened on stream, creating a unique social experience that doubles as a relatively cost-efficient way to open a few packs. For a set as vintage and nostalgic as Base Set, though, a break is the most viable way to enjoy a small part of some players’ childhoods, and as such, carries a hefty price tag.

Paul’s initial opening of Base Set didn’t turn the market on its side by itself, seeing as few people have the disposable income to shell out money on old Pokémon cards — Paul was quoted as selling the individual packs for $11,111 each — but it created a wave of hype that other personalities began to partake in. Other famous streamers, such as Pokimane, began to open slightly newer vintage sets such as Aquapolis, a set released in 2003. American rapper Logic even came into the game and purchased a PSA 10 1st Edition Base Set Charizard for $226,000.

Once the Pokémon TCG reached a fresh audience nostalgic for Pokémon and hungry for entertainment in quarantine, the stage was set for a new market situation. Fans, new and old, began buying everything off the shelves, from booster packs of Vivid Voltage to Pokémon’s newest collector’s set Shining Fates. Streamers continue to open booster boxes on Twitch and Youtube and people are joining in on the fun, but the product supply hasn’t been able to keep up.

Product and quarantine limitations

Targets, Walmarts, and local game stores across the world have been struggling to receive sufficient product allocation as a result of the current global pandemic. When stay-at-home orders initially went into effect, TPCi’s printing factories were deemed non-essential businesses, leaving them behind on printing both current and future sets. Even specialty stores such as CoreTCG, located in Pasadena, California, have been affected by the recent shortage.

“Product has definitely been harder to get since COVID,” CoreTCG store manager Vigen Aleksanyan says. “Distributors send products in waves, meaning that you don’t usually get [anything] near what you order upfront, if at all, of your full order.”

It’s no secret that TPCi has been printing in waves — TPCi directly addressed the situation on social media in early October — but since the collecting boom, it has become a problem for even the most modern sets. Vivid Voltage initially dropped in August, with booster box prices ranging between $100 and $120 USD, but has now spiked to almost $300 USD on platforms like Ebay due to extremely high demand. This leaves the community at odds as it decries resellers listing products at higher prices for a quick buck and local game stores charging over MSRP.

“The allocation [levels] force stores to sell products at a higher price due to high demand and low stock,” Aleksanyan says. “This, of course, causes a lot of upset consumers too. Logically, a store would rather be able to get more product than to be forced to sell at higher rates. It’s honestly sort of a loss-loss scenario. Consumers pay more and stores get little to no product.”

A Pokémon card shows Charizard Image: The Pokémon Company

It doesn’t help that “distributors have been offering products at higher rates” lately, making local game stores out to be “the bad guy” in all of this, Aleksanyan says. On top of that, the scalping situation continues to worsen at big box stores — stores like Target and Walmart are unable to charge above MSRP so they represent the largest profit margin for scalpers. People want their product and resellers have been known to stand outside Targets or Walmarts as they wait for a vendor to appear with the newest batch of sealed Pokémon products. Just like with any trend, there will be people ready to capitalize on the impatience and desire of highly devoted fans.

Target employee and tech consultant, Blake Zeller, describes the situation as “unbelievable,” citing that most sealed Pokémon products never last longer than a day or two on the shelves. Anything that lasts longer tend to be products that are centered around playing the game rather than collecting, such as Theme Decks or TPCi’s more competitive Battle Arena decks.

“We have buying limits in place for customers, but depending on the manager or the person, it might not always be upheld the same way,” Zeller says. As a fan of the TCG himself, Zeller says he sometimes let fans squeak by with extra product during the early days of quarantine, but says he’s tightened up since then. “Sometimes people even buy their product while hiding additional products somewhere else in the store for a future trip.”

Meanwhile, vendors have expressed frustration to Target employees like Zeller over being harassed by buyers, causing them to make trips at the most unavailable hours. “They’ll grab boxes from the cart as they’re putting them on the shelves and just get in their face,” Zeller said. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the current TCG fad, but some view it as the only way to guarantee a product at a reasonable price, as Target and Walmart don’t mark products past MSRP.

It’s a complicated situation for TPCi and a touchy moment for fans of the TCG and Pokémon in general. As the 25th anniversary passes, many fans will be unable to open commemorative cards and enjoy their hobby to the fullest. Pokémon’s newest set, Shining Fates, features more shiny reprints and a focus on the new Galar region, but has already been resold to the degree that $50 Elite Trainer Boxes are listed for almost $120 on eBay, TCGplayer, and Facebook Marketplace only a few days after release.

New fans continue to pour into the Pokémon TCG hobby and more people opening cards is surely good for The Pokémon Company ahead of its 25th anniversary, but the current global climate and extreme product demands make the hobby difficult to enjoy at times. Even McDonalds has struggled with resellers buying large amounts of Happy Meals and special 25th anniversary McDonalds packs. Even so, it’s a waiting game for fans, new and old, of the TCG. Sooner or later, people will have access to their pre-pandemic hobbies, factories will be able to print without restriction, and fans will have no problem finding a new shiny Charizard in their hands.