I Need to Explain to You Just How Dire America's Pokémon Card Crisis Is

Pokémon cards aren't just expensive. Card grading services are being completely overwhelmed in an “avalanche of cardboard.”

Apr 30 2021, 1:00pm

It is possible, maybe even likely, that sometime during the pandemic you have heard that Pokémon card collecting is undergoing a sort of renaissance. Having large swaths of the world largely confined to their homes sends people searching for new hobbies, rediscovering old ones, and searching their closets for old collectibles. All of this has led to a scorching hot Pokémon card market

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As I said, you have maybe heard about this already. But I need to explain to you how out of hand things have gotten. The story here is not “Pokémon cards are kind of popular again.” The resurgent interest in Pokémon cards has brought multiple major, well-respected companies to their knees, has caused Target stores to consider calling the cops, and has led to shortages and/or price increases of basically anything even remotely attached to the hobby of collecting cards. However wild you might think any of this is, it is wilder than that. 

Do you work at CGC, BGS, or PSA? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Jason Koebler securely on Signal on +1 202-505-1702 or email jason.koebler@vice.com.

I know this, because I collected Pokémon cards when I was a child. I played in weekly tournaments at my local card shop. I competed (and did well!) in a national tournament sponsored by Nintendo in 1999. At that tournament alone, I won a series of cards that are now worth thousands of dollars. I had a First Edition Charizard, one of the most sought-after cards of all time, when I was 10. I sold it on eBay when I was 11, for $150. It was a huge sum of money at the time. One of these sold for more than $300,000 a few months ago. Like many other people, I have spent much of the last few months digging through my old cards, identifying which ones are valuable, and selling them on eBay. I have not even begun to sell my most valuable cards and have already made more than $3,000. I sold a First Edition Eevee, one of the most common cards in the Jungle set released in 1999, for $40. I sold a First Edition Magikarp, the most impotent Pokémon that has ever existed, for $70.

A good way to check the prices people are selling Pokémon cards for is to check eBay’s “sold items.”

The prices people are willing to pay for Pokémon cards are very high, but to be honest that is pretty normal collector stuff. I kept these cards in the first place because “they might be worth something someday.” It is now “someday,” and they are worth something. 

What is NOT normal is what is happening at the higher ends of the collecting hobby and, specifically, in the “graded” card market. There is a “grading” industry in the collectibles world whose purpose is to authenticate and determine the condition of a card, or a comic book, or a piece of sports memorabilia. For Pokémon, Magic, and sports cards, graders consider the centering, coloring, edges, and general condition of a card, and assign it a score between 1-10 (1 is considered “poor,” 10 is considered “gem mint.”) Scratches, bends, creases, pen marks, printing errors, etc. all affect a card’s grade. Grading is done under special lighting and with magnifying glasses and other tools to really put a card through the proverbial ringer. This is a very serious enterprise. Once a card has been graded, it is not only considered to be authentic but it also means a professional has looked at it and, in the case of a 10, determined that it is perfect, the ideal specimen of a card that was made in limited quantities. 

Prices of PSA-graded cards that have sold at auction recently. Image: PSA

Getting a card graded at a high score affects the price of that card on the secondary market by many orders of magnitude. An ungraded, holographic First Edition Charizard card from the base set (the very rare card I sold on eBay when I was a kid) is worth a few thousand dollars. A First Edition Charizard graded a 10 is worth, as I mentioned, $300,000. For less rare cards, this price magnifier effect is still in place. A card that might sell for $10 ungraded could sell for $200 or more if graded a 10. There are dozens of Pokémon cards that are worth between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars if they're graded an 8, 9, or 10.

With old Pokémon cards in particular, there are a lot of damaged, low-grade cards because they are literally children's toys, designed to be shuffled and handled repeatedly and traded back and forth. I distinctly remember playing with cards that would have been worth a lot of money today at recess in elementary school, laying the cards in the dirt. A search on eBay will show many cards that would be very valuable that are selling at relatively low prices because they are bent, scratched, written on, or otherwise half destroyed. This means there's a huge incentive to get cards that are in good condition graded, because there are relatively few of them out there.

Over the last few months, as people have been raiding their closets for their old Pokémon card collections, they’ve been mailing their cards to get graded at one of the three major companies that does this. The companies are Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), Certified Guaranty Company (CGC), and Beckett Grading Services (BGS). Each of these companies has been grading collectibles for decades, though CGC made its name grading comics and only began grading trading cards about a year ago. Under the weight of the resurgent Pokémon card hobby, each has been completely crushed by demand and COVID-related backlogs, to the point that, from the outside, it seems as though they are barely functioning (It’s not just Pokémon cards, there has also been a resurgence in sports card, Magic card, and Yu-gi-oh! card collecting).

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PSA, the most popular grading service, has published card grading wait times of up to 10 months but collectors say they have at times waited for more than a year to get certain cards graded. BGS’s published wait times are “Approximately 9+ months.” CGC claims that its wait times are “144 working days.” These long wait times do not come close to showing the inner workings of what seems to be happening at these companies right now, however. 

Both PSA and CGC have posted increasingly alarming blog posts and updates about the current state of the grading industry. All three companies seem to be making a lot of money despite being completely unable to keep up with demand. In March, Joe Orlando, the CEO of PSA, wrote a blog post called “an avalanche of cardboard” in which he noted that there was a “tsunami” of cards submitted to the company: “At the time of this writing, PSA was receiving more cards every five days (over 500,000 per business week) than what we used to receive every three months.”

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Orlando noted that there were “some who questioned my sanity” after an earlier post explained why card collecting survived the financial crisis, 9/11, and would survive the pandemic. 

“The sheer volume of orders that PSA received in early March has fundamentally changed our ability to service the hobby”

“Even I didn’t think it would be THIS good,” he wrote of the new interest in the hobby and the 10-20x increase in prices some cards have seen during the pandemic. “During the past year, our company has hired, trained, and onboarded dozens upon dozens of new employees … In October of 2020, we doubled the size of our headquarters to accommodate for increased operational capacity.”

Barely a week later, though, Steve Sloan, PSA’s president, announced that the company would temporarily stop accepting cards for grading unless collectors pay $300 per card for “Super Express” service or $600 per card for “Walk Through” service. It said in addition to the new warehouse it bought it would be buying yet another warehouse and said that it was desperately looking for new graders to keep up with demand. 

“The sheer volume of orders that PSA received in early March has fundamentally changed our ability to service the hobby," Sloan wrote. "The reality is that we recently received more cards in three days than we did during the previous three months.” 

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CGC, meanwhile, announced in early March that it has “experienced extraordinary growth in demand for our expert and impartial certification services” and as a result had hired 70 new employees in three months, bought “an additional 21,000 square feet of space, implemented comprehensive training programs, brought in efficiency consultants and worked thousands of hours of overtime.” It also claimed it was investing in “cutting-edge technology, including AI, robotics, advanced software, and more” and said that it would give a $1,000 start bonus to any new employees to incentivize people to apply to work there. 

Now, a little over a month later, CGC has announced it’s increasing that start bonus to $2,500 and that it is “seeking to immediately hire dozens of employees … for nearly all positions.” This week, it announced that prices for its cheapest grading services would increase substantially and set a Wednesday deadline for submissions before the price increase. 

That new deadline led to yet another surge of submissions and seemingly led to its submission website having major difficulties; the CGC forums are currently filled with very angry people who seemingly weren’t able to meet the deadline. I submitted a few dozen cards to be graded by CGC in early February before I understood just how dire this situation is; it took more than a month for the company to even acknowledge it had received the cards. They have still not formally entered the grading process. What this looks like on a collector's or consumer's end is that they are taking some of the most valuable collectibles they own (if you are getting cards graded, they are almost definitely worth thousands of dollars on eBay or on the secondary market) packaging them up, and mailing them into what is essentially a black hole, with little idea of when they will come back. 

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“Knowing that we sent our cards out and they were supposedly delivered but have no confirmation that they received is very unnerving,” one CGC forum poster wrote Thursday. “Waiting months to get confirmation that actually received an order is very unfair.”

“I am wondering what happened to my stuff :(,” another wrote.

CGC, PSA, and BGS did not respond to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, prices for things that are ancillary to trading card collecting, including cheap plastic sleeves, hard plastic “Top Loaders,” and another type of card protector called "Card Savers" which are required for submitting cards to be graded are also skyrocketing in price. A collector I know has begun to simply buy Top Loaders from Chinese wholesale websites and sell those on eBay rather than deal with Pokémon cards at all. Target stores around the country have lines around the block every Friday morning and the company has begun to consider whether it might have to call the cops to prevent people from camping out overnight. 

This is all to say that, yes, Pokémon cards are popular again. But that is underselling it. The popularity of Pokémon cards and other trading cards are leading to a situation in which hundreds of people are working "thousands of hours of overtime" and companies are offering massive bounties for new hires to keep up with demand, and are still failing to do so. 

“We are extremely excited about the future, not just for our company, but for the entire industry,” Orlando said in his blog. “You should be too.”

Tagged:

magic cards, Pokemon Cards, psa, trading card games, tcg, Pokemon TCG

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