Collector Op-Ed: Video Games as a Hobby—An Experience Worth Collecting

Video Games as a Hobby—An Experience Worth Collecting

By Tom Curtin

 

Foreword: We are pleased to share with you the second of many collector and community sourced articles to come. We thank Tom for his contributions and work to put together this thoughtful and detailed opinion piece. Please note that any opinions or statements in this article are not necessarily shared by Wata. That being said, we always love to hear from the community no matter what side of the fence you stand on, and further encourage any of you who may have expertise in a certain area, insights in the market, or general opinions on the state of the collecting hobby to share your thoughts with us. Who knows, we just may publish it to share with the whole community! We have more collector articles in the pipeline so be sure to stay tuned…

 

As a hobby, video game collecting involves searching, locating, acquiring, organizing, displaying and securing games based on a specific purpose. For some, it is to relive their childhood. For others, it is for the prestige of owning rare or valuable games or having the biggest collection of a particular platform. As collectors grow older the purpose is often modified. Collections help revive good memories, feel secure and a sense of control over things that are valuable. For me, it started with a search about  20 years ago with a random search on eBay looking for a used Nintendo NES that I could play some games on. That was it, or so I thought.

eBay at the time was the Wild Wild West of online shopping. It hadn’t even been in existence for 5 years at that point. It was a mish-mash of collectibles, clothing, books, and of course, video games. That search looking for an NES changed my life. Once I hit “enter” it was like Neo taking the red pill. I instantly came across a new world, the world of video game collecting. My search would lead me to auctions of still brand new sealed NES games. I recall seeing one that sold for $200. My mind was blown. I couldn’t believe it. And down the rabbit hole I went…

 

One of Tom’s collection pieces — a first print CIB Castlevania Hangtab in a very hard to achieve 9.0. This is the highest graded Wata example.

I told my brother in conversation what I had found. He reminded me of a “Mom N’ Pop” store down the street from our house that sold NES games in years past. I stopped in one day and inquired whether they might have some old stock laying around. Two weeks later I left the store with two large boxes consisting of 170 sealed NES games. I kept what I wanted and the rest went onto eBay. As if by fate, that’s when I met a gentleman that I consider a good friend to this day, Tim Atwood. Yes, that Tim Atwood. Out of the 150+ games I sold at that time I’d guess 40 or so went to Tim. He wasn’t the mega collector he is today, but he was well on his way.

18 Years later we (more so Tim) would appear in an article together for ESPN The Magazine discussing one of the “grails” for video game collectors, Stadium Events. Wow times have changed. Since those days in the late 90’s there are now literally hundreds of websites dedicated to retro video game collecting, thousands of Instagram profiles with the words “retro” and/or “video game collector” in them, and you can walk into one of hundreds of brick and mortar stores around the country that at least dedicate part of, if not all, of their store to retro video games. Even GameStop has a way to purchase retro video games. eBay is still the leader in buying and selling video games, but the prices have changed…boy how the prices have changed. The prices have skyrocketed, but why? Basic economics. It is a simple matter of supply and demand, and time—as video games evolve from nostalgia to art and history form pretty much like what happened to comics and condition of the video game. See table below. 

Criteria

Past

Present

Rarity

Important Somewhat Important

History / Significance

Important

Important

Recognizability / Popularity

Somewhat Important

Imperative

Uniqueness

Important

Unimportant

Importance of Grading and Certifying

Somewhat Important

Imperative

Where to buy Mostly eBay & Private Sales

Heritage Auctions, eBay, Instagram, Private Sales

 

The last year or so has been the hottest this hobby has ever seen. It’s primarily led by an influx of a mix of comic book collectors, coin collectors, Magic the Gathering collectors, and more and more adults trying to relive their childhood one video game at a time. Adults with disposable income. For the sake of this article I’ll refer to this latest group as “new collectors”, though I don’t like labeling any particular group, we’re all collectors at heart. But there has been a seismic shift in the retro video game collecting scene that is a direct result of the new collectors so I believe it’s important to categorize them for the time being.  These new collectors are looking to complement themes set in their comic collection while professional video game collectors are looking to complete their collection in a particular platform.

With the addition of new collectors, prices have soared. A sealed copy of a second print of Super Mario Bros (SMB) sold for over $100k last year, and many, many, more copies of SMB have sold for 5 figures since then. Both sealed copies and complete in box (cart, instructions, box or “CIB”) are fetching used car prices. Right now it’s all about the variant/print. Not that it hasn’t always been important, it has, but now today more than ever the focus is on characters like Mario, Link (not Zelda) and Sonic, and getting the earliest print possible. In the case of SMB it’s a matte sticker seal version. The crown jewel.  It’s gotten to the point where that particular version/variant is a staple in any collection. An absolute must have. I chalk that up to new comic collectors in particular. In that world it seems to be all about first appearances, first prints, and characters, so I get it.

Rarity used to be the main driver in video game collecting. It’s what drove Stadium Events to the insane price it has today. Which led to the aforementioned Stadium Events article in ESPN the Magazine, mainstream media, the “big leagues”. Video game collecting has arrived and its meteoric rise to the hottest collectible market in the world is getting attention. Lots of attention. New companies are being formed.

Wata Games is a video game grading company based in Denver, CO that has made the transition for comic collectors joining the video game collecting realm much easier. Wata grades on a scale that is easily translatable for those who have experience in comic book grading. But, more so, Wata was born out of the love for the hobby and a glaring need for a new grading company. They are taking what they have learned in the last couple decades and building a force in the video game collecting scene. As of January 2020 Wata Games estimates that the majority of those who buy their graded games through Heritage Auctions are these “new collectors.”

Money is being thrown around, and we’re not talking about $200 anymore, games sell daily for thousands and new collectors are coming in droves. Some “purists” are turned off by what’s considered the flashing of cash, the deep pockets, or the veracity at which some of the new collectors buy. Me? I love it. It’s great for the hobby. Whenever we see another spike in popularity we see games getting discovered that may have never seen the light of day. If you do an eBay search for “Nintendo sticker seal” on eBay now you will probably get 20+ hits covering almost every game that was released in that particular variant (there are 17 titles first printed with a matte sticker seal and 10 more with a gloss sticker seal as the first print). To me, that’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity to expand my collection. To get one of my grails. More games uncovered is a great thing for the collector community.

Back to rarity for a minute. A big difference I see in the new collectors is rarity doesn’t seem to be the factor it once was. It’s dropped a peg or two on the ladder in the collecting world. A prime example I could use is the Myriad 6-in-1 title, it’s a beautiful example of all things 80’s. It’s an obscure, unlicensed, NES game, which somehow manages to bring the era together in one beautiful mixture of neon, plastic, and cardboard, and has a coolness factor through the roof. There was a time when that was a Top 10 piece. Bar none. NintendoAge.com  had it at a rarity of 10 (most rare) for every component of the game; cart, instructions, and box (RIP — NintendoAge is now defunct). Heritage Auctions, who almost exclusively work with Wata Games for their video game pieces, had a sealed copy sell in their November Signature auction.

That Myriad sold for a solid price of $9,600 (see Heritage Auctions Signature results November 22, 2019), but we are now in a world that is being overtaken by the Marios, Zeldas, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), and just about every black box Nintendo title. And if it has a sticker on it you better believe it’s getting top dollar with multiple buyers in line. In days past the Myriad would have been the key piece in that auction. It finished well behind other titles that in years past would have fetched 1/3 of what the Myriad could get. For now the collecting seems content to give the character driven games the spotlight. I believe as new collectors educate themselves we’ll see a bit more focus turned back to rarity.

Another difference I am seeing is condition sensitivity. I have always been a quality driven collector. Most video game collectors I know are. If I couldn’t afford a piece sealed I would grab the nicest condition CIB of that title I could find. If I couldn’t afford a nice CIB version then mint cart would do, and so on. At TooManyGames last June I watched first-hand as many new collectors lined their coffers with games, but it wasn’t about quality, it was about quantity. Torn boxes, faded, crushed and creased boxes didn’t matter. They were gobbled up.

 

(Above — A few more examples from Tom’s personal collection, including some very high grade CIB games. The first print Matte Sticker Ice Climber is from the White Mountain Collection, a recognized pedigree across various collectibles).

There’s new blood in the hobby and that’s a good thing. In the comic book world even a book that is considered a low grade, say 1.5 for example, has a known, quantifiable value. I can’t tell you how many SMB’s I passed on because the condition just wasn’t there. I’ve seen games in the past sit for a year or more for sale in low quality condition. These days games that literally have hang tabs or top flaps torn off are selling in minutes for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars if it’s the right title. As more and more collectors come in and absorb the lower quality games I expect we’ll start to see the games in near mint/mint condition start to separate themselves further from their lower quality counterparts. The cream will always rise to the top.

Speed. These new collectors are buying games at a fervent pace, my head spun at TooManyGames. The speed of the game has changed. These new collectors are fast. In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last”. To an extent…

Long-term collectors have the knowledge base that the new collectors lack. That’s not a knock on the new collectors, it’s just a fact. Knowledge about variants, rarity, desirability, print runs, and known population take years to acquire. Relationships can take years to build. The seasoned video game collectors should welcome them and pass on the knowledge we’ve acquired. Let the demand for prototypes, test carts, ultra-rares, mint CIB’s and sealed games continue to rise. More of those games will continue to be found as prices rise on those pieces.

I have had more conversations this year around my experiences and thoughts on the state of the hobby than I ever have, and it’s given me a breath of fresh air. I can talk about video games for hours and I have done so on many occasions over the last year. In fact, in my 20 years of collecting, last year was the first time I attended a video game convention. Tim Atwood came with me; it was his first convention ever too. We both had an amazing time. We’re planning more convention trips together for 2020.

 

Tom (right) and others at the Wata Games booth at TooManyGames in 2019.

 

I get asked on a weekly basis if I think this is a bubble. My thoughts? No, not at all. We are experiencing hyper-growth in a hobby that is still in its infancy. It happens, that’s how we get to the next level. Every hobby has its ups and downs. There will always be peaks and troughs. We are seeing volatility and price swings that we have never seen before. Are we on an amazing upswing? Of course, but there are enough collectors in this hobby to sustain the market and counteract any long-term downturn. I have a list about 50-100 games long of titles I have been looking for over the years. Multiply that by the thousands of collectors out there and we are talking about some serious demand left in this hobby. That demand will continue to sustain our hobby. Not just sustain, but grow significantly. Yes we’ll see market downturns, but those will turn into more buying opportunities.

New buyers mean more demand, more demand means higher prices, and higher prices means more publicity and attention, which draws more games into the population. Collectors have asked for years if we’re on a bubble. The fact of the matter is collectors said that 20 years ago when Stadium Events was $200 for a cart. That cart is now selling for $10k+. And that has nothing to do with new collectors. That is the result of a healthy hobby that continues to grow. Continue to collect the way you want and be glad our hobby is still here. Without the constant addition of new collectors over the years the hobby would have died long ago.           

Take the opportunity to meet the new collectors and educate them why the first print of Castlevania (with the large end label overlap cart) is just as cool, if not cooler, than the matte SMB. Let them know why quality is so important. Why titles like Sqoon, Stinger, Chubby Cherub, Cowboy Kid, Kid Klown and many others are also key titles. Explain that games like Goonies II are still desirable even though their first print does not have a cardboard hangtab.

I’ve talked a lot about educating new collectors, but the reality is we are all learning more about this hobby every day, myself included. The new collectors have taught me quite a bit already and I am sure I will learn more. I touched on a lot of topics today that I plan on diving into deeper in future articles. At the end of the day I’m one collector, with one opinion. I’m more than happy to share the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired over the last 20 years.

To that end, I would love to hear your ideas on video game collecting topics you would like to hear about. I can be reached on Instagram @Minus_Worlds or simply scan my profile below from the Instagram app.

 

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