“Excuse me sir, what are you doing?”
I was caught red-handed.
A well dressed young man of about 20 years was looking over my shoulder as I was admiring my collection of baseball cards from my website on my phone while waiting for my cinnamon crunch bagel at Panera. Yeah, I’m REAL cool. All kinds of people at the restaurant on their phones doing millennial things – texting, facebooking, tweeting. And me? I’m looking at pictures of my baseball cards. Slowing going through my favorite patch cards, then swiping feverishly through a large rainbow to get a fun effect of border colors changing.
The young man pulled up a chair next to me. As the metal legs made a screeching sound across the tiled floor, (though not loud enough to get peel anyone’s eyes off their phones) he hastily set down his drink on my table and pulled out his phone to show me pictures of his trading card collection. I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed looking at his collection on his phone in public. As I showed him some key cards from my collection, he showed me cards of baseball, Star Wars and even soccer.
“You have some really nice looking scans! What kind of scanner do you use to put your collection on your phone?” I asked.
He had a bit of a shocked look on his face.
“I’m not showing you scans of my collection. I’m showing you my collection!”
That’s right, peeps. Every single card he showed me ONLY existed in the digital realm. These beautiful cards of Mike Trout, Han Solo and Pele don’t exist in real life. And guess what … he bought them.
With real money.
And he is wild about them.
I remember when digital trading cards started making their rounds on eBay. I was confused. Some of these cards have pictures of the player’s autograph and even pictures of game used material. You can also find parallels, inserts, stickers and yes, even sketch cards.
If you are new to this trend, you may be laughing to yourself about as much as … well … everyone else who first saw them. I mean, who in their right mind would buy a PICTURE of a trading card, right?
Apparently, a lot of people. Like … a LOT of people.
A quick eBay search for the term “digital trading card” yields over 11,000 results. Clicking on the sold listings shows that over 7,000 have recently been purchased. And this is just on the secondary market! Topps has said that since entering the market, they have sold over 300,000,000 (yes, 300 MILLION) digital packs of cards!
What is most shocking to me, perhaps is the fact that Topps and other card companies have conjured something up that, from the outside looking in, looks like it wouldn’t have wings. They have built an app, a way to get digital currency and buy/sell/trade these digital cards. They have created a large global community …. a culture of fully engaged collectors who are RABIDLY trying to complete digital sets. Collectors who set their clocks to know the day & time of when Topps will be releasing certain cards. Collectors who beg their friends and family to download the app as well, so they can funnel digital cards to their own account through multiple sources.
After reading more about this group of digital collectors, I have found one thing to be true. This is not a stupid idea that is destined for failure. No, it is an incredibly addictive hobby that has a huge base, and they share similar addictive qualities that yours truly experiences when trying to hunt down physical cardboard that I don’t yet have for my collection.
Still with me? How about this:
The Star Wars trading app alone has HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of active users looking to collect digital cards that they don’t yet have for their collection.
To make things even crazier, check this out: In 2015 in the “worldwide collectible card games market”, physical (real) cards hit $3,788,000,000 – that is $3.7 BILLION George Washington Rookie Cards. (Still think card collecting is dying?) For digital cards, the amount? $1,296,000,000 (nearly $1.3 BILLION Dollars.)
Sure, many of these numbers are probably for Pokemon and other non-sport collectible cards, but it just goes to show you – trading cards are alive and well. Forget what you’ve read about all those “the sky is falling” articles in recent years about trading cards.
One thing is for sure – we’ve come a LONG way. In the 90’s, card companies like Pacific would print directions directly on the card telling the collector to go to their website. Now, we have digital trading cards. Heck, the on-demand offering from ToppsNOW is still mind boggling to me. They have sold over 300,000 cards. If everyone purchased at the discounted rate of lots of 20 averaging at $4 a card, that is well over $1,000,000. That doesn’t even take into consideration all of the $10 single card purchases, let alone the very expensive autograph / relic / numbered cards they offered – and sold.
I could keep going on ToppsNOW (which looks to be a WILD success), but since this is about digital cards, let’s bring it back around. The digital cards have every property a real trading card has, with the exception of being a tangible item. There are even serial numbered digital cards, which command a premium. This is funny to me, because it isn’t like a card company set a limited print run. Heck, you could literally take a digital trading card and make a perfect copy of it quadrillions of times without much effort, app limitations notwithstanding.
Still, with all of these drawbacks staring back in the face of the traditional trading card collector, there are those who are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a card they cannot hold without a mobile device in their hand.
Again, this is all just mind boggling to me. I don’t get it. What I do get though, is that this is a REAL thing. People are obsessed with it, and they are paying big money to get these digital images into their collections.
Is this really so shocking though? Movies, music, news, books, magazines, etc. have all crossed over to the digital realm, so why not trading cards? What this does to the traditional card “market” remains to be seen. Will many people ditch real cards for digital ones, or will the digital trading card market act as a bridge to the physical world, bringing in more traditional collectors than ever before? These next several years will be quite interesting.
While the young man I wrote about at the very beginning of this article doesn’t really exist (I can’t wrap this up without being completely truthful to you!), I can now safely say that I choose not to download the app (for now) – not because I think it is ridiculous, but because I worry that I’ll get addicted to it.