The Pokémon trading card game (TCG) has been a key pillar of the franchise since its inception in 1996. While video games and anime shows helped form the triple threat which has kept Pokémon relevant 25 years later, the trading cards were the headline-grabber which pushed it to 90s phenomena status — being banned in schools around the world and spreading moral panic in parents.
Fast forward to 2021 and Pokémon cards are generating hysteria once again. In October last year, Logan Paul livestreamed opening packs of first edition cards bought for $200,000, which he auctioned off to viewers. After becoming a ratings success with 300,000 concurrents and over 11 million total views, unboxing Pokémon cards exploded into a viewership goldmine — inspiring others like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins to jump on the trend while lifting channels, like Lee “Leonhart” Steinfield, who have been opening Pokémon cards on camera for years.
This rush has inevitably led to scalpers ruining the party. A crossover promotion between Pokémon and McDonald’s saw adults batch order Happy Meal’s to sell the limited edition cards online. The launch of new set Shining Fates was similarly marred by scalpers, causing The Pokémon Company to issue a statement explaining they’re dialling up print production of TCG products to address the situation “where it is within our control”.
While this issue has negatively impacted Pokémon collectors who are struggling to purchase and find cards, the competitive side of the TCG is hoping to benefit from this renewed popularity.
“I think it’d be super cool to get on Twitch one day and see that Ninja is playing Pokémon TCG Online,” Chip Richey, US TCG player and caster, tells GINX Esports TV. “But how does it get to the point of opening a case of cards to playing the game?”
Chip, who runs popular Pokémon card YouTube channel TrainerChip, has been playing the TCG since the end of 2015. Along with competing in tournaments, he’s also a commentator — recently casting official online event the Pokémon Players Cup II. While you might expect TCG players, like card collectors, to be negatively affected by scalpers, the pandemic, Chip states, has largely offset frustrations now competitions are all held online through TCG Online.
His concerns however are whether The Pokémon Company has done enough to capitalise on this renewed popularity — which could lead to a boom of new players when next year’s Pokémon World Championships in London roll around.
“I’m definitely hopeful a lot of new faces are going to be showing up at new tournaments,” Chip said. “There’s a lot of interest in Pokémon cards but how can The Pokémon Company direct that interest in collecting and buying product into people learning how to play the game?
"They do a great job with the new products that are coming out, like Pokémon TCG: League Battle Decks and the Pokémon Trainer’s Toolkit, which have some of the really good competitive cards. [But] right now the only way Pokémon TCG can exist for competitive play is via Pokémon TCG Online.
The online version of the trading card game is free to download (Picture: Nintendo)
“We’re coming up on a year now since everything shut down and we’re in the process of the third official Pokémon TCG tournament in a year. Two and half tournaments in 12 months for the Pokémon TCG. it doesn’t feel like enough.
“There is a really big grassroots scene; huge props to Limitless TCG because they run a site that’s very easy to get on and play tournaments pretty much any night of the week. But I definitely think The Pokémon Company needs to step it up in getting more official, sponsored tournaments out there and drive some of the traffic from one side to the other.”
Some players have made efforts themselves to attract new audiences toward the TCG. Pedro “Sininchi” Torres, a TCG player from Spain, devised tournament The Union Cup with competitive Pokémon fan site Victory Road earlier this year. The event saw top VGC players for Sword and Shield compete in a TCG Online tournament, designed to bring the two communities together and introduce fans of the games to the cards. There's hopes for the tournament to return later in 2021 too.
At 29-years-old, Pedro considers himself one of the oldest in the TCG community — which caters to all ages through a Junior Division. With the renewed attraction to Pokémon cards, he hopes the age perception around Pokémon TCG, in comparison to other card games, will become a thing of the past.
“The world we live in right now, Pokémon TCG is associated as a children’s game and it’s not like that,” Pedro tells GINX Esports TV. “It’s actually a really strategic game, like other card games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh. There is a luck factor but that’s a minimum part of the game, because the more I study and prepare, I have better results in real life.
He added: “I’m feeling, with that situation with influencers and YouTubers spending millions on Pokémon cards, the more time that’s passed, the more it feels like Pokémon TCG is not a children’s game anymore.
“It’s a bad situation for sure, but thanks to that at least Pokémon TCG is more popular. If it’s more popular, it’s not seen anymore as [being] for children and more people will come to the game. That’s really good for pro players because now more people will watch their streams, more people will buy coaching, and more people will be interested in playing.”
While the announcements so far for Pokémon’s 25th anniversary haven’t included an upgraded online TCG client — something the community wants for a better viewing experience — there’s a sense that, even without improved marketing from The Pokémon Company, the TCG scene will benefit from the hysteria once normal life comes into view.
“There’s the mentality of whenever the tide comes in, all ships rise,” Chip says. With the Pokémon TCG, this tide could trigger a whole new generation.