When many of us were kids, popping open a pack of Pokémon cards and flipping to a holographic Charizard meant bragging rights or a hypothetical hundred dollars if we chose to sell it on eBay (or, in my case, if an eBay-addicted aunt could pry the card from my cold, dead hands). But now those old cards and boxes are hard to come by, caked in dust, and in a few specific cases, worth thousands. On Twitch, obtaining them has become a popular pastime.
For the past month, streamers of all sorts have taken the plunge into a deep pool of nostalgia. Generally, Pokémon card streams centre around not just packs of old cards, but entire boxes of packs from sets that are no longer in circulation. These boxes can cost thousands of dollars. On camera, streamers open packs and sift through cards, hoping to come across rare holographic cards that are worth enough to justify the purchase. Sometimes, this works out. For example, here is controversial streamer Trainwrecks losing his mind over a first edition holographic Dark Charizard, a card that in the past has sold for as much as $US9,000 ($12,243):
1st edition holographic Dark Charizard pic.twitter.com/UH9e1jYOuB
— Trainwreck (@Trainwreckstv) November 9, 2020
And here’s the entire One True King streamer group hollering in victory after Ludwig Ahgren pulled a holographic Dragonite during a charity stream centered around Pokémon card unboxings:
HOLOGRAPHIC DRAGONITE for @LudwigAhgren!
— OTK (@OTKnetwork) November 23, 2020
The drama of these moments is self-evident. Streamers are functionally panning for gold. Their chances of finding it are slim. When they do, everybody goes absolutely hog bonkers.
But there’s much more to these streams than just the rare moments when every last star aligns. For one, it’s not just about unpacking rare cards; they also have to be in perfect condition, per guidelines laid out by card grading company Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), or else their value plummets. This is another major factor in on-stream moments of exhilarated triumph — and defeat. One of the most popular recent unboxing clips sees a smaller streamer named Wesbtw open a pack of cards, only to find that its contents are “bent in half.” He declares that anything in the pack would be a 2 out of 10 according to PSA rules. Basically, he’s already got a lost cause on his hands. Still, he persists in shuffling through each individual card. Then he reaches that pack’s rare: It’s a rainbow Pikachu, a card that would be worth hundreds of dollars in good condition. Wesbtw falls off his chair and onto the floor. “It actually fucking happened!” he yells at the top of his lungs, in tears. “Oh my god, I bent fat gay Pikachu! Why?”
Glorious highs and craterous lows make for compelling viewing, but that still only scratches the surface of why viewers tune into these streams. For much of the time, streamers just open packs and don’t find much of particular interest. The presentation is what carries viewers through. Streamers use extra cameras to zoom in on cards, which they sift through one by one. This adds a satisfying tactility to the proceedings. Shimmering packs peel open like ripe bananas. Glossy slips of cardboard slide and jostle against one another. These sights and sounds have an almost ASMR-like appeal.
This also allows suspense to build. It’s akin to loot reveals in gacha games like Genshin Impact, where you spend money, and then an elaborate animation plays before you get to see which randomised loot drops you managed to pick up. This is no coincidence; Genshin Impact was a Twitch flavour of the month in October, and at the time, some streamers oriented their broadcasts around “pulls” — that is, dropping money on item packs and letting RNJesus work his magic. Twitch streamers now use the same gacha-inspired lingo for Pokémon card packs, discussing the quality of their pulls as they open pack after pack. Video game loot boxes and gacha games draw clear inspiration from trading card games like Pokémon in terms of both structure and intoxicatingly — some might even say compulsively — satisfying presentation. So in that sense, everything has come full circle.
But of course, there’s a key difference in this case: Even though games like Genshin contain questionable systems that seek to hook players into spending money indefinitely, it’s still technically possible for just about anybody to get in on the action. Players can purchase in-game currency for a few dollars or earn it by, you know, playing the game. Old Pokémon card booster boxes, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive. During a stream earlier this month, Twitch superstar and habitual line-crosser Félix “xQc” Lengyel dropped $US30,000 ($40,809) on Pokémon cards. In response, his chat pointed out that that’s a teacher’s salary.
The steep price of entry has some streamers and viewers comparing the practice to high-stakes gambling.
“I got a lot of shit when I played blackjack on stream because I was ‘promoting gambling to children,’” said longtime streamer Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris during a stream earlier this week. “And now Pokémon, it’s big, and everyone loves it. [But] it’s gambling with, like, a kid-friendly label slapped on. Gambling: rated PG for everyone. That’s kinda how it feels.”
Viewers have echoed this sentiment, concerned about the influence streamers have on those who are tuning in.
“The influence of the Pokémon craze is really hitting home for me,” said one viewer on Reddit. “ I got a buddy who has spent about 2 grand on cards so far and has made like 20% of that in return. My other friends and I are going to try talking to him later in the week ‘cause unlike streamers, he really can’t afford to spend that much money on something that’s so hard to sell/likely to make money on. It really reminds me of the CSGO gambling hysteria back in 2015-2017.”
Other streamers have disputed this idea. During a stream earlier this week, Nick “Nmplol” Polom — who, himself, recently pulled a rare Articuno card — suggested that instead of running cards through lengthy appraisal and sales processes, wealthy streamers are just holding onto their prize catches. And why not? It’s not like they’re hurting for money.
“I personally cannot understand why everyone is so upset about Pokémon cards, and they’re calling it gambling,” Polom said. “No one’s making money on these things. It’s terrible investment. No one’s making any money except for the people selling the boxes. Who’s selling cards? [Popular streamer] Mizkif doesn’t sell them; he keeps them.”
But this pricey permutation of the Pokémon craze still shares basic mechanics with gambling because, in truth, collectible card games always have. Adding money and stakes just turns those gambling elements into a spectacle. It’s the kind of spectacle that, over the years, has proven hugely successful on YouTube. Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, a YouTuber with nearly 50 million subscribers, is practically a household name (in households that contain people under the age of 30) because of videos in which he gave away tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to random people. His efforts were more charitable than those of Pokémon-obsessed Twitch streamers, but there’s a similar core appeal: In a country divided along class lines that are more like class fortress walls, recklessly spending that kind of money is an aspirational fantasy.
It’s something people can’t look away from, because they could never in a million years do it themselves. But, for just a moment, they can be part of it alongside their favourite creators. They can feel like part of an in-group of wealthy people, especially since, once upon a time, they might have owned many of these very cards.