On the surface at least, 29-year-old Robert Ashton looks like any other ordinary young guy who works in London. He’s a sales associate for a commercial technology company, earns a good wage and lives with his girlfriend and their cat. He has a neat head of hair parted to the right and wears sharp navy blue suits with black Oxfords that he polishes daily. In short, he looks like the guy who would adorn the cover of a corporate recruitment brochure. But he has a secret hobby no one knows about: At least once a week, Ashton plays the Pokémon trading-card game.
At a pub in Central London, he tells me he’s been a big Pokémon fan his entire life. “I loved the TV show, the movies, the Game Boy games. I was obsessed; it was a huge part of my childhood. I bought my first box of cards from Woolworths,” he says, referencing a department store that was once a staple of the British high street. “My first set was an electric deck, the one with the shiny Zapdos.”
He used to play the game with his friends, who he describes as “the kids who stayed inside at lunchtime swapping cards and battling each other instead of playing [soccer].” Ashton’s friends, however, stopped playing Pokémon in 2002 when they turned 12, claiming it had become “boring” and “lame.” Most of them threw their cards away. Ashton pretended to do the same thing, but secretly kept his decks and best cards — a shiny Hitmonchamp and a second-generation Blastoise — in their original folders and boxes.
They sat in the back of his attic until late last year when, on Meetups, he discovered a small group of similarly aged people who gather every Thursday at various pubs across the city — usually at corner tables away from public sight — to drink pints of lager and play the trading-card game. For Ashton, it was like being back at school again, but this time with drinks. “It makes the game more fun,” he laughs. “You get all the nostalgia of childhood — when your only stresses were maybe losing your best card in a battle with someone — but also get to play with people who are just as dedicated fans as you.”
Although only four guys showed up to the original meet-up Ashton attended, it was the first time he could really talk Pokémon with other adults without feeling embarrassed or childish. “It’s that rare opportunity where you can be a geek for a while,” he explains. “You can talk about strategy, how you build decks, what kinds of cards make a good offense or defense. It feels like a proper strategy game, which it is, but because it’s so associated with our childhoods, it’s rare that anyone sees Pokémon players as anything other than grown men wanting to be kids again.”
The Pokémon franchise has a long history that starts in Japan in the mid-1990s, when Pokémon Red and Green launched for Game Boy. The project was relatively small, and Satoshi Tajiri, the man who invented the original game, didn’t expect for it to do well. Yet Red and Green outperformed all of Nintendo’s expectations, raking in $70 million in six months. The Pokémon craze became so big that in 1997, the media reported on fears that the games were causing a wave of sickness and seizures among children (part of what they dubbed “Pokémania”).
Three years later, similar Pokémon-related health fears spread, this time over the hugely popular trading-card game, a spin-off of the Game Boy titles. (An animated TV series and endless licensed merchandise were spun off, too.) In the U.K., teachers said the cards were causing kids to become “obsessed” and called for government regulation of the game. That same year, a 14-year-old boy in Montreal was stabbed in a dispute over the cards.
But for all the consternation — and claims that Pokémania was “just a fad” — it survives today, some 20 years later. If anything, thanks to Pokémon Go, a smartphone-based game released in 2016 that uses VR technology to turn any city into a living Pokémon world, it’s as relevant as ever. In fact, last year, the Pokémon Company, which manages almost everything related to the franchise, grossed $3.5 billion outside of Asia, compared to just over $1 billion in 2001.
Most of this revenue comes from myriad Pokémon-inspired video games, but the Pokémon trading-card game has seen a resurgence, too. In 2016, it was the top-selling trading-card game, even surpassing Magic: The Gathering. Meanwhile, nostalgia has driven up the price for rare, classic Pokémon cards — in some cases by thousands of dollars. A first-generation Charizard in mint condition, for example, could be worth more than $11,000; even misprinted cards that cannot be used in tournaments or competition matches can be cashed out at $5,000 (and more). Pokémon cards have become such a valuable commodity that sites like Pokémonprices.com maintain daily trackers of the value of rare cards, which are influenced by forums on the official Pokémon trading-card website, Reddit threads and the hashtag #Pokémontcg on Twitter. Similarly, YouTube channels like PrimetimePokémon post videos wherein the values of new and old cards are forecasted.
Then there are the pros. Pokémon trading-card competitions have been around since the game was launched in 1998, but in 2019, competitions have evolved from modest, private tournaments to high-profile championship tournaments streamed across the internet. Case in point: The 2018 North America International Championships, an hour-long card game complete with real-time statistics and commentators announcing the moves of each player, has been watched by more than 200,000 people. Relatively speaking, that’s a larger viewership than established poker tournaments.
Top-ranked players like Wolfey Glick, Daniel Oztekin, Markus Stadter and Miguel Marti de la Torre not only earn thousands of dollars competing on the champions circuit, but also make extra money on platforms like Twitch (though admittedly much less than what Twitch streamers like Ninja and Shroud typically make, which is usually around six-figures). And while they usually compete alone, the game operates similar to video-game culture, with online teams and communities that players are eligible to join — players like Ryan Sabelhaus, a professional Pokémon competitor part of Team 8bitplanet. (It’s akin to FaZe clan, among the world’s largest esports teams, but in the Pokémon world.) Other players like Jose Marrero, are sponsored by Alter Reality Games and TC Evolutions, which makes Pokémon apparel.
“You can make a living playing Pokémon,” says the 28-year-old, Orlando-based Marrero, who has been a finalist in a number of national and international championships and is captain of gaming team ARG. “But it’s tough alone unless you’re a well-known player who people care about. The maximum you might get from a regional competition is $5,000, and for internationals and world championships, the payout is between $10,000 to $25,000.” Again, this is far less than a pro Fortnite player, whose take, like big-time Twitch streamers, is in the hundreds of thousands, and even less impressive when you consider that players are generally responsible for their own travel, food and accommodation.
In fairness, Marrero adds that “you can distinguish yourself in other ways. Lots of players make extra money by coaching, selling cards and merchandise, sponsorship and writing articles” for websites like 60Cards, which cover card strategies and offer commentary on competitive Pokémon (from the experiences of female players to instances of cheating). Still, most have day jobs (though Marrero plays full-time), and do Pokémon on the side. And despite the strong online community, Marrero doesn’t think that the game will ever receive the same commercial attention as video games or established card games like Magic: The Gathering. “Pokémon probably gets the least amount compared to the others,” he says. “Our player base is much smaller than other esports, so while our players are just as serious, Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends make Pokémon look like a joke when it comes to tournament winnings.”
For his part, Ashton likes his day job, and says he has no intention of going professional. It is, though, the perfect hobby for him. As such, he plans on selling some of his old cards — mainly from the first and second generation of Pokémon that were popular in the 2000s but aren’t useful against newer generations from the EX and GX series — in order to build a deck that he can use to win matches over the coming year. “This is a really challenging game,” he tells me, giving me a life lesson suited to an aspiring Pokémon master. “You need strategy, creativity and a bit of cunning, too.”