Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Lion's Roar

It's tough to put into words the thrill of pulling a valuable card at random from a sealed pack of sports cards.  No matter what your primary motivation is as a collector (e.g. team/player fan, set collector, autograph chaser, etc.), every unopened pack is an opportunity to pull something great. 

Barring high-end products (where a single pack of cards will run you upwards of $200 or more and shorter print runs guarantee scarcity), the odds of pulling something rare from your average pack of cards is often directly proportional to the pack's cost.  For example, a single pack of Topps 2011 football will run you $1.99 and get you (10) cards.  The odds of pulling a card autographed by a player start at 1:239, although buying an entire box (36 packs) will net you slightly better odds. Conversely, a single pack of Topps Chrome 2011 football will run you $3.99 for (4) cards. The odds of finding a rookie autograph improve to 1:24, or effectively one per box.  Although not always the case, it's reasonable to temper your expectations when you buy low or mid-grade products like these.
It's also important to remember that rare does not necessarily mean valuable; a parallel refractor of a star player or rookie is sure to bring more than your average wideout or QB, even if both cards were short printed to 50.  The true value of a card is often subjective, with factors that include scarcity, condition, player appeal and collector interest. You never really know what a card is worth until you sell it, and it is that sense of the unknown that makes finding good cards even more exciting. I mention all this because I experienced the pull of a lifetime just a few weeks ago, and the experience was surreal.

The Pull of a Lifetime (so far)
Wiping the sleep out of my eyes on a rainy Saturday morning, I decided to forgo breakfast and instead bust the 2nd of two Bowman Chrome Football 2009 boxes I bought on the web ($55 each).  The first box was a dud (no-name auto and refractors), so I wasn't particularly happy.  Roughly ten packs in, however, I noticed a 2/5 marking on a card back.  This indicates the only five copies of the card exist in the world.  Flipping it around, I saw an even bigger surprise; a red refractor Matthew Stafford rookie autograph card. From a collector’s perspective, the Detroit Lions QB is still considered to be the most coveted player from the 2009 draft class.  I knew right away the pull was valuable, and when I couldn't find it in my Beckett price guide, I became even more excited.  Never before had I pulled something worth (potentially) so much*. 

I admit I was anxious to get it graded right away.  3rd party authentication services will inspect a card's condition, assign it a numerical value (or grade) and encase it in hard plastic for protection.  The grade can greatly impact a card's value; a rating of 10 (Gem Mint) can increase a card's value by up to 200%.  Fortunately for me, the card came back with a 10 grade, guaranteeing its pristine condition to would-be buyers.  A five-day listing on EBay led to a flurry of e-mails from collectors offering me cash to close the auction early.  Although tempted, I chose not to and was eventually rewarded for my patience. 

I won't go into details about the final selling price, although I admit I was shocked a modern day card could sell for so much. Suffice to say it may be awhile before I come across another card like that; given the odds, it was really just dumb luck.   Now that I have so much spare cash available, however, I feel the itch to buy more packs (a lot more).  Perhaps lightning will strike twice? 

*My wife has been a good sport about the whole thing.  The morning I pulled the card, I woke her up just to show her.  Instead of grumbling, she expressed interest and was offering to drive to a card show up in northern NJ to get it graded in person.  Although we didn’t make the trek, she’s definitely entitled to some of the proceeds.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

You Gotta Blow Into It!

Two straight weekends of cold, rainy weather have kept me indoors and away from my favorite past-time.  Fortunately, I have a closet full of video game just begging to be played, and Steve Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games has me aching for some quality time with the older consoles in my collection.  A few months back, I ordered a new 72 pin connector for my Nintendo, and it was high time that I installed it. 
For those of you too young to remember, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES for short) was an 8-bit juggernaut that dominated the video gaming landscape for half a decade (1985-1990) and single-handedly resurrected the medium after the market crash of 1983. Iconic game franchises Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Tetris, and Castlevania all got their start on Nintendo’s little gray box, and Mario (although introduced years earlier as Jump man in the seminal classic Donkey Kong) became a household name.  A far cry from the white and red-colored, top-loading Japanese version (dubbed the Famicom*), the NES is two-tone grey with black and red accents and a front-loading cartridge slot.  Nothing about it screams video games, which was exactly the point; Nintendo of America decided to combat public apathy and retailer weariness by disguising the console as an electronic device more akin to the VCR.  They even gave it a Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.) to add to the novelty. 
Video Game Console or VCR?

While its low-key appearance and gimmicky add-ons may have encouraged some early buyers to take the plunge, there’s no question what made the initial console launch so successful: Super Mario Bros.  The diminutive red-and-blue plumber (along with his taller sibling Luigi) ran, jumped and swam their way through eight colorful worlds the likes of which the world had never seen.  With smooth animation, precise controls, excellent sound FX and memorable music, the game was an all-out assault on the senses.  Although the concept of a pack-in game for a new system launch is somewhat foreign now, Nintendo included Super Mario Bros. in three of its four original North American bundles (Deluxe, Action and Power Sets).  By packing in their best launch title and using Worlds of Wonder** to distribute, Nintendo was able to shift millions of consoles and develop a huge install base. Moves like these left competitors Sega, NEC and Atari in the dust and eventually led to total market domination for the remainder of the decade.

To combat piracy and assuage customer fears that the games they bought would less than stellar (similar to the shovelware that dominated the consoles of the early 1980s), Nintendo maintained strict licensing with its 3rd party publishers and installed lockout chips (10NES) in its ROM-based cartridges.  Although publishers would eventually found ways around it (e.g. voltage spikes), these measures had an unexpected and unfortunate consequence: the blinking red power light.  The horizontal loading cartridge slot was billed as a zero insertion force (ZIF) socket, but that was not the case.  Anxious gamers would quickly slam in new cartridges, bending and tarnishing the nickel-plated pins.  Over time, the bent, dirty pins would fail to make contact; because the 10NES lockout chip requires constant, this would lead to the console turning off and on (or blinking) every second until the cartridge was re-seated.  Legions of kids tried countless methods to keep their NESs working.  Blowing on the exposed ROM chip of the game was common as was wedging matchbooks and other objects into the slot. 

72 Pin Connector
Today, I’m fortunate enough to have two NESs: one in good condition I keep for show, and the other I use for play.  The latter frequently blinks if the game is not seated exactly right; after an hour-long session trying to get a beat-up Zelda cartridge to work, I finally broke down and bought a replacement 72 pin connector.  I won’t go into the details of installation, although it’s one of the less painful surgeries you can perform on a game console (all you need is a standard Philips screwdriver and some patience- no soldering!). 

Ironically, replacing the connector did little to fix the problem (sometimes games are too beat up for a new connector to remedy).  I did get to spend some time with Mario, however, playing Super Mario Bros. 1, 2 & 3***. 

(*Although Japanese sounding, Famicom is short for ‘Family Computer’).

(**Worlds of Wonder was a key player in 1980s toys distribution.  They also brought Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag to the masses.)

(***Although you may not have an original NES, you can still enjoy Mario on your PC.  Check out Exploding Rabbit for an over-the-top flash-based homage to the first game that lets you play as different 8-bit characters.)

Super Mario Bros Pack-In Cartridge- Nintendo Approved.