Photo: Panini America
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We can't decide if it feels like yesterday or decades ago, but it's been two years since a copy of Super Mario 64 sold for $1,560,000 at Heritage, marking the zenith of video game collecting mania. However long it feels like, it's clear that the high end of the sealed video game market is eons away from that comprehension-defying moment.
In fact, last week's Signature Auction grossed $1.78 million in total, narrowly outpacing that lone Super Mario 64 result from 2021. By comparison, summer 2022's event tallied $4.45 million in sales, while the infamous 2021 edition racked up a now astonishing $8.45 million in total. So what happened? Did Bowser plunder the market of all its coins? Did Mario get stuck in the pipes that were rapidly bringing money to market like pneumatic tubes at a drive-through bank?
Declining values have a lot to do with the waning sales activity to be sure. For example, one of the top sales of this weekend's event was the $60,000 result for a "Bros. Left" copy of Super Mario Bros 3, graded Wata 9.4 A+. Two years ago, that game would have been worth more than double, as a 9.4 B sold for $120,000 in July of 2021.
Or take high-graded copies of Pokémon Red and Blue for Gameboy. An $18,600 result for a 9.8 A++ graded Pokemon Red with a Rattata screenshot and pixelated rating (mid production) is about 25% of its $75,000 peak, achieved in January 2022. The Blue version of the same variant and grade sold for $16,200 last week, a mere 14% of its peak value of $114,000 in October of 2021. Some of the declines in value come from declining appetite, while a portion can also be attributed to greater discernment among variants and their associated populations. Notably, those peak buys were made before Gameboy population reports from Wata released.
With this softness in values comes a reticence to consign top-tier games. This was the first Signature event that failed to produce a six-figure sale. Absent were the early, pristine Zeldas, the high-graded Hangtab-or-earlier Super Mario Bros, and the other NES Black Box rarities that typically headline a sale and command sizable bids.
Ultimately, it's really that highest tier of games - the first page of auction results - that weighs most heavily on the market outlook. The further down the auction you move, the less dramatically dire things appear to be, though there's absolutely still weakness. Compared to August 2022's event, last week's mean price was down a whopping 48% year-over-year, but that figure would be heavily impacted by the lack of high-end sales. The median sale was down a more modest but still significant 23%.
Bizarrely enough, the 25% percentile sale was up 49%, and even when compared to the juggernaut that was 2021's event, that figure was down just 8%. So while this market has surely suffered, and the high-end is near unrecognizable relative to more prosperous summers of the past, it does seem there was a depth of lower-end collector left somewhat resolute in the wake of that destruction. Perhaps, then, some expansion of audience achieved in better times has been sustained as conditions grew less friendly, though the bidder count of 826 was among the lowest seen at one of these events.
Given the wildly unsustainable trajectory that took the sealed video game market to dizzying heights in 2021, it may instead be these resolute lower-end collectors that could provide the foundation for steadier long term growth. Otherwise, the category is on a path to come full circle from fanatic niche to mainstream hype and back somewhere closer to the former. For the moment, the market falls lower still as the drain-circling persists.
Does anybody know a plumber that could help? Preferably seeking an Italian fella with a lot of enthusiasm.
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