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The $1.2-Million Video Game Jackpot an Outlier, not the Rule

by Michael Barnes (08/06/12).

If you heard the news about the eBay sale of a lot of 7,000 old video games selling for $1.2 million and now you’re trying to calculate what your copy of Donkey Kong 64 might be worth, you had better cool your jets. That was as an outlier and not the rule.

I’ve spent a lot of column inches here at WorthPoint trying to convince you all that tabletop board games can be valuable, not just in terms of fun and entertainment but also as a viable and sometimes lucrative collector’s concern. Of course, it is the 21st century and, for most folks, “gaming” means something you do in front of a television or on a PC or on a smartphone or tablet.

There’s no doubt that video games are larger in mainstream prominence and far more widely played and even collected than their cardboard counterparts, and culturally they are arguably more relevant, influencing everything from youth culture to graphic design to music. I love video games just as much as I love board games, but it seems that collecting video games is a far dicier proposition than hunting down rare, out-of-print Avalon Hill titles or obscure games based on TV or film licenses.

But every now and then you’ll hear about a rare video game—like Stadium Events for the original Nintendo Entertainment System—pulling in an exorbitant auction price. A few weeks ago, news made the Internet rounds that a French seller on eBay closed an auction for a massive collection of 7,000 video games. The ending price? A cool $1.2 million dollars. The collection purportedly includes every game ever made for several Nintendo consoles, as well as every game for every Sega and NEC console. Most of the games are rare Japanese imports and—get this—most are factory sealed. This is no small feat when you’re collecting video games that are 20 and 25 years old and largely from another country. This 7,000-item chunk is just a small part of the seller’s 20,000 piece collection.

This is an extreme example of the collectability of video games and most definitely an outlier. The guy had a game for the Sega Mega Drive which is one of the only two known to exist. Another in the lot was dodge ball game of which only eight copies were ever made. The rarity of these imported, mint-condition games cannot be underestimated and the value of this collection quite likely outstrips any other on the planet. That said, the takeaway here is that anyone speculating in the video games field or seeing dollar signs because of the apparent value of rare, out-of-print video games needs to be aware that this is just about as marginal a case as is possible in the world of aftermarket collectibles.

All sealed, all Japanese imports. This is what video game rarity looks like.

One of only two copies known to exist, this was a Go game for the Sega Mega Drive.

The sad, brutal fact is that most old video games aren’t worth anything. There are a number of issues factoring into the equation. For starters, the Internet—along with digital download services—has reduced the demand for older video games like the classic Final Fantasy or Zelda titles because almost the entire history of video games is available a couple of mouse clicks or taps and a credit card number away. It’s not hard to play almost any game from the past on any number of platforms. Unlike board games, video games are almost infinitely reproducible; there are board games made five years ago that will never be in print again because of licensing or manufacturing limitations, but you can always make a copy of a video game.

Another is a technological issue. I don’t think you can even hook up an Atari 2600 to an HDTV without a little technical know-how and a trip to Radio Shack. That’s also conditional on finding a working 2600. And there’s also the fact that there are, in general, ample supplies out there of physical copies of games at yard sales, thrift stores and used games dealers.

Recently, there has been a trend for modern games publishers to do limited “collector’s edition” versions of games, usually including some kind of statue, art book, helmet, special packaging or other premium trinket. But even these seem to appreciate very little, if at all. I can personally attest to seeing many “collector’s editions” on the clearance racks of department stores. When I see the gewgaws that come with the stuff, I think “future yard-sale item” and not speculative value.

An example of a recent “Collector’s Edition.” Pro tip—the game is probably more valuable than the statue.

It’s not that there aren’t rare and valuable video games or video game consoles out there. It’s just a matter of sorting out what they are. In general, games that are or were produced in very small quantities or available only as promotional items—like the infamous tournament cartridges that Nintendo produced during the 1980s—tend to be valuable and can appreciate over time. Likewise, imports of games that were never made available in the U.S. can retain value and stay in demand among collectors. But there again, you’ve got to find a buyer that wants the original product, packaging or other material included with the game. If they just want to check out some obscure Japanese game, odds are they’ll figure out another way to do so instead of spending top dollar for an ancient cartridge or a 20-year-old CD.

But the $1.2 million jackpot? I’ve never seen anything like it, and I would wager that we’ll never see anything quite like that again. Provided that the buyer pays up and the seller doesn’t have to relist it. That collection represents literally decades worth of dedicated hard work and an untold investment of capital and time on the part of the collector. Although there are likely hundreds or even thousands of once-in-a-lifetime rarities in that massive haul, the true value is in preserving such a huge percentage of the history of video game products—not so much in the games themselves or the value of individual titles. Whoever bought it, if they’re smart, has picked up an instant museum.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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One Response to “The $1.2-Million Video Game Jackpot an Outlier, not the Rule”

  1. As a fellow video game dealer and collector; I can tell you this article is so true. The collecting market of these kind of games is very small, dedicated, and fragmented. Most of these items; aside from the truly rare items have lost value, and the Microsoft Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo Wii Virtual Console; allow anyone to download and own almost any popular vintage game in digital form for only a few dollars. This has placed a lot of external pressure on the prices of these items. The common items (unless factory sealed)have dropped or remained stable in value.
    It remains to be seen whether the next generation of gamers or collectors will embrace items from a system they have never owned and can easily be downloaded for $5-$10 each.

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