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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Pokémon Cards Are Surging. So Is Hate Toward Graders

When Peter Graham noticed that people were going nuts for Pokémon cards again—that grown men were sweeping packs into their shopping trolleys and pulling out guns to fend off Weedle-crazed muggers; that Logan Paul had paid $150,000 for a single Charizard card, the one he wore around his neck before fighting Floyd Mayweather—he thought of his childhood.


Graham, who is 30 and speaks with the controlled affability of a salesman, remembered how he used to zip through the playground, clutching an elastic band full of cards. And like the more worldly kids back then—the ones who ended every school day with the best trades—he saw this new craze as a business opportunity. And so he entered a new world. A world where he spends 12 happy hours a day examining and talking about Pokémon cards. And a world where his days are sometimes filled with furious, virulent abuse.

A Pokémon card’s condition is determined by its grading—this is the process by which a card is certified as real, rated on a scale of 1 to 10, and sealed in a transparent box known as a slab, protected for all eternity against sticky fingers and the elements. Grading is a billion-dollar industry dominated by three American players—PSA, Beckett, and CGC—and a good rating from one of these big firms can send a card’s value soaring.

As Pokémon cards bubble like NFTs or house prices, the major grading companies cannot keep up with demand. According to Vice, companies have hired hundreds of new staff to deal with “an avalanche of cardboard”—half a million cards a week—but they’ve still had to stop taking submissions. Collectors who get through wait more than a year to get their cards back, while staff work thousands of hours of overtime.

Graham was shocked by this state of affairs, and by the gulf in value between graded and ungraded cards. “I just couldn’t get my head around it,” he says. “Who are these people that are put in a position of power to make these decisions?” If Graham was the smart kid on the playground, then these three companies were the bullies.

So, using the profits from his Pokémon card delivery service, Pokéclub, and (after a discussion with his partner) the money he was saving for a home, he bought the right machinery—the cases, packs, labels, the ultrasonic welding machine—rented an office, and founded Pokégrade. But the grading industry is, he says, toxic. “I’ve been called a fraud. I’ve been called a crook. I’ve been called swear words,” he says. “Honestly, I’ve had it all.”

Pokégrade is just one of a new wave of UK grading companies set up in the last year to take advantage of a renewed round of Pokémon mania. The road to this strange moment began around 12,000 years ago, when humans gave up their nomadic lifestyles and first began to “collect” items they deemed significant, but it really kicked off in 1976, when a professor of statistics from Bowling Green University named James Beckett III noticed that the baseball trading card market was a Wild West of price fluctuation.

Cards had no fixed value between sales: The price someone had paid seemed to have little bearing on what they could sell it for. To solve this, Beckett recorded card prices across America, eventually producing the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide, and a condition rating of mint to poor. In doing so, he essentially invented the tradition of card grading, changing the scene forever. One of the three most important grading companies still bears his name.

It was only recently that the Pokémon Trading Card Game, or TCG, had been brought under the auspices of this process. This wasn’t by accident. Two of the world’s most prominent Pokémon collectors, including Gary Haase, discerned two crises in the scene. The first was the same one Beckett had identified about baseball cards: There was no way of distinguishing the value between one card and another. The other was personal: Both collectors were sitting on millions of pounds worth of cards, yet their value was diminishing. Pokémon wasn’t cool anymore. They were the first significant collectors to send their cards off to PSA to be graded. "It made a huge difference," Haase told Input. “It made it less of a child’s venture and turned it into more of an adult venture, like sports cards.”

But breaking the iron grip of the three big grading companies is proving difficult. And grading companies in the UK have been beset by scandal. The accusations are many: that they don’t know the first thing about grading a card; that they’re scammers; that their slabs are ugly and misshapen. There’s even been a suggestion that they’ve been going on eBay and up-bidding sales of their own items. “It’s horrendous,” says Ben Mewis, who runs the Poké-Torio YouTube channel. “They got so much hate, the first couple did. It was horrendous. I don't envy them at all.”

“So much abuse,” says Kane Crosfill, who runs GetGraded, the first of the new UK grading companies to come to market. “Sleepless nights kind of abuse.” Spelling Butterfree “Butterfry” was a particularly bad day. Multiple times he has debated whether the stress is worth it.

This abuse has affected people’s mental health. “We received a lot of abuse. And I mean, a lot,” says Graham. “Some of the messages that I’ve received from people have been absolutely foul. One day, I had such a bombardment of attacks, I actually realized why stars on social media actually go to low places.”

If this wasn’t bad enough, the new companies are also attacking each other. There’s been accusations of scamming, slander, and plagiarism. Crossfill says his company is being targeted because it’s “miles ahead” of its UK rivals—grading thousands of cards instead of hundreds, and setting up new offices in Europe and America. "I’ve seen other people who have been really bitter about how many subs we’re getting, especially some of the other UK grading companies, who have sat on YouTube videos and tried to undermine us, but they might be grading 100 cards a week when we’re grading 500 cards a day: there’s no comparison," he says.

Graham has his own list of grievances: that certain companies are lying about employing experienced graders, that influencers with “their fingers” in US grading firm PSA have encouraged abuse against him, and that those who mocked his venture went on to set up their own rival grading companies.

To an outsider, this level of vitriol seems bizarre: Although grading by one of these companies won’t increase the value like a rating from one of the big three, they still seem to offer a quicker, cheaper way of getting the condition checked and the card sealed in a slab. “Hobbyists have been crying out for a UK grading company for years,” says Mewis. “We’ve never had one, we’ve always had to send stuff overseas. And there’s a cost and wait time involved in that.”

Part of the trouble comes down to the secrecy surrounding the grading process. Grading companies guard this like KFC guards its blend of herbs and spices. And though a collector knows that a grader will be looking at things like edges, corners, centring, coloring, whitening on the cards’ blue backs, silvering—where the glittering foil layer extends slightly past the paper layer— and general damage like scratches and stains, there are no videos of these companies carrying out this examination. “It’s proprietary, subjective, and by our standards,” a Beckett spokesperson says.

This is partly for competitive reasons. Grading has become very high tech: Companies are introducing AI to supplement the human eye; they check authenticity by blasting the card with different types of light. “These are big, billion-dollar companies,” says Charlie Hurlocker, a Pokémon TCG expert who has personally graded more than a quarter of a million cards. “And they are using technology that they do not want other people to know about.”

This secrecy, at the very least, can prove confusing to collectors who receive lower grades than they expected. At the more extreme end, over the years there have been accusations of the companies missing trimmed or altered cards, or, more seriously, about the major companies deliberately undergrading popular cards.

Hurlocker doesn’t give much credence to these conspiracy theories, though. Grading is an art as much as a science, he explains. A lot of the final grade comes down to what’s called eye appeal: how a card looks and feels to a grader with years of experience, a bit like wine tasting. With the hobby world being so brutal—“everyone is constantly holding a knife to your throat,” he says—if the process was transparent, it would give collectors more ammunition to leverage and claim mistakes, no matter how small the margin. “Hundred-percent transparency sounds like a nice idea,” he says. “But I don’t think that it wouldn’t make customers more satisfied. I think that customers would take that information, and then use it to make themselves less satisfied.”

New graders are stepping into this conspiratorial world and getting burnt. One theory for the hostility is that the rise of a UK grader will lower the value of cards graded by PSA, Beckett, and CGC by alleviating current scarcity, or flooding the market with highly graded cards.

Primarily, though, criticisms tend to focus on the credentials of the new graders. Collectors are understandably paranoid about sending their potentially valuable cards to unknown grading companies. One commenter on a YouTube review of GetGraded says they were disgusted at these “back bedroom graders.” (GetGraded says it has a grader with four years’ experience in the industry.) Another criticizes PokéGrade’s scoring system: “Don’t just pluck numbers from thin air because I can get my 84-year-old nan to do that at bingo when it re-opens!” (There are other, less polite comments, spread across social media.)

Graham admits he’s made mistakes, sometimes grading too harshly, but also says that everyone has to start somewhere, and he’s never claimed to have more experience than he has. He thinks the situation suits big companies, who he claims create an illusion that the skill is deep and difficult to learn, by starting rumors about flashy new technology and posh grading schools. “Anyone can be a grader,” he says. “You just have to step forward, register a company, and convince people that you’re going to offer a service that is worth money and worth them paying for.”

Regardless, many in the community consider expertise in grading essential. “Would you hire a mechanic that’s learning on the fly?” Hurlocker says. “I also think that people feel strongly that this is a skill and that the reason that they’ve paid for this is because they believe that these companies will do a better job.”

Graham has been up front that he can’t offer an increase in card value like the other big companies, so evidently people are angry about more than just money (though they are, undoubtedly, angry about that too). It seems there’s also a deep nostalgia at play here. Grading offers a ritual by which adults can honor their childhoods. We know that we cannot return to the time the object first became special to us, but we can pluck it out of time, and preserve it—a memory frozen in plastic. One reason collectors may get so furious about messed up grades or insufficient expertise is because they entrust graders with their most valuable memories.

What seems certain is that not all of these new companies will succeed, and that’s important to people who want a perishable thing to last forever. “Why should anyone trust that somebody who just started a year ago is going to be in the market in say 30 years?” says Hurlocker. “These other companies have been around for decades. I know that if I grade with CGC, BGS, or PSA, then, come the end of my life, I am certain that they will still be grading cards.” Graham? He still loves the scene—he's graded more than 500 cards and intends to keep going.

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.

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