Zack Browning is one of the hobby’s leading collectors of Pokémon trading cards. Browning has an interesting background with Pokémon, as he has literally grown up with the TCG. He was introduced to the game as a child, shortly after its release in 1999. He had an immediate affinity for the artwork and as he puts it, “the shiny cards.” His love of the cards grew as did his understanding of the collecting process. Twenty-five years later, Browning has traded thousands of Pokémon cards and has built one of the premier collections in the hobby. He is considered an authority by the most advanced collectors and is frequently sought for advice on all things Pokémon.
In celebration of the TCG’s 25th Anniversary, we conducted the following socially distant interview with Browning and got his thoughts on Pokémon past, present and future.
PSA Blog: Pokémon cards were first released in 1999. How long did they go along “under the radar” and what started them on the path to being the worldwide phenomenon they have become?
Browning: “Pokémon cards were a hit from the beginning. Remember, the video games had become widely popular the year prior, so Pokémon, the characters and the idea of battle had been ingrained into the minds of many impressionable young collectors. This was also at the tail end of a booming ’90s sports card era. The idea of card collecting was not foreign to many kids.
“Collecting Pokémon cards was a natural transition for many to buy a pack and hope for the best. The Pokémon tagline, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” held true in both the video game and trading card game. Every collector was compelled to complete their collections and trading was the only way for most. This combination of viral video game success and well-timed release of trading cards granted Pokémon an entire audience ready to collect. This was a more social experience than playing the video games as trading cards encouraged friendly battles, swapping cards with friends and usually a weekend trip to Saturday Pokémon Leagues at Toys ‘R Us. The dynamic was a recipe for success and granted many long lasting positive experiences for young collectors. To this day, the 1999 Pokémon trading card releases remain among some of the most nostalgic hobby items available.”
Talk about the differences between Pokémon players and Pokémon collectors. The Pokémon collecting segment is strong, but is the Pokémon playing community equally large? How much do the two overlap?
“The player base has been much larger than the high-end collecting base. Pokémon has always encouraged playing the game through weekend tournaments, regional events and the Pokémon World Championships for the exceptional players. Many trainers will still pull out a deck during lunch to play their classmates or coworkers. The hobby is centered around a strong foundation of competitive gameplay with the majority of the Pokémon Company’s decisions focused on the players.
“Pokémon collectors have always been a pillar in the hobby albeit through ups and downs. The first three years of the trading card game maintained a strong collector presence. Hobby popularity settled through the mid-2000s where the player base helped keep the hobby afloat. Yes, collectors still existed, but Pokémon mania was far out of reach. Over the last five years Pokémon has consistently regained steam and with it, many collectors. Today, the collector pool is astounding. The Pokémon company is unable to keep up with demand. Store shelves are empty. This is not due to an exciting new game. This is driven entirely on collectors reviving their childhood passion and using their own income to support the addiction.
“It’s safe to say the player base and collector base overlap. Players keep the hobby alive and growing each year. Collectors create longevity and diversify the game beyond its original purpose. Every player collects to some degree, but not every collector could explain the card game. It’s a puzzling question for a collector to answer, but ‘do you know how to play?’ Many times, the answer is no.”
What would you consider to be the single most important advancement or element of the Pokémon TCG to date?
“Adding tiers of rarity. The Pokémon game started out with Base Set. This included 16 Holographic cards, 16 Rares, 32 Uncommons, 32 Commons and 6 Energy cards. The Holographic cards were more difficult to pull and came 1:3 booster packs. It was a perfect beginning to learning a game and collecting a full set. Over time, Pokémon added a higher tier of rarity with the first significant release being Shinings. These were more difficult to pull and came 1:12 booster packs. “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” was now even more of a challenge and additional subsets were created. Many of these new tiers branched across multiple sets. Examples include Crystals, Gold Stars, Primes, Lv.Xs, all the way to Hyper Rare VMAXs of today’s releases. This tied collectors in for the long haul and allowed Pokémon to retain its consumer base. It was a brilliant decision that appealed greatly to collectors. Players also bought in. It has been a goal of many players to have the highest tier of rarity in their decks. While not always achievable, the term has been coined ‘Blinged Out.’ To date, cards of the highest rarity are some of the most sought-after and collectible items in the hobby.”
What changes or updates would you most like to see come to Pokémon?
“Japanese releases have always understood the importance collectors play in the hobby. English simply does not. Japanese cards will have numerous exclusive releases throughout the year including iconic cards tied to specific events. The English side of the hobby rarely, if ever, has exclusivity. The majority of cards are reprinted and tied to Japanese sets. If English could have a more independent and creative design team, collectors would proudly show their support. This is something collectors have craved. The lack of exclusive English cards has long been a disservice to the incredible loyalty of English collectors.”
What are your projections for the state of the Pokémon hobby five years from now?
“Pokémon will be an industry staple in the trading card investing world. It will be recommended as an alternative investment in which traditional non-card collectors will participate. An Illustrator will have auctioned at Sotheby’s in the next five years. The original first edition cards will be firmly some of the most valuable English cards available. Collectors will learn to stick to key card investing principles by way of time and experience. Modern sets will be printed to demand on a 12-15 month supply lag. The Pokémon Company has tremendous flexibility to print as many cards as desired. This will be a painful lesson for many, however it may convert many speculators into collectors. The hobby will continue to have periods of extreme hype and mellow selloffs. These are all necessary for hobby growth in both size and depth.
“Later releases such as the Nintendo EX era, Diamond & Pearl and HeartGold SoulSilver will become even more competitive. Nostalgia does not back down. Those who primarily collected these eras will segment their goals to what they remembered as kids. These groups will form their own social circles and create market activity separate from the staples of today.
“Pokémon is still in its infancy as a collectible and investment vehicle. There are numerous layers to the hobby to accommodate all entry points. Enjoy this celebratory year of the 25th Anniversary and find the niche that keeps you coming back for more.”