Small Ball: Topps selling digital trading cards at a rate of one pack per second

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By Jon Robinson Comment

Quick, look at your smartphone’s screen. Does the size and shape remind you of anything?

To an old-school wax-pack kid like myself who actually used to attempt to chew the cardboard-like gum wrapped alongside my baseball cards, the screen of my smartphone is approximately the same size as the Rickey Henderson rookie card I still display on my desk.

And while card values have plummeted in recent years, Topps, which first started producing baseball cards back in 1951, has stepped things up big-time in the digital market, enabling the next generation of baseball and soccer fans to collect digital trading cards via iOS apps Bunt and Kick.

The results? With five million virtual packs sold this baseball season alone, Topps’ digital brand is exceeding all expectations, as the company has helped bring the fun factor back to card collecting.

“We think collectability is something that can exist in the digital environment and doesn’t just need to be physical,” says Michael Bramiage, Vice President and General Manager of Digital at Topps. “We’ve been looking a lot at what card collecting was like back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, before it became a coins and stamps kind of pursuit where people collected due to their future economic value. We really studied why people enjoyed collecting cards, and we’ve been trying to take those lessons and recreate them in a digital sense.”

Before people bought cards to fund their child’s college tuition, the hobby was more about the thrill of the chase, as kids bought pack after pack hoping to find their favorite players, while trading, flipping, and even sticking unwanted or rival team cards in their bicycle spokes.

“I never bought a pack from the top of the stack,” laughs Bramiage. “I always took a pack like two or three rows down, and everyone had their own superstitions. Back then, people would have their checklists, and they would mark off each card in hopes of completing their sets. People loved getting together with neighbors and friends to talk about cards, share their card collections, and figure out trades and the art of the deal.

“So our view of the digital world is to bring these collecting and game mechanics and bring them back almost one-for-one, recreating them in the digital sense while having just as much success. We want to reconstitute what made card collecting fun back in the day and bring it back in an entirely digital environment.”

To do this, Topps launched Bunt, a highly-addictive baseball card app where gamers not only collect and trade cards alongside other hobbyists inside the app’s community, but the cards you own actually earn coins based on how the players perform in real life each day.

Image via Topps

Image via Topps

“The tactile nature of the touch interface is another thing that really adds to the product,” says Bramiage. “Back before people locked their cards away in their safe, you used to touch the cards and play with them. That’s one of the things we love about being on iOS. Using touch, you can swipe cards and flip them back and forth. It really helps bring back this fun aspect of the cards that people forget about.

“There was just so much to the physical card collecting that is a natural fit to today’s day and age. We’re all about revisiting the heyday of card collecting and bringing it back online.”

Aside from baseball, Topps is now attempting to tackle the soccer market with a card-collecting app based on the popular Barclays Premier League. Similar to Bunt, fans collect cards, then compete in a real-world social competition based on how the players perform on the actual pitch.

“Kick is the best product we’ve made to date,” says Bramiage. “It’s taken everything we’ve learned from Bunt and brought them to life with some additional features. We’re really excited for the product, not only because it’s the second sport we’re adding to our roster, but the Barclays Premier League is a truly global league. You’ve got huge supporters in the U.K., huge supporters in China, huge supporters in the Middle East and Western Europe, and a growing fan base in North America.

“What we really like with what we’ve built with both Bunt and Kick is there’s not some sort of simulated narrative. All of our cards are value based, based on what’s happening in that actual sport. So we have real-time evaluations happening where if somebody does something amazing, his card might become more rare and distributed less. There’s a fantasy sports element to the collecting, because the whole thing is now based on actual events, not just some sort of simulation The other thing about our apps is, they are very, very social. We are trying to bring together a bunch of like-minded card collectors as we try to recapture that magic of card collecting in a digital sense. The younger generation is choosing digital items over physical items, and there are benefits to that. There’s metadata, there’s sharing, and there are items stored in the cloud that can never be lost. We’re taking all of those things and bringing them to the world of digital cards. You couldn’t take that Rickey Henderson rookie card that you have and see all the owners who had that card before you. But if that Rickey Henderson card was digital, you could absolutely see that data and the trail that comes behind it. We’re focused on treating these cards like real-world objects, both in trading and in monetary value.

“It’s exciting for us because we’re pioneering a new space that’s so different than what anyone else in the space right now is producing.”

First music, then books, now baseball cards.

More and more, I carry everything I own in my pocket, but the best part is, if I get a fingerprint on my digital cards, all I need to do is wipe my screen. No fear of bent corners on iOS, even if I drop my iPhone.

Adds Bramiage: “We view these as true digital collectibles, and we’re selling about a pack a second right now, so as you can see, this is a very hot space, and with Kick launching to a true global audience, we only expect these numbers to rise.”