A History of Record-Breaking Video Game Auctions
Earlier this month, an unopened copy of Super Mario 64 sold for USD 1.56 million. The lot set a new record for the category and was the first video game to surpass $1 million on the auction block. Industry professionals, video game collectors, and even some at Heritage Auctions did not expect such enthusiastic bidding. “I was blindsided, to be quite honest with you,” Heritage Auctions’ Valarie McLeckie told The Washington Post. The fact that this was the third record-breaking video game auction of 2021 also added to the disbelief.
Many wonder if video games can continue commanding seven-figure results. However, others see comic book auctions as a clear precedent for video games’ exponential growth in the industry. To better understand this emerging category, Auction Daily looks at record-breaking video game auctions and the collecting community around them.
Video Game Auctions & the Average Collector: A Divide
To play brand new video games, most gamers pay between $60 and $70. As the months pass, though, a video game often depreciates in value, particularly its used copies. That is when many collectors step in, buying games they would like to display and enjoy for a lifetime. For example, the market rate for a used copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of the most well-reviewed games of the last decade, is only $9.99 for the Xbox One, according to PriceCharting.
A decade or more after release, gamers and collectors often become nostalgic for a game, causing a rise in demand and market prices. A recent example is Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance for the Nintendo GameCube. The low print run of this 2005 game, combined with its avid fan base, caused the market price for a used copy to skyrocket to $300. Unopened copies sell for over $500.
Still, $500 is a far cry from the amount that highly-graded, unopened copies of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario 64 command at auction. “Attaining the finest known example from a condition standpoint drives a certain type of collector’s behavior, specifically the collector who wants the absolute best,” explains Ryan Sabga, the CEO of video game grading company Wata Games. Therefore, a video game’s agreed-upon market value does not restrain the price it can achieve at auction. Instead, what matters most is how effectively an auction house can articulate a particular copy’s perceived rarity.
2017: Sealed Copy of “Super Mario Bros.” Sells for Over $30,000
In July of 2017, bidding for a sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System began at a modest $0.01 on eBay. Before long, though, the bidding war intensified. The game eventually sold for $30,100.44, setting a new record for video game auctions.
Because it is unclear how many sealed copies of Super Mario Bros. exist, the bidding was especially spirited. At the time of the eBay sale, Kotaku writer Poey Gordon estimated that there might be only 12 such examples in private collections. Gordon also points out that the record-breaking lot was “a very early copy of the landmark NES game…in the original ‘hangtab’ -style box.”
Many media outlets were skeptical of this sale. For example, PCMag editor Matthew Humphries wondered at the time if a market for sealed video games could persist as more gamers turn to digital. In the years following Humphries’ comments, a growing percentage of gamers have bought digital games (especially during the pandemic). However, this has not deterred collectors interested in sealed, highly-graded physical copies of video games.
2019: Heritage Auctions Achieves $100,000+ for Sealed “Super Mario Bros.”
In early 2019, Heritage Auctions became the first major auction house to offer video games. Its first foray into the category was a sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. that realized $100,150 in February of that year. Instead of one buyer, the copy remains in the care of a group of owners. That includes Heritage Auctions’ founder, Jim Halperin. This has led some, such as video game historian Kelsey Lewin, to speculate that the copy may reappear in a future Heritage Auctions event.
At the time, Lewin already saw the parallels between comic books and video games in the auction industry. If Action Comics #1 can achieve record highs because it contains the first appearance of Superman, it makes sense, argues Lewin, that Super Mario Bros. would be the video game equivalent. The game served as many players’ introduction to Mario and the Nintendo Entertainment System.
The average collector can still easily buy a complete copy of Super Mario Bros. However, what set this example apart was its 9.4 out of 10 Wata grade, indicating near-mint condition. The copy also came from an early edition of the game. The gloss sticker sealing the top of this copy indicates it was from an early 1986 trial run of the game in the United States. It is unclear if any other sticker-sealed copies of Super Mario Bros. still exist.
Since the February 2019 sale, Heritage Auctions has broken its own record five times. That streak began when it offered another copy of Super Mario Bros. in July of 2020, which sold for $114,000. Then, the auction house finished the year by realizing $156,000 for a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 in November.
The curious story behind another copy of Super Mario Bros. made headlines earlier in 2021. The original owner purchased it as a Christmas gift in 1986. However, they forgot about it after storing it away in an office drawer. The game stayed in that drawer in near-mint condition until crossing the auction block with Heritage Auctions for $660,000 in April of 2021.
This month, the auction house proceeded to sell a copy of The Legend of Zelda for $870,000. Just two days later, Heritage Auctions achieved $1.56 million for a copy of Super Mario 64, the current record holder.
2021: Video Game Auctions Reach Seven Figures With “Super Mario 64” Sale
In 2020 and 2021, Heritage Auctions beat its own video game records at a dizzying pace. However, crossing the seven-figure mark surprised some at the auction house. “I honestly thought that this was a milestone that we wouldn’t pass until years from now,” said Valarie McLeckie of Heritage Auctions. For now, the winning bidder chooses to remain anonymous, leaving many to wonder about their motivations.
Super Mario 64 was Mario’s first venture into 3D and a launch title for the Nintendo 64. The game is often lauded as one of the most important in the medium’s history. IGN, for example, lists Super Mario 64 as the 10th best game of all time. Released in 1996, many millennial gamers also grew up with Super Mario 64, increasing its nostalgic appeal.
Some lot categories have seen increased sales during the pandemic as bidders look for comfort in familiar items. “Unable to spend on travel, dining, or other diversions, some folks have redirected their funds towards collection building and are willing to pay premium prices,” wrote Auction Daily contributor Rebekah Kaufman last year about teddy bear sales. Although the increased enthusiasm for video game auctions began before the pandemic, time will tell what impact the global crisis will have on the category’s long-term trajectory.