The Rise Of WATA Games And The Mass Speculation Of Factory-Sealed Vintage Video Games

September 6, 2019

On Aug. 7, 2019, CNBC published a story on its website titled “An Unopened Nintendo Game from 1988 Found in This Family’s Attic Sold for $9,000 in Online Auction.” A lot of the mainstream news media commented on the sale, and some of these outlets had misleading headlines to grab readers’ attention. The story centers around Scott Amos, a man in his 40s who returned home to Reno, Nev., to clean out the attic of his childhood home. In one long-forgotten box was a factory-sealed copy of “Kid Icarus,” which was a popular Nintendo video game released in 1988 for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. That said, this wasn’t an ordinary copy of the game “Kid Icarus.”
What made this example special is that the game was still in its original store bag with its receipt showing the sale price of the game, and, low and behold, the game was also still factory-sealed and never opened. Luckily, Scott recognized that the game may have some value, so it was sent to WATA video game grading, where it was examined, graded, and encased in a hard plastic shell. The game received an 8.0 rating on a scale of 1 to 10, and the factory-sealed shrinkwrap received a sold “A” rating as well. The item was placed up for bids through Heritage Auctions, where it received a final bid price of $9,000. Had the game not been sealed, a loose copy of “Kid Icarus” can easily be found on eBay selling anywhere from $20 to $30 depending on condition. Even a complete opened in box copy can be had for about $100.
I have discussed in great detail in previous articles the massive amount of speculation that is occurring in the vintage video game marketplace. That said, now that the third-party grading of vintage and even modern-era video games seems to be a valid business, demand for video game based collectibles is soaring, but collectors should use extreme caution before spending large sums of money on these unproven collectibles. WATA Games is the newest grading company that grades both loose and open home video games, as well as coveted factory-sealed video games for most of the popular vintage and modern video game systems. They are relatively new to the video game grading scene but managed to garnish a large following due to the fact that many of the company’s founders are well-known video game collectors. They also received a lot of credibility because well-known names in the greater collectibles market are either investors or advisors in the firm. Jim Halperin, co-founder of Heritage Auctions, is an advisor to WATA Games, as is Josh Nathanson, the founder of ComicLink. The company has been trending lately due to several key sales of vintage video games that have achieved record auction prices.
Ironically, WATA Games is not the only company, nor the first, that grades video games. That honor goes to VGA, Video Game Authority. VGA is part of the Collectible Grading Authority line of companies of which the most well-known conglomerate is AFA, Action Figure Authority. If you collect vintage “Star Wars” toys and action figures, you may have come across several high-profile items graded by them. The rocket firing Boba Fett prototype figure that sold for a record sale by Hake’s Auctions was graded by AFA, so they have a lot of credibility in the vintage toy marketplace. Unfortunately, that success did not translate to a highly successful run in grading and authenticating video games. While VGA does grade items that WATA Games does not (items like actual video game systems and accessories), WATA Games seems to be the market leader for graded vintage video games at present time, based on record sums being paid at auction.
Confusing matters more, both VGA and WATA Games use two entirely different grading scales when grading games. VGA uses the standard toy grading scale of 1 through 10, which it modified and changed to a 10 through 100 grading scale that goes up in 5 to 10 point increments. WATA Games took a completely different approach and decided to use the comic book grading scale that uses a modified 1 through 10 grading scale, with decimal based monikers for both lower and higher grades. This is causing confusion on the secondary market for collectors who pursue both VGA and WATA graded games. For instance, a VGA 85 graded game is actually a near mint plus graded video game, while a WATA Games 9.0 is actually a very fine/near mint game. You would think the WATA Game being in 9.0 would be the higher grade, but you would be wrong. The VGA 85 is actually several grades higher. It is confusion like this that is causing uninformed speculators to make poor buying decisions in regard to graded video games.
So who is driving up some of the insane prices we are seeing for vintage video games that are now considered collectible? The answer is simple. Since WATA Games is using the standard comic book grading scale and simply applying it to the grading of video games, we are seeing a lot of the same speculators who helped drive up the prices of graded vintage comic books over the years, with the advent of CGC, Comics Guaranty Corporation (the first well-respected third-party grading company of comic books), now enter the vintage video game marketplace en masse. That said, I would strongly caution against anyone from entering the market at present time. The graded vintage video game market is one of the newest sectors in the overall antiques and collectibles marketplace. It is also in a massive speculative bubble. And while some well-versed, deep pocketed speculators are bound to make money in this market, a lot of unsophisticated speculators who enter the market are going to be hurt. This same thing happened with graded coins back in the 1980s, graded sports cards of the 1990s and early 2000s, and even graded comic books. My advice to anyone interested in getting involved in this market is to take a wait and see attitude and simply collect the games you want to own and play. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a single factory-sealed video game. You can simply opt to buy a used one at a fraction of the price and actually do something unheard of in the graded video game market market of today--actually play it.

Shawn Surmick has been an avid collector since the age of 12. He currently resides in his hometown of Boyertown, Pa., and is a passionate collector of antiques and collectibles. His articles focus on various topics affecting the marketplace.


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