The Evolution of Trading Cards

May 19, 2020

The real-world economy of digital trading cards

Evolution Of Trading Cards

One of the most interesting things about the human race is the massive diversity of personalities found from one individual to the next. With a difference in personalities comes a wide range of interests and passions. If these interests and passions are not already work-related, there is a good chance that they will turn into a hobby of some sort.

Some people like playing video games, others like gardening. Some people collect stamps, art, or currency. While some hobbies are purely for the enrichment of the soul, others can be extremely valuable in money terms as well. The collection of trading cards is one example of an interest that can bring with it a deal of wealth.

The collection of trading cards has a steeped history of both ups and downs, but one thing that cannot be denied is that it is still alive and well today, even though it has undergone several evolutions over the decades. There has been a massive resurgence of card collecting in the last few years with the introduction of Digital and Blockchain card innovations, which have boosted the industry to a net worth of around $2.9 billion/£2.4 billion, annually.


Babe Ruth Playing Cards

As with all hobbies that pre-date the digital age, trading cards started as physical items, the first of which were hand-drawn on cardboard. While baseball cards had a head-start over all other trading cards in the business, having launched in the crudest form when baseball became a professional sport in the 1860s, the most popular collectable cards came two decades later.

In the 1880’s cigarette companies used to enclose lithographed trading cards into their packs of smokes, covering a variety of topics and genres. These cards became highly collectable and found a strong following among children, especially those who used to line up outside the tobacconist shops and general dealers, eagerly waiting for the adults buying cigarettes to come out the store and hand out their cards. While this was initially a ‘two-horse show’, by 1900, thousands of card sets were being manufactured and dispensed by over 300 different companies. Unfortunately, the start of World War Two stopped the distribution of cards in cigarette boxes.

Baseball cards saw a resurgence during the early parts of the 20th century and over the next half-century became the hottest card collectables in the world. The demand for these cards drove the rarest title’s values through the roof.

It’s often hard to believe, but some of the titles made between 1909 and 1954 are worth multiple millions of dollars today! The top 10 most valuable cards ever sold include:

  • 1909 to 1911 T206 Honus Wagner Card: One recently sold for $3.12 million but has a PSA speculated value of $7.5 million.
  • 1952 Topps Micky Mantle Card: This sold for $1.13 million, with a PSA speculated value of $2.5 million.
  • 1915-1916 Sporting News Babe Ruth Rookie Card: One sold for $717,000, with a PSA speculated value of $1.35 million.
  • 1909-1911 American Caramel Joe Jackson Card: This sold for $667,189, with a PSA speculated value of $600,000.
  • 1951 Bowman #253 Micky Mantle Rookie Card: This sold for $588,000, with a PSA speculated value of $600,000.
  • 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth Card: This sold for $575,000, with a PSA speculated value of $900,000.
  • 1909-1911 T206 “Bat off Shoulder Ty Cobb” Card: This sold for $488,425, with a PSA speculated value of $280,000.
  • 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente Card: This sold for $478,000, with a PSA speculated value of $400,000.
  • 1909-1911 T206 N.Y.NAT’L Hands up Joe Doyle misprint Card: This sold for $414,750, with a PSA speculated value of $550,000. This is probably the rarest card of all time.
  • 1954 Topps Henry “Hank” Aaron Card: This sold for $358,500, with a PSA speculated value of $200,000.

This just goes to show that the trading card industry was not just ‘child’s play’ but included millions of dollars’ worth of trades – a serious commodity trading pastime by all accounts.

Top Card Brands of the Time

As you can see from the list of cards above, there were numerous brands of trading card makers. The most consistent brands in sporting history have been Topps and Panini America. In fact, Topps covered way more than just sports cards.

After World War Two, the company released a variety of genres, including those dedicated to TV and Film shows, Big

Topps Leia Trading Card Star Wars

Game animals, and American Football. By 1951 they had also produced their first baseball card.

Topps released the all-popular Star Wars™ trading cards, which were introduced in 1977 to coincide with the first movie release. These collectables were very popular among fans of the films. The Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packages collectables also found great traction.

Having said this, sports cards were always the dominant traders, which included offerings from the MLS, NBA, NFL, and various professional soccer leagues across the world.

Wax Junk Era

Between the 1980s and 1990s, the baseball trading card market hit its peak, causing an over-saturation of cards on the market. This resulted in a drop in the overall value of cards. But the 1994 Baseball strike led to the capitulation of the baseball card industry for a brief season. The strike led to the inevitable cancellation of the World Series that year, which caused many Americans to turn away from the sport, damaging baseball’s standing in the USA beyond just the card market.

Some traction was made again in the physical cards market in 2009 when Topps was granted the official license to produce MLS cards. Panini America could still produce player cards but was not allowed to use official league branding or the team names on their titles. Other later year titles that gained a massive following were Pokemon cards. This anime-based cartoon storyline provided hours and hours of fun for collectors (mainly children).

It was evident that with the introduction of innovative technology in the 21st century that something needed to be done to revive a waning trading card market across all its genres and styles. This is where the digital card market made its entrance in a bid to keep this lucrative hobby alive.


The term ‘digital trading cards’ may seem a bit abstract to some. In truth, these are not physical cards at all, but rather virtual assimilations of cards which are stored on a computer/mobile software program. Instead of heading down to the store to purchase your packs of cards, you can head online or open a mobile application to purchase them. Once the online payment is done and verified, you will receive your ‘pack’ of cards.

Of course, you cannot touch the cards and they are displayed on a program rather than a tangible flip file. For this reason, the digital card evolution was met with a bit of resistance from ‘real card’ purists. However, the overall reception of the concept has been very positive. People understand that digital is the way of the world right now and the newer generation is especially welcoming of such innovations.

Do Digitised Cards Hold Value?

The digital trading card market has not dampened the commodity value of cards and rare cards can still fetch quite a price. One of the most popular baseball cards of the Digital Age was the 2015, Mike Trout Card. On the opening day of the season, players bought out 22,500 packs in the first hour of trading, hoping to pick up the precious card that was said to be spread among the packs at a ratio of 150:1. This frenzy made Topps $12,000 in that first hour of trading alone. As the digital card market ages, so the rarity of cards will become more prevalent, thereby boosting their values.

There are a few factors that go into determining the value of sports cards. These factors include:

  • Signature Cards: Cards with the players’ signature are usually the most valuable.
  • How Quickly the packs sell out: Fast sellers are deemed more popular and therefore more valuable.
  • Rarity: If the demand exceeds the supply, the card is deemed rare and therefore valuable.
  • Insert Design: Special designs are more collectable.
  • Player Popularity: The more popular a player is, the more sought after a card is.
  • Awards Offered for Collecting a Set: Sometimes, manufacturers like Topps will award players a special prize card for collecting an entire series. These special cards will be quite rare and are therefore worth a lot of money to collectors.

More to Life than Baseball

Sports trading cards do still dominate the scene in the digital arena, but they are not the be-all and end-all of the market. In fact, the very first digital collectable cards were not sports cards at all. “Magic: The Gathering” cards were the first digital cards ever sold. These were fantasy-based titles provided by ‘Wizards of the Coast’ (now a subsidiary of Hasbro) that could be collected and played with. Other popular card genres have included the Marvel series, the Digital Star Wars packs, and Garbage Pail Kids cards. It comes at no surprise that these last few brands are supplied by a familiar name in the sports card industry – Topps.

Top of the Topps

Because their name comes up prominently throughout the history of trading cards, we feel that they deserve some special attention. While contested by Panini America on the sports card scene, Topps is by far the largest trading card supplier in the world. Not only do they dominate the physical card market, but innovations in mobile card collection have set them atop the industry on the digital side too. There have been many similar start-up businesses over the past decade, but few have managed to find the traction that Topps and others have gained.

Topps HuddleThe digital road started in 2000 with the company’s introduction of eTopps cards, but later innovations in 2012 saw the company introduce ‘Topps Bunt’. This was their first mobile app designed especially for the collection of baseball cards. It didn’t stop with baseball though and was followed by ‘Huddle’ (NFL), ‘Kick’ (Soccer), Star Wars (Star Ward Card trader), and more.

This mobile revolution has forever changed how cards can be purchased, traded, and stored. The app is designed for both collectors and Fantasy Sports players, as each card variation comes with a competitive gaming option. The app also allows for speedy in-app purchases as well as device to device trades.

All your cards are stored on the app. This single point has brought some scepticism about the safety of your investment, should the app close or the business go under. Besides these very real reservations, it seems that the industry is doing well and is not set to disappear anytime soon.

While centralised storage servers may carry the disadvantage of being vulnerable to company closure and restrict what you can do with your cards, there are plenty of perks in the Digital industry. When unpacked, we can see just how much more convenient the digital trading cards market is over the physical one.

Perks of Digital Trading Cards:

  • Increased graphic enhancements: Computer visuals and animated effects can be implemented into the fabric of digital cards, whereas physical cards only have a static 2D picture on them.
  • Can Update Statistics in Real Time: Card makers can update the stats on cards from the app in real-time so that your card collection is never out of date.
  • Easily Accessible: You can keep your entire card collection in your pocket for quick access. In-app mobile purchases can also be accomplished in a jiffy, without the need to head for the store or anticipate a courier delivery.
  • Imperishable: There is no risk involved in your cards perishing while stored in a flip file. Digital cards maintain their quality and value.
  • Gamification: Many digital cards come with the option to play games with them. This can all be played in-app. Fantasy Sports are quite popular. Here, you will score points based on the real players’ performance in your collection. If your team performs well on the field, they will fair well in the Fantasy League. Here, you can play for points and prizes. ‘Magic: The Gathering’ offers a different type of entertainment and has been extremely popular over the years, offering fans a fantasy fighting adventure storyline. The game produced over 20 billion cards between 2008 and 2016, and as of 2015 had 20 million active players.

How to Acquire Digital Cards

The digital trading card sphere has revolutionised the way in which the hobby is maintained. It has truly opened-up the trading market far more than before. Not only can you buy directly from the app, but you can make your trades on there too. Externally, you will not struggle to buy cards and trade them if need be either. In fact, eBay hosts thousands of ads dedicated to this hobby, covering a range of card genres. You may often find great deals here or even get a great price for your cards.


Just when you think that the digital world of trading cards had hit its peak in innovation, does the Blockchain industry arrive to increase the user experience offered to collectors. While the blockchain trading card industry is still a digital market at its core, it offers the player more control over their cards, thanks to the decentralisation of its network.

Up till now, blockchain has been linked strongly with cryptocurrency transactions, though its use is far more versatile than that. The Blockchain is a decentralised ledger that can track and record the movements of all coded hashes tied to its ledger, whether they are cryptocurrency-related codes or codes designated to items, or both.

Blockchain technology is decentralised. This means that it needs no trusted third party to control its assets. It is a P2P platform where transactions are released by one party and received by another. Various server nodes across the world verify each transaction. When it comes to trading cards, the card codes are loaded onto the chain. Once a purchase is made in cryptocurrency, the blockchain will assign that code to your crypto wallet. The blockchain is open to the public, so you can check the transaction to verify that it went through.

Blockchain Trading Cards

Four properties are unlocked for the trading cards market by blockchain technology to make it far more convenient for buyers than traditional digital trading platforms. These include:

  1. True Digital Ownership
    Normal digital trading card platforms store your cards on their servers. This means that any compromise to these servers affects your assets. In this instance, the question begs the answer – Who do the cards actually belong to?
    The decentralised nature of blockchain cards allows for you to take possession of the cards you have purchased. They will be loaded to your personal crypto wallet where you can store and manage them.
    In the case of Cryptostrikers sports cards, each card takes the forms of an ERC-721 token on the Ethereum Blockchain. Once purchased, its unique code will be transferred into your possession.
  2. Provable Scarcity
    The blockchain is a public ledger that allows anyone to view its records. Card collectors can, therefore, verify the number of cards of a specific type in circulation at any time, thereby being able to prove the scarcity of any one card themselves, rather than taking a manufacturer at face value.
  3. Trustless Trading
    While the internet facilitates the seamless movement of information across the globe without borders, the blockchain does the same for data and fund transfers. There is no middleman involved in the process, allowing for quick and cost-effective trade directly between the seller and the buyer.
    Referencing the Cryptostrikers operation, a trade between two parties will be cryptographically signed and generated off the chain. This is then shared with social media (Reddit/Discord/Twitter) or directly to friends as a proof of transaction. The trade partner then takes that signature and performs a smart contract on the chain for settlement. The cards are then automatically swapped between the two user’s wallets.
  4. Inter-Operability
    If you collect physical cards, they need to be filed for safekeeping. In traditional digital spheres, the cards cannot perish but are stored on the provider’s app, but in the blockchain process, you get to store your own cards in your personal wallet, where they cannot perish. Blockchain, therefore, offers the best compromise between digital and real word card trading.

Top Cards in the Crypto Sector

While the world of trading cards and the blockchain are in a relatively new partnership, there are several successful card types on the market. These include:

  • Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids: Topps has partnered in a venture with the Wax Blockchain to provide their Garbage Pail Kids collectables for crypto clients. This was concluded just in time for the 35th anniversary of this comical theme.
    CryptoKittiesThe card series, which was originally released in 1985 was designed to parody the popular Cabbage Patch Kids. Each card features a Garbage Pail Kid character that has some sort of comical abnormality or having suffered some sort of ill-fate. All images are designed to provoke humour.
  • Panini America Sports Cards: In their search to compete with their stiff rivals, Topps, Panini was early on the crypto bandwagon. They offer a list of their sports cards on the blockchain, with special emphasis on their NBA collectables.
  • Cryptostrikers: Cryptostrikers is a soccer-themed collectable trading card game adapted for the Ethereum Blockchain. It exists as a decentralised application, offering collectors the opportunity to take full control of their cards.
  • CryptoKitties: In their own words, “CryptoKitties is a game centred around breedable, collectable, and oh-so-adorable creatures we call CryptoKitties! Each cat is one-of-a-kind and 100% owned by you; it cannot be replicated, taken away, or destroyed.” It follows the premise of Cryptostrikers, but with a largely female audience.


The rich history invested in the trading cards market has provided a strong foundation for the market’s future. While its richest phase was enjoyed in real-world trading, a strong legacy lies ahead in the digital realms, especially with the emergence of decentralised blockchain platforms.

The pass time has certainly evolved from a mere hobby to a commodity trade platform for many. With the constant advances in technology, it would be foolish to think that this is the innovative peak for the trade. Instead, it is another strong step towards a limitless future.



  • 1860’s The first hand-drawn baseball cards were introduced when the sport went pro, however, these were not well circulated, at first.
  • 1886 Allen Ginter was the first US tobacco company to market their cigarettes. A few years later, collectable lithographed cards were put in their packs covering a variety of topics. These cards became highly collectable, especially among children.
  • 1900 By now, thousands of card sets were manufactured and distributed by 300 different companies, covering a variety of genres and styles.
  • 1909 This year saw the printing of the T206 Tobacco card of ‘Honus Wagner’. This is recorded as the most valuable baseball card ever printed (sold for $3.12 million).
  • 1933 The Goudey Gum Company of Boston issued baseball cards in gum wrappers
  • 1939 Start of World War Two put an end to cigarette cards
  • 1950 The Topps Company Inc started producing trading cards: TV and Film, Big Game, All American Football
  • 1951 Topps produced their first baseball card
  • 1956-1980 Topps was the outright leader in the trading card industry: Sports and Non-Sports cards (Wacky Packages, Star Wars, Garbage Pail Kids)
  • 1980-1994 Wax Junk Era: Was the peak of Sports card memorabilia
  • 1994 The baseball card market became oversaturated and the Baseball Strike resulted in the cancellation of the Baseball World Series. This damaged the sport in the USA, along with baseball card popularity.
  • 2000 Topps Established themselves in the Digital Card sphere with the release of eTopps cards.
  • 2009 Topps becomes the official MLS card producer. Panini America could still produce baseball player cards but could not print MLS branding or team logos on their cards.
  • 2012 Topps releases its first mobile phone app, “BUNT” for digital baseball card fans. This was then followed by distinct apps for NFL, NBA, WWE, various International Soccer Leagues, Star Wars, Marvel Cards, and more.
  • 2009-2013 Various Digital start-ups were introduced to the market, but many of these companies struggled to gain traction due to licensing issues, etc.
  • 2017 Cryptostrikers goes into business before the last Soccer World Cup to produce decentralised Digital Cards
  • 2020 Topps partners with the Wax Blockchain to provide Blockchain-based cards of the Garbage Pail Kids brand in time for their 35th Anniversary.