The Retro Game and Cryptocurrency Booms Intersected in One Wild Pinball Auction
I can’t explain how Jim Blasko made his money. His Facebook page proudly touts that he once spent 50 Bitcoin on a canary yellow Lamborghini. That same car is emblazoned across his Facebook header image, complete with three models in black negligee emerging out of the doors somewhere in the Nevada desert.
Blasko is a crypto guy, and crypto guys, in my experience, are famously ambiguous when it comes to their wealth and influence. What I do know is that Blasko purchased 37 machines at September’s Museum of Pinball auction in Banning, California. He topped out at an $8,000 purchase of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pinball machine, and claims to have had a huge bid in for Computer Space — widely regarded as the first commercial video arcade machine ever made — before getting out-maneuvered by another patron. “I may have missed out on it,” says Blasko. “That piece might be worth $100,000 in a couple of years.”
The arcade collecting community was anticipating this auction for months. The Museum of Pinball in Banning, California (hence the commonly used nickname for the museum and its auction, “Banning”) had cultivated one of the largest hoards of vintage pinball machines, video arcade games, and other electro-mechanical devices designed to gobble up quarters in the world. But over the course of two weeks, owner John Weeks liquidated his entire catalogue due to the pandemic economic downturn. More than 1,000 games went up for sale, representing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for longtime hobbyists to supplement the remote corners of their stockpile with all sorts of offbeat rarities.
It was a dream come true… until the high-rollers showed up.
Simply put, the material sold at the Banning auction was far more expensive than the orthodox resale bill, by multiple degrees. Case in point: Back to the Future usually prices between $3,600 and $4,100. At Banning it moved for $14,000. Williams’s Tales of the Arabian Nights might fetch $8,000. The final bid last month was also $14,000. Scroll through the numbers, and you’ll see that nearly every item tells the same story. Buyers heedlessly blew past the warning lights and explored an unprecedented, psychedelic nether region of arcade commerce. These aren’t pristine-quality machines, either. The Pinball Museum was open to the public, meaning all of these games, despite upkeep, have accumulated a lot of player-hewn wear and tear. Compare that to the card investors who quickly encase their rare LeBron James rookies in antiseptic plastic. You’ll never find the same protective measures applied to a cola-stained 1981 Donkey Kong available for public play.
The obvious conclusion one could draw was that a huge number of new buyers — people who had no skin in the game, and rarely, if ever, purchased arcade machines before — swept into the Banning auction house and derailed the arcade and pinball community’s expected results. The identities of these potential interlopers were unknown, a feature common to most auctions, which generally respect bidder anonymity. But thankfully, one Banning bidder, Blasko, answered my Facebook message and was willing to talk.
But Blasko isn’t a new buyer at all. He’s been a regular at arcade sell-offs in the past, and represents a new class of consumer — someone willing to spend oodles of cash on pinball machines, laughing in the face of all estimated valuations.
Blasko has a truly eccentric plan for his collection. He is the chairman of a flagship cryptocurrency called “Aspire,” and hopes to build the first-ever blockchain arcade in Las Vegas. His vision is to retrofit these ancient arcade machines with the ability to process Aspire crypto tokens. If a player gets a particularly high score in, say, Space Invaders, they will be rewarded with an NFT that is deposited directly into the player’s digital wallet. “You can take that NFT to the marketplace where you can sell it or trade it or do whatever you want with it,” says Blasko. “That’s just the gaming aspect of it. I’d love to incorporate more, like a roller skating rink [to] liven the place up.” Like so many other people who participated in the Banning auction, he arrived with big dreams and left with a truckload of motherboards.
Who would pay that?
Blasko isn’t sure who he was bidding against. He tells me that he’s seen a slow increase in arcade game auction prices throughout the last year, predating the humongous spike in Banning. That bears out in the data. According to This Week In Pinball, one of the foremost blogs in the hobby, the average cost of a pinball machine has nearly doubled since 2018. Blasko believes that, generally, people are becoming more accustomed to the scarcity of the true rarities in the hobby — the same fuel that sparked booms in sports cards and vintage video games. “There’s been a transition of wealth from parents to kids, and now people are in their 40s and 50s who are saying, ‘You know, I’d love to have an arcade machine,” he says.
The reaction from pinball insiders has been mixed. On the Pinside forum, one of the largest online gatherings of retro gaming enthusiasts, auction spectators, some bidders themselves, could hardly believe their eyes when the Banning prices rolled in. (“Munsters $13,500! Wow!” “Goldeneye for $9,200?? WTF??? Who would pay that???”) These are quotes pulled from a 92 page thread documenting the auction. It starts relatively inert — pinball fans eyeing the lots, mourning the loss of the Museum — before growing increasingly confused by the astronomical, market-setting thresholds. Forum posters passed around the mysterious bidder IDs assigned to the biggest spenders. (One of them, bidder #1660, purchased a mind-boggling 110 cabinets.) Are they shadowy CEOs? Eccentric millionaires? Corporate flippers? That’s what we wanted to find out. Some Pinside hobbyists seemed to be struck with euphoria by the spectacle; dazzled at how, in a matter of days, a profound new financial benchmark was set for hundreds of machines. Others felt like their private clubhouse was suddenly under attack, and thirsted for revenge.
There’s been a transition of wealth from parents to kids, and now people are in their 40s and 50s who are saying, ‘You know, I’d love to have an arcade machine
“My texts were blowing up,” says Jake Peterson, who moderates the r/pinball subreddit. “People are just flabbergasted and frustrated. There are people who are outraged by the increased prices in general, who think the auction is a canary in the coalmine for the future of the market. There are cheerleaders who have large collections and look at them as investments rather than, I don’t know, games. And there’s a whole group of [arcade] operators who are scared to death right now. People who just enjoy pinball machines being out in the community for people to play. It’s becoming prohibitively expensive to maintain that.”
Peterson sums up the many uncertainties around the hobby after Banning: Does the auction represent a permanent capital readjustment or a weird, manic outlier? Are arcade games going to carry a punitive luxury tax into the future, or will they quickly fall back down to earth? Why did the bids get out of control in the first place? How is it possible for a cabinet to quintuple in value by the crack of the gavel? The more people I spoke to for this story, the more I became convinced that the great upheaval of pinball and arcade pricing standards wasn’t the result of a cabal of swindlers pulling the rug out from under everyday collectors. This might just be what happens when an auction receives wall-to-wall media coverage from outlets that otherwise stray away from gaming. Both the New York Times and the Today Show covered the event, enticing a lot of insurgent customers who had plenty of money to spend, and absolutely no context for the hobby’s appraisal logic.
That’s a theory put forth by Bob Cunningham, a veteran of the pinball community who made a living transporting cabinets to collectors all over the country. He was at the museum and putting in bids on behalf of five clients overseas, including a whopping $24,500 offer for the 1975 Jaws-inspired Maneater, complete with a shark-shaped cabinet, a monitor glowing in its gaping maw. But after the first week of the auction, Cunningham had only purchased three machines due to the skyrocketing price points. He’s since picked up a number of shipping jobs from the novice auction-goers who suddenly needed someone to haul a few tons of outmoded electronics across state lines. At least the middlemen broke even at Banning.
“I think [Banning] reached a whole new audience. That’s what I’ve found. I’m moving 50 machines for first-time buyers. Grandmothers, grandfathers,” says Cunningham. “They don’t understand that the Museum of Pinball functions as an arcade. They think of it as a museum where everything is pristine. There’s a whole lot of that. People not knowing that some of these machines still have rat poop in them.”
Cunningham tells me he’s working with that enigmatic Bidder #1660, who as I mentioned earlier, purchased 110 games from Banning. Cunningham tells me the anonymous patron operates another pinball museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and for the last month, he’s been ferrying the material between California and the mid-south. Cunningham believes the buyer overpaid, but again, does that really matter?
“I was like, ‘Man you paid $5,300 for a Stargate. That’s a $600 to a $1,000 game if you’re lucky.'” says Cunningham. “He said he got kinda caught up in [the energy.] He said the pictures looked so much better. When I take them out of the truck and you see all four sides, and all the imperfections. But he said, ‘Where else am I going to find that many games that I need in one location, right now?'”
Cunningham’s suspicions might apply to other avenues in the collectible video game sector right now. A sealed copy of Super Mario 64 sold for nearly $1.6 million in July. There was no precedent for that cost. In 2010, Stadium Events, famously one of the rarest NES games of all time, sold for an extremely modest $41,300. That’s a massive jump in sale price, especially when you consider that Super Mario 64 sold nearly 12 million units, and still-sealed copies are more likely to exist than a quickly-recalled NES game. There is an ethereal unease in the economy that has pushed the margins of blockchain coins, NFTs, sports cards, and now classic Nintendo games past the stratosphere. In that sense, maybe arcade machines are just the latest domino to fall. This is what scares Peterson. Arcades are public institutions. He doesn’t want to see the last remaining Burger Times locked up behind closed doors.
“A lot of these sales are going to private collections,” he says. “They may never see the light of day again. That makes me frightened for the future. How else are you supposed to discover pinball?”
This is just capitalism
So that’s the last question I wanted answered about the Banning auction. Is this a positive trend for the arcade community? Should suspicious diehards — like Peterson — welcome a watershed flush of cash? Or will this be a necrotic, destabilizing force? Everyone I spoke to around the hobby believes that the Museum selloff was a blip and that the bottom-lines will quickly deflate in the future. But is it really possible to put the toothpaste back into the tube after a $20,500 Pong machine?
“This is just capitalism. The prices were so much higher than people were used to. Why would someone do that? Well, you have to realize that a lot of people are in a very different economic situation, where $10,000 and $20,000 are the same,” says Steve Lin, Board Secretary at the Video Game History Fondation. “There were 900 active bidders. That’s a lot of people, that’s way more than we’ve seen [at other auctions.] These people aren’t browsing Pinside or marketplace forums. They just want to have these machines.”
Overall though, Lin has an optimistic perspective on the Banning Effect. He is an arcade collector himself, which means he is certainly vulnerable to price-gouging, but Lin relishes the idea of people treating old cabinets like treasured properties. He mentions the ocean of untouched relics from the ’70s and ’80s — prototypes, recalls, unreleased gems, whatever — moldering away on the fringes of society. If the Pinball Museum auction triggers a fresh interest to better archive the antiquity of gaming, then maybe it was all worth it.
“I see it as a net positive, because people now see that things have value. Machines that are in a barn or someone’s basement or whatever will come to light, and they’ll go into the hands of someone who doesn’t want to trash them,” concludes Lin. “[It’s a positive for] for people to say, ‘This arcade cabinet has value, and I’m going to try to retain its value.”
Luke Winkie is a freelance reporter for IGN