With the Pokémon card craze on the outs with kids, Wizards of the Coast is betting on its line of licensed sports collectible card games to step up to the plate this year-and there’s strong evidence to suggest that it’s poised to hit one out of the park.
The first product in Wizards’ sports CCG line, MLB Showdown, sold five million units in the first seven months after its April 2000 debut. It also managed to crack market research firm The NPD Group’s monthly top 20 list of strategic card games for June and July-a U.S. retail sales-based list that has traditionally been dominated by entertainment properties, according to Reyne Rice, director of toy services at NPD.
Kids are starting to shift their attention away from Pokémon and other entertainment-driven CCGs towards MLB Showdown, adds toy analyst Sean McGowan, who included the cards in his Playdate 2000 Survey, a report McGowan publishes every October that predicts what toys will be hot sellers during the fourth quarter.
Unlike traditional sports cards, which are purchased primarily for their collectible value, Wizards’ sports CCGs combine the strategy of real sports with the hobby of sports card collecting.
MLB Showdown consists of a Starter Set (US$9.99) that comes with a mat resembling a baseball diamond and enough cards for two players (acting as de facto managers) to assemble a National and an American league team. Each card features a picture of an MLB player on the front with his season statistics on the flip side-kids use these stats when matching their pitchers against their opponent’s batters (kids are also allowed to use cards of players from previous years, if the player’s stats are better than the current season’s). Players pitch by rolling a 20-sided die, which determines whether batters will, say, hit a sac fly or strike out.
The starter pack also comes with a set of strategy cards that aims to recreate the nuances of a real game. For instance, there’s a bad-call card players can set down if they happen to strike out, giving them another chance at bat. MLB Showdown, unlike Major League Baseball, also features a salary cap. Participants are allotted a number of salary points for their teams based on actual player salaries, and if they exceed this limit, they will be encouraged to release or trade players. Kids can replenish their rosters by purchasing The MLB Showdown Booster Sets (US$2.99), which come with seven player cards and two strategy cards.
‘They’re cards that play ball,’ says Tom Goedde, director of marketing for sports entertainment at Wizards, explaining the appeal of the cards.
In addition to the unique play value of MLB Showdown, Goedde says Wizards’ grassroots marketing efforts have also helped to popularize the cards with kids and retailers. Last year, Wizards held over 320 MLB Showdown tournaments through its stores and those of its retail partners, which included Mom-and-Pop card and hobby stores as well as large toy retailers like Toys `R’ Us. Now Wizards is looking to leverage the success of MLB Showdown by adding to the line.
The company will release NBA and NFL cards-in Q3 and Q4 respectively-for the North American market, and it announced this month that it has signed separate agreements to develop soccer sets for England’s Premiere League, France’s National Football Federation and Italy’s Serie A, all of which will be available in Europe starting in Q3. In February, Wizards will release new decks for the 2001 MLB season and follow up with a mid-season expansion set in the summer, featuring cards of rookies who made an impact the previous year as well new cards of players who were traded during the off season.
This month, Wizards will also start marketing all of its sports CCGs under the Showdown Sports label, creating an in-house division to oversee all of its sports cards. It’s a move designed to give its sports cards a stronger brand in the sports marketplace, says Goedde. ‘We’re actively pursuing promotional tie-ins with companies that are more entrenched in the sports industry-like sporting goods companies and software companies for example-so we really need a strong sports identity to build up our credibility in that business.’