University
Steffen Eriksen Photo by Reyer Boxem

Steffen Eriksen

The Pokémon
professor

Steffen Eriksen Photo by Reyer Boxem
Assistant professor Steffen Eriksen would rather not say how much his Pokémon cards are worth. But he swears it’s not very much. He doesn’t collect the cards for their monetary value, but for their playing value: how he can use them in the game. After all, he is one of the best Pokémon players in the world.
23 November om 15:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 November 2021
om 15:46 uur.
November 23 at 15:46 PM.
Last modified on November 23, 2021
at 15:46 PM.

Door René Hoogschagen

23 November om 15:46 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 November 2021
om 15:46 uur.

By René Hoogschagen

November 23 at 15:46 PM.
Last modified on November 23, 2021
at 15:46 PM.

René Hoogschagen

Freelancejournalist
Volledig bio

Freelance journalist
Full bio

His most expensive Pokémon is a Mew; a cat-like creature, number 151 from the first generation of Pokémon. According to the card, he weighs four kilos and has psychic powers. Normally, a Mew isn’t worth more than twenty or thirty euros, but this particular card has been signed by Japanese Pokémon illustrator Ken Sugimori. 

Still, Eriksen isn’t interested in the card’s market value. This card isn’t particularly valuable to his gameplay, either. He’s got plenty of others. No, this card has emotional value: his grandmother got the card signed during Eriksen’s very first international tournament in Hawaï, when he was seventeen.

Poke Ball

The Pokémon craze had started a few years earlier in 2004, when Eriksen was still living in the Danish town of Odense. He’d heard of the card game before, and he was aware that there was a television series about the world in which creatures with special powers magically fit inside a little ball (the Poké Ball), but that was about it. 

Then, a friend of his missed several weeks of football training. Young Eriksen asked why and was told his friend was participating in an international Pokémon tournament. That made him curious.

He asked his friend to teach him the game and became completely hooked. He still is. Anyone he teaches is aware of this, especially when he’s teaching online classes from his home in Hoogkerk.

Decision-making moments

His trophies are on display in the case behind him and on the wall is a backpack as worn by Ash Ketchum, the ten-year-old Pokémon gym master from the television series. Students can also expect Pokémon-themed questions on their exam, for example about the predictive methods of price fluctuation.

My grandma doesn’t understand the game, but she loved our trip to the world championship

He not only talks to his followers on Twitch and YouTube about statistics and the pricing of assets, but also about Pokémon cards and game strategies. He even organises an online quiz about the game. On a shelf just outside the webcam’s view, a bunch of Pikachu plushies keep him company.

‘The game has so many decision-making moments’, he says by way of explaining his fascination. Sure, luck also plays a part, but it’s mainly a matter of strategy. This starts even before the actual competition, when a player selects the cards to use. ‘You have to base your selection on what you think your opponent might do.’

Eriksen’s great pride: a Mew signed by Ken Sugimori

Chess

The game can perhaps best be compared to chess, says Eriksen. ‘It’s not like ordinary card games.’ In both chess and Pokémon, two people face each other in a strategic game with many different options. The same goes for draughts. ‘A friend of mine is a highly skilled draughts player. He played Pokémon once and he was pretty good.’

But the difference with chess and draughts is that Pokémon regularly has new cards added or removed. ‘I think there are between a thousand and two thousand cards to choose from.’ Sometimes the rules change, too. ‘Initially, the person starting was immediately allowed to attack, but now the opponent is allowed to attack first in their response.’

Shortly after he’d learned how to play the game, he came in twelfth place in a national tournament, where he also received his first packs of Pokémon cards. A few years later, he was competing in the world championship in Hawaï. His grandma accompanied him. ‘She doesn’t understand the game at all’, he says, laughing. ‘But she loved the trip.’ As did he. 

First in the world

Since then, he’s been to eleven world championship and even placed first in the world five years ago. And he’s already qualified for the next world cup in August.

He owes a debt of gratitude to his grandmother, who got him his special card. While he was playing in Hawaï, she spent hours in line to get an autograph by the great Ken Sugimori, who drew all the characters and animal creatures in Pokémon. ‘Just in time’, says Eriksen; shortly after, the legendary artists stopped signing autographs for good.

There’s a discussion on whose collection is the largest, but I think it’s mine

He hasn’t locked his card in a safe or under a secret door in the floor, he says. ‘But I know people who do that. They’ll have cards worth a hundred thousand euros or something. Or a collection of cards each worth a few hundred. Of course, you lock those away.’

Trainers

In fact, his favourite card isn’t even in Groningen. It’s with a friend in England. To keep it safe, for sure, but the pandemic and Brexit have also made it hard for him to retrieve it. ‘It’s difficult to arrange anything. The mail won’t reimburse me for the card if it gets lost.’ But again, he’s not in it for the monetary value, he’s in for the game.

The one thing he’s really proud of, though, is his collection of trainers. Eriksen takes a big folder off the shelf, proudly leafing through it. ‘There’s a discussion on Twitter right now about whose collection is the largest. I’m pretty sure it’s mine’, he grins.

He pulls open a drawer. Next to a stack of medals are six narrow containers, each approximately fifty centimetres long, filled with cards. ‘These are the cards I play with’, he says. They’re organised by number, which helps when he is putting together decks. Each deck consists of sixty cards, and they’re all different.

The Pokéball wedding rings of Eriksen and his wife. Hers, the one on the left, is decorated with red gold in the circle.

Read

That’s because each competition requires a different strategy: offensive, defensive, constructive, or surprising. ‘It’s important to startle your opponent right from the beginning, to make sure they don’t know what to do. That’s where the advantage lies.’ You also have to be able to read your opponent, to judge what they’re going to do. That’s why he doesn’t like playing online. He can’t see his opponents waver or even blink.

The possibility to play online does make the game more accessible to beginners, however, which is probably why it’s been played so much during the pandemic. But that also drives up the price of regular cards.

They buy out whole shops and sell everything online for much more

Before, people would spend years saving up all their pocket money to ‘build’ a deck. Now that they’ve rediscovered the game, as adults they can buy all their cards at once, Eriksen explains.

Scalping

Wholesale buyers also drive up the price. ‘They buy out whole shops and sell everything online for much more.’ This is known as ‘scalping’, says Eriksen. He disapproves. ‘It isn’t fair to kids who just want to have fun playing the game.’

Then there are the unboxing videos on YouTube, which started before the pandemic. YouTubers spend a lot of money for a box of unopened twenty-year-old packs, gleefully opening them on camera. ‘It was really being hyped’, says Eriksen.

On the other hand, the publisher didn’t scale up production. ‘That means there is more demand than supply’, the economy lecturer explains. As such, the price keeps increasing until the cards are prohibitively expensive.

Most expensive card

Earlier this year, YouTuber Logan Paul spent two million dollars on six unopened boxes of four hundred first-edition cards. Last summer, rapper Logic bought a rare shadowless Charizard for more than two hundred thousand dollars, making it the most expensive card so far.

Again, Eriksen doesn’t care about the hype, but about the game and the people who play it. Playing the game is an agreeable affair, he says. ‘If someone is missing a card, others will gladly give them theirs.’ One time, a player had lost his entire deck on the way. ‘Within ten, fifteen minutes, people had given him enough cards to make a new one.’

Pokémon wedding

One of the players he met on the international circuit was from Groningen. That’s why Eriksen came here to study: ‘At least I would know someone.’ He stayed at the UG and met his wife in town, in game shop De Purperen Draak (named after a Pokémon).

She, too, plays a mean game of Pokémon, he says proudly. He proposed to her at the world championship in Boston a few years ago. Their entire wedding was – of course – Pokémon-styled. Including the dress, suit, card and…

He turns to his wife, Malika: ‘Skat?’ She takes of her wedding ring, and he puts it together with his. Together, the half circles they had engraved in their rings form a complete Poke Ball. Including a red half.

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