What We Can Learn From Unlikely Sources

I don’t think I speak with someone these days and don’t get the feeling that the card industry is playing on borrowed time. In general, people people have a negative opinion over where sports cards are going as a whole, myself being one of the neysayers. To me, its obvious that certain parts of the hobby are becoming disinterested with the products being released, and even more people are skeptical of the staying power of the manufacturers as a result of that feeling. When you have a situation like this, its pretty tough to ignore that maybe there is some re-evaluation that needs to be done.

Some collectors have cited that cards in general have become confusing to the point where they have stopped buying. Personally, I disagree, but that is me, not them. The companies seem to agree with the confused people, and have actually intiated programs to move away from the many products that promote said confusion. I actually see where they are coming from as cards themselves have moved so far into a closed demographic that there is no way out. This is where my discussion hinges, and it was actually brought to my attention recently by an unlikely source – my XBOX.

Think about this for a second. How many times have you seen a kid walk up to a Playstation and look for an instruction manual? Let me say, from the beginning, I know my brother and I have never even opened that package of materials it comes with. You can actually go to some of the most underprivleged areas in the country, places where the literacy rate is miles below the national average, and there are kids that are playing these games. Even though they cant read, they still know how to game. Its because video games have created and recreated themselves around an intuitive design, one that kids have infused into their DNA. It’s the reason that video games is one of the most profitable industries in the world.

Cards have gone in the complete opposite direction, and I am talking 100% independent of the “kids are the future” argument. Instead of moving towards an intutive layout accessible to the sports fans that drive this industry, Cards have imploded upon themselves. The sets are only well layed out to existing collectors, and its rare that a casual fan would look at cards and identify with what they see. The nitches where sports fans latched on previously have been replaced by endless parallels and terrible designs.

The reason I say that visual design is so important in cards, is because a good looking card is universal. Its why I love signed base cards so much. Simplicity. No stupid or lame subset name, no ridiculous parallel structure. Just auto on card. Because most base cards are well designed, the appeal becomes highly evident. If more sets focused on similar concepts and used visual appeal to drive the casual fans to card collecting, the hobby and industry would grow.

On the flip side of things, when you have products like some of the stuff that Topps calls its high end brands, it locks out the people that need to be brought in. If card companies produced cards with layout and design as the main focus, the confusion would become more invisible. I have heard the number of products produced as being the main source of confusion, but I actually think its more of the way the sets are approached. If you look back at a time where confusion was not part of the equation, it was not the number of sets that helped, it was the set content itself.

My solution is about focusing on the right things. We should not go in the direction of National Treasures basketball and pack products full of needless jersey cards and subsets that no one cares about. Instead, we need to go more in the direction of a product like the flagship Topps brand, even in high end settings. Topps, as well as Topps/Bowman Chrome is so straight forward in its approach, that even the most casual of collector can appreciate its merits. Forget something like Playoff Absolute Football, where every card has five billion parallels and nothing ever follows a pattern. That is wrong. Even sets like SP Authentic are perfect examples, because they are so extremely popular without being ridiculously expansive. ‘

Creating access is the most important thing that the manufacturers need to do, and the gate key is directly related to simplicity and good design. It has nothing to do with number of products produced, because if every set looked as good as SPA, we wouldn’t have an argument. Sets look so terrible, so much of the time, that the access that visual appeal provides is replaced with, “who the hell is at the helm of this sinking ship?”

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