Interview: The Retro Gamer Who Made & Lost $100,000 In A Day

NWC-Sells-for-100kIt had been a normal day at work for Stephen Ross, though he was selling something of quite significant value on eBay and he hadn’t had time to check it. Little could prepare him for what he saw when he turned on his phone; his expensive $5,000 'Nintendo cartridge' was now set to raise him over $90,000. Stephen was living the dream of every Retro Gamer or as he puts it, “something far beyond my wildest dreams. Did I imagine paying off my mortgage and, by default, gaining a nice raise each month? Most certainly. I’m not sure who wouldn’t in that situation, even if just a little.”

But what was this game that was literally going to be life changing for Stephen? It surely didn’t look like much, just an unassuming grey cartridge with the label ripped off and “Mario” scrawled on the remnants in biro. The word “Mario” obviously inspires thoughts of platform jumping and though there was a segment of Super Mario Bros. on the cartridge, it was not the only thing to be found. In truth what was fast becoming “the most expensive games cartridge ever” was in fact a Nintendo World Championships cart and its rarity comes from the fact that there are only a maximum of 116 in circulation.

The Nintendo World Championship was a 1990 Nintendo-promoted competition that toured twenty-nine cities across the United States. On the cartridge is a combination of three of Nintendo's most popular games at the time and along with Super Mario Bros there was also Rad Racer and Tetris. The contestant plays the games in order after finishing a certain objective in each game and there is an overall time limit of six minutes 21 seconds to play all three. The aim was to achieve the highest score over the games combined and beat the other entrants playing at the same time onstage. Of the 1,200 grey competition carts made, 90 were given to World Championships finalists. Confusingly 26 similar cartridges also exist in gold (like the normal The Legend of Zelda cartridge). These were given out as prizes in a separate contest held by Nintendo Power magazine, but that brings the grand total to 116.

Stephen was not a finalist at the event in fact he didn’t even compete in the competition. “I’ve played it through with the 6 minute time limit but never checked my score with those that played at the time”. Each gray cartridge has a unique number making the cartridge easier to track and difficult to counterfeit. Using this information and chatting with previous owners, Stephen has been able to find out that he is at least the fourth owner of the game, with the first recorded sale being for $400 on an early video game forum. None of these four previous owners are willing to admit to ripping off the label, “I have no earthly clue why someone wrote that on there!” Stephen says defensively “the previous gentleman who owned it did not write on it either!”. As he says in his description the poor quality of the cartridge “is quite unfortunate but happened many decades ago”, but as Chris Scullion, editor for CVG says "it's like finding the rarest Ferrari but with a scratch - you'd still buy it”.

The value is certainly undeniable, The Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge is considered to be the most valuable NES cartridge released and one of the rarest (second only to Stadium Events). Sometimes described as the "holy grail" of console game collecting, in the past other copies have sold for thousands. In June 2009 one went for $17,500 while another sold for $11,500 in 2011 during an auction for the Child's Play Charity. The only ‘official’ valuation though comes from a rather unlikely source; The History Channel's Pawn Stars TV Show when Pat "the NES Punk" Contri had both gray and gold versions valued at $15,000 by a Las Vegas Pawn Shop. Obviously even the highest sale price was considerably lower than bids for Stephen’s copy, something the seller was all too aware of. “I was very nervous as the auction ended because I was positive the cart wasn’t worth anything near that value.” As any good seller, he had made efforts to keep things realistic throughout the auction. “I was highly concerned. I removed the bids of the first few because they both had false positive feedback scores. However, I was at work all day Friday so by the time I got home, the prices had gotten SO outrageous and the bidders had what I thought was valid feedback ratings that I left it alone.”

Stop the press!

NWC-Appears-On-BBC-News

Part of the reason the bidding had shot up was perhaps due to the global attention this auction was getting, appearing not just on technology and games websites, but penetrating the mainstream news to such an extent that it even got featured on the front page of BBC’s News website. None of this attention was courted by the shy retiring Stephen, who describes himself as “a very low key, “under the radar” collector. I never jumped into the spotlight, nor did I want it.” Despite reports to the contrary by envious Retro Gamers who accused Stephen as being a profiteer or a dealer, he is certainly a collector, albeit an accidental one. “I’m not one of those collectors that puts stuff in a box and never touches it. I always bought games because I loved to play NES games. Pure and simple. I started young in 1987 and kept buying the games. Many of them I got when it wasn’t all that retro, but over time it’s become that way. ” But unlike many, his interest in gaming had waned and he “decided it was time to pass the torch to new or veteran collectors.”

Evidently these collectors are willing to pay, as by the auction’s close the final sale price on the 24th January 2014 had reached $99,902 - eclipsing the previous record selling price for an NES game; $75,000 for a sealed copy of Stadium Events. For the reserved Stephen the price rung alarm bells “I was very excited, yet I had a feeling it was all a hoax.” Sadly this turned out to be true as less than 24 hours later the highest bidder refused to pay, arguing that his “two year old made the bid accidentally.” Stephen was understandably disappointed, as the high bid had sat there for several hours and the feedback for this ‘buyer’ was glowingly positive. “The winner bidder had a feedback score over 700, so I guess the idea that high-rated bidders equates to legitimacy is thrown out the window. It was disappointing because I knew it was going to be an uphill battle after they backed out. So far, I haven’t found one to step up and take the Second Chance Offer through eBay. I’ve probably sent out five by this point.”

Stephen had gone from mentally treating his family and paying off his mortgage, to having nothing more than a cartridges he wished to sell. Worse still within days a second copy of the game appeared on eBay with the first bid at $4,999 and a third copy was offered by the end of January, a rarer gold cartridge this time. Both of these eventually reached $100,000, but unlike the originator of this trend they were all proven to be at best fakes or at worse non-existent.

NWC-Gold-Cartridge-Surfaces

Despite the fact that these dubious copies, cast doubt on the validity of his cartridge Stephen remains remarkably level headed, when the majority of us would be livid. “I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I only wanted to sell my cart so anything that came of it can be considered extra blessings to share around. On the other hand, the human side of me is slightly miffed because it could have a negative effect on the original cart that started it all.” Obviously any genuine bidders became lost in the bidding mêlée that the auction’s fame ensured and at present the Nintendo World Championships cartridge remains on Stephen’s shelf.

The negative effects of these auctions has already been discussed on RetroCollect, as they cause the general public to have a mistaken belief that any old game is worth thousands. This in turn makes it harder for the collector to buy a game at an appropriate price in the wild. For Stephen though, it all makes no difference as he is still on a path of giving up games collecting. “For me it’s because of a change in priorities, I’m focusing more on my family.” He is still intent on selling the cartridge, but may choose a different route to find a potential buyer. “I may try to re-list it soon but eBay is so fickle. I’ve sold on there before and this same thing has happened. For something of this calibre I’d expect eBay to do something rather than sit back and facilitate.”

After his euphoria and devastation Stephen really has become the voice of experience, the best person to give fellow Retro Gamers advice on the world’s largest auction site. ” eBay has their fair share of good AND bad points. More than likely, you’ll get more on eBay than you would in a private auction IF things go how they should. However, you have eBay fees and Paypal fees if you go that route. A private forum may yield less cash but also less hassle and no eBay/Paypal fees. It all depends upon your item, what your intentions are, what you’re willing to deal with, and how quickly you want the deal closed.”

How ever he chooses to sell it, I only hope that one day Stephen manages to pass on the torch and find someone who not only appreciates the value of his Nintendo World Championships cartridge, but also actually pays a true value for it.

My thanks of course must go to Stephen Ross, for his rare, honest and heartfelt interview.


Last Updated ( 30 January 2014 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

Other recent articles:

Comments 

+1 (Link to this comment) NES4Life 2014-01-31 13:02
Great interview! Hope Stephen (genuinely) gets it sold to someone who actually understands its real value.
The up point of all this is that maybe with all the press attention to the fake sale it will help more copies come out in the wild that would otherwise have remained in a loft or attic.
+1 (Link to this comment) MegaBites 2014-01-31 20:26
Fantastic article! I was wondering what the outcome of this auction was. It's so sad to see the negative effect that the media had on a cart that deserved so much better.
(Link to this comment) GuyFawkesRetro 2014-02-20 11:07
Great read, this happened to me once. I sold a copy of Radiant Silvergun for 120 quid. Buyer did not pay. Ok, so, not exactly like the article above, but i'd already spent that 120 on new headphones. :-x
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