Thursday, August 21, 2014

Baseball Cards go Digital

Baseball cards, like the sport itself, are a nostalgic product. While that gives them a lot of staying power and cultural significance, the rest of the world can easily pass them by. They've been printing pictures of baseball players on rectangular pieces of cardboard for well over a century, and we all know about the inevitable crash that the industry went through in the mid 1990s. The proliferation of "throwback" sets like Topps Heritage, Gypsy Queen, Allen & Ginter, and Goudey illustrate how much the card industry likes to look back to the good old days.

However, there have been some subpar attempts to embrace the internet age. There were the now-defunct Topps Attax and ToppsTown cards, not to mention the oddity of the Geocities-era Pacific Online set. URL shorteners weren't even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye.
1998 Pacific Online Red #453 Mike Maddux
For the last three years, though, Topps has been trying out a really interesting innovation with an iOS/Android mobile app called Bunt. I haven't seen it written about in our blog community too much, but Mark's Ephemera and Collector's Crack did some pretty nice posts a couple months ago.

What you'll find in Topps Bunt is pretty similar to the print versions of 2014 Topps or Opening Day. The base card design is virtually identical, and even some insert sets like Fired Up and Saber Stars are found in Bunt, as well.

Topps Bunt #2013 Nolan Arenado
Topps Bunt SaberStars #2897 Michael Cuddyer
The primary criticism I have is that the inserts are WAY too scarce. I ended up with a couple dozen inserts from $20 worth of Opening Day blasters from Target, but the digital inserts are much scarcer and thus more expensive (in terms of the in-app coins currency) than their printed counterparts.

Since you're probably curious, I've done what other bloggers have sworn they'll never do--spent real money on an in-app purchase of "coins".

Just like we all swore we'd never carry pagers or cell phones.

There are five levels of rarity, each with a different color: White, Green, Red, Silver, and Gold. These progressively scarcer cards earn more points in the fantasy portion of the app, where you can have nine cards "starting" at any given time. Much like other fantasy sports, the cards earn points based on the players' real-life performance. I log in to this app so frequently that I am changing my "starting" cards throughout the day, perhaps to the detriment of my "real" fantasy team on CBS.

Topps Bunt Silver #2942 Julio Teheran (Card Back in "points" section on iPad Mini)
The trading interface is clunky and time-consuming, and this is one of the least stable apps that I use on a regular basis. But the Bunt team at Topps frequently interacts with the user base, has made improvements in stability, and it's interesting to see how they actually take feedback into account.

Trading Interface on iPhone 4S
I'll admit, the whole idea of a digital card doesn't seem to resonate with a lot of people. I frequently hear questions like "why not just take a screenshot?", and that is certainly a valid point. Of course, doing so doesn't let you use that "card" in the fantasy portion of the app, but that question really just reflects the greater debate about the value, scarcity, and incremental cost of a digital good in the first place. That's a larger issue than the scope of a baseball card blog, but you can probably guess my stance on it, given that I spent real money in this app (of which Apple took a 30% cut).

Clearly, with all the quotation marks I've used in this post, the lines between real and virtual are blurring. Whether Bunt and their other similar apps (Huddle for football and Kick for soccer) will continue remains to be seen, but this is by far the best digital effort that any baseball card company has put forth.

If you'd like to friend me on the app, my Fan Name is AdamK0310

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