EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants linebacker Blake Martinez took the podium for a Zoom news conference with reporters this spring and opened the OTA media session for questions. Only with a twist.
"Shiny Charmander. Any questions for Charmander?" Martinez said as he held one of his cherished Pokémon cards in the air for the camera to see.
This is going to become a regular occurrence at Martinez's news conferences this year. He plans to bring a different card from his ever-expanding collection to each session, but in this moment his unexpected entrance drew more than a few blank stares. The group of mostly middle-aged sports journalists in attendance isn't exactly hip to the Pokémon collecting world. Pikachu isn't a running back. Charizard doesn't get after the quarterback and Haunter is no relation to Minnesota Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter.
This is why many in that audience had never heard of a Charmander. But get Martinez started and he will explain. He is deep into the increasingly popular collectors' game. This is hobby-meets-business-meets-alternative investment opportunity through his constant acquisitions, sales and auctions of high-priced Pokémon cards. As of last week Martinez was just shy of $1 million in sales on Whatnot, an online marketplace where he has an exclusive partnership.
The Giants' leading tackler isn't alone in his interest. Martinez says he has an ally in the Giants' locker room in defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who plays Pokémon regularly on his Gameboy Color.
It's not just Pokémon. The collecting industry has worked its way into NFL and professional sports locker rooms. Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cassius Marsh recently opened a card store with his best friend while the market was booming. It got so popular that industry-leader Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) stopped grading and accepting cards earlier this year because of a growing backlog. Players such as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes have even started to take matters into their own hands with NFTs (non-fungible tokens). There is money to be made.
Even though Martinez's Pokémon obsession has sentimental meaning, this is hardly a child's game.
"Big fan of Pikachu, too? Bulbasaur?" one reporter asked Martinez at that news conference.
"Big-money items right there," Martinez responded.
Facts. In between his day job as starting middle linebacker for the Giants, Martinez has found time to take his Pokémon collection to new levels in 2021. He says after sending more than 300 cards to PSA early this year and another couple hundred out for appraisal and grading, it's easily worth "hundreds of thousands" of dollars ... and growing.
"It's gotten pretty insane," said Martinez, whose go-big-or-go-home philosophy won't allow him to stop until he reaches his ultimate goal of obtaining every Pokémon card ever made and hosting a rare first-edition base set box break.
"I'm going to try to make sure it happens," Martinez said.
The box breaks have become Martinez's thing. The concept is to buy a complete unopened box of cards, set a price for each pack and sell them before opening the packs during a live event or stream.
YouTube star Logan Paul held a $1 million first-edition box break in February. He sold packs for $40,000 and pulled two holographic Charizard cards (which are a big deal) during a live stream that drew hundreds of thousands of views. It was an overwhelming financial success.
Martinez has his eyes on something similar as part of his grand plan, which could include opening a shop of his own, continuing to do box breaks or teaming with industry leaders on new projects. There is a new world out there for him to explore, and the hope is it will position him nicely for a post-playing career.
Right now he's just having a blast, but it's not all about making money. This is sort of a passion project. Martinez is reinvesting everything he makes as he dives deeper into Pokémon collecting.
"Pokémon in itself is one of the biggest franchises on earth. It's always going to be," said Rob Petrozzo, co-founder and chief product officer at Rally, a platform for buying and selling equity in unique assets such as Pokémon cards. "It's something that has so many variations between that 1999 first set here in the U.S. and where we are now. So I'm confident in terms of relevance and in terms of cultural appeal that it is going to be around as long as a Michael Jordan or a Mickey Mantle, because it has such a strong base of collectors and people who really care around it still."
The groundwork for Martinez's deep dive into Pokémon was laid long ago. He feverishly collected and played Pokémon cards with his childhood best friend, Richard Blau. But as the old story goes, when Martinez moved out, his mom cleaned out the stash.
Martinez got back into the card portion of it all "heavy" this offseason. This scratched an itch that existed, at least in part, because of the memories he had with Blau, who died three months shy of his 15th birthday after a battle with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer most common in teens and young adults.
"Definitely. It brings back those moments where we played the Pokémon trading card game and it was just a blast," Martinez said. "And it brings back the cool memories I had with him as we were growing up."
Blau's memory remains the driving force behind Martinez's charitable work. He has dedicated his My Cleats, My Cause over the past few seasons to his childhood friend in collaboration with the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Recently, Martinez reached out to Blau's family to give them the cleats. His family saw what Martinez was doing with the Pokémon collecting and gave them his cards. All that were left were about 200 Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, another game the two played during their formative years that has value now with collectors. The Blaus wanted nothing in return.
"It was a cool moment where they brought all of his cards," Martinez said. "They were just like, 'Hey, we thought it would be awesome for you to have this since you played together all the time.'"
Just more fuel added to his resurfaced obsession.
Just the beginning
Martinez claims to have played and beaten every Pokémon game that has come out since he was 6 years old. He is 27 and in the second season of a three-year, $30.8 million contract with the Giants. Now, he's buying up valuable boxes of cards and regularly hosting box breaks and other Pokémon events on social media. His Instagram account has turned into a Giants/Pokémon mashup.
Martinez's involvement in the upper-echelon of the Pokémon community has him collaborating with titans in the industry such as FaZe Clan, a professional esports and entertainment organization, Tyler Blevins (better known by his online alias Ninja) and his wife, Jessica Blevins, and Marsh. He's all over the Whatnot app.
"Pokémon trading cards is an appreciating asset and he loves it," Marsh explained.
It all took off for Martinez earlier this year when he partnered in a box break with Marsh, who co-owns the card shop Cash Cards Unlimited in Westlake, California. Martinez bought his share for $27,000. Marsh already had his boxes. It was a perfect mix.
They met in the most modern of ways: social media. Marsh saw Martinez's Pokémon tweets and started following him on Twitter. Martinez noticed and sent Marsh a direct message. The rest is history.
"He hit me up one day and was like, 'Hey, know anyone who would be into this box break I'm doing? Let me know,'" Marsh said. "He sent it over and I was like, 'I have another box. Why don't we just collab on this thing and do the box break together. We did that and had huge success. We doubled our money on the box break and had a ton of fun doing it as well."
Martinez called it an "epic nerdy entertainment extravaganza" that doubled as fun and business. He says more than $200,000 worth of trading cards were pulled that night (including some Charizards). They reinvested the profits and have done more box breaks since.
But with this type of reward inherently comes risk. Martinez told his wife how much he had spent going into the event and she was like, "'Wait. What?!?! You did that for Pokémon cards. Are you serious?'"
Perhaps it was a rhetorical question. Speak to Martinez and it's apparent he is dead serious about this industry. So he pleaded for patience.
He understands it's not easy for outsiders to comprehend the true value of these cards, but the same could be said for Magic: The Gathering, sports cards or Yu-Gi-Oh!
Now they're big business.
"The way we saw all these cards and how it's been working, it has been huge in bridging the gap between '90s kids and investing. That is kind of what we're seeing right now," Petrozzo said. "You have all these individual players or characters from card games or video games from when you were a kid and they are immediately recognizable. It's something every kid from that era remembers. Those kids now are in their late 20s or 30s and they are starting to care more about their future and investments."
Marsh says Cash Cards Unlimited did more than $1 million in sales over its first four months, and the collecting industry as exploded and become more mainstream. The value of these cards in Marsh's extensive Magic: The Gathering collection and Martinez's Pokémon collection are seemingly rising on the reg.
"Magic: The Gathering has been appreciating faster than gold for almost 15 years now," Marsh said. "It has been on a steady climb consistently for a really long time.
"I believe it is really just the beginning."
Need proof? The rapper Logic paid $226,000 for a super-rare first-edition Charizard card last year, according to TMZ. Paul wore what was believed to be a perfectly graded Charizard card around his neck upon entering the ring for his fight with Floyd Mayweather. He claims to have paid $150,000 for that card, which has since risen in value.
"It definitely has been taking off from a perspective of Pokémon cards," Marsh said. "I know a bunch of guys have been into trading cards as an investment, too. ... It's a smart alternative investment right now."
Martinez sees the unlimited potential and opportunity.
"Sky is the limit," he said, "until I break that first-edition box break on ESPN one day."