Excitebike 5.0
Image: Heritage Auctions

Update [Wed 25th Aug, 2021 16:35 BST]: A PR firm representing WATA Games has contacted us with a statement from the company regarding Karl Jobst's video. It is presented in full at the bottom of the page.

Over the past couple of days, investigations by both Proof journalist Seth Abramson and YouTuber Karl Jobst have shone a light on alleged foul play and collusion between retro game grading service WATA and auction house Heritage Auctions. Copies of NES games have recently sold for record-breaking prices — $2 million USD for a copy of Super Mario Bros., $870K USD for a The Legend of Zelda — and have attracted suspicion and attention from some quarters.

The latest question comes once again from Abramson, who has highlighted on his Twitter account the disparity between two far from mint examples of NES games which were graded differently — specifically in the way the company flags items that have been compromised by mould.

One example, a mouldy copy of SNK's Alpha Mission for NES up for sale at Cosmic Connect, has a grade of 6.0 on a red rating sticker on the top right of the box — a clear indicator that the game inside isn't in the best shape and, according to Abramson's understanding, specifically that mould is present (on the back of the box in this case).

However, a mouldy copy of Excitebike sold recently (24th August) by Heritage Auctions — which has very visible mould across the front of the box — was rated 5.0 but carried a blue sticker rather than red. Abramson believes this may indicate preferential treatment for Heritage Auctions.

This particularly funky Excitebike went on to sell for a still-substantial $1,800, which includes a $300 buyer's premium. Various copies of the game in significantly better condition regularly sell for thousands of dollars (another recently example graded 9.4 on the 10-point WATA scale ended proxy bidding at $43,200 back in July).

If you're wondering exactly how this speculative market is drawing such large and improbable sums, Abramson has an excellent (and lengthy) Twitter thread that explains his findings, and Karl Jobst's 52-minute video is also a fascinating exploration of the evidence and allegations so far.

Update: In response to this story, we've received a statement from WATA addressing the allegations in Karl Jobst's video. Here it is, presented in full:

Statement from Wata Games:
Wata Games is the trusted leader in collectible video game grading and we're honored to play a key role in this booming industry that we are incredibly passionate about. We're humbled by the support of our thousands of customers who trust us to provide accurate and transparent grading. The claims in this video are completely baseless and defamatory and it is unfortunate that Mr. Jobst did not contact us to give us the opportunity to correct him.

Correction: The article above originally stated that the copy of Excitebike mentioned sold for $960. That figure came from the pre-auction ‘proxy’ bidding and was not the final sale price. This has been corrected.

[source twitter.com]