Inside the secret world of underground game trading

Mark Milner
March 5, 2010

On Feb. 28, the Olympic men’s ice hockey game between Canada and the United States set records in TV viewership. According to the Canadian Press, it was seen by at least 26.5 million people in Canada alone; with the US ratings added, it was seen by close to 40 million.

It’s setting records in another place too: on BitTorrent trackers.

Less than 24 hours after the game finished, one tracker showed that over 300 people had downloaded it and created over one terabyte of traffic (one terabyte is equal to a thousand gigabytes). According to that tracker’s statistics, that one game created over one sixth of its total traffic, split between nearly 14,000 people. In only a few days, that number had risen to nearly five terabytes in traffic and over 1,000 downloads.

Such traffic is increasingly common as the underground world of collecting and trading sports video moves online.

It wasn’t always so easy to get into this hobby, but since VCRs became widely available to the commercial public in the early 1980s, fans of shows and movies have been taping their programs for later viewing. Sports are no exception. As a result, there is a wide community of people who record, copy and trade copies of games on VHS, DVD and other formats.

Video trading and collecting really took off in the early part of this decade, thanks to the internet and ESPN Classic. For the first time, there was a channel that regularly showed vintage games, many for the first time since they were played.

But it was the internet that revolutionized the way games are traded between collectors – it became easier to find and contact other people. One trader I spoke to used to buy games over eBay (a practice no longer allowed on the site). Most traders now have their own websites that have their collections, clips, rules and what they’re looking for. Some even go so far as to publish names of bad traders – those who have broken the code by not sending tapes, lying about content or quality or some other infringement.

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Altogether, it represented a perfect storm. Specialty channels were playing vintage games in excellent quality and there was not only an easy way to record them, but an easy way to share them – they could easily find other traders and they could even sell their wares online. It’s no wonder it’s taken off.

“I started getting into tape trading around 2001 or so,” says Dan, a frequent game tape trader. “I did a huge series of online searches back then for anybody who had copies of vintage games and who would be willing to trade or sell. It wasn’t long before I found a webpage. I bought a couple of games on VHS from there, starting with Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS.

“He charged $20 for each game, which now strikes me as extremely high. I guess I just didn’t know any better then.”

In a way, the people who collect and trade games are preserving history. Like the Deadheads who collect and trade concert tapes, these traders often come into the circles because they are fans and want to be able to relive glorious moments.

“It took me 20 years, but I finally completed the entire 1985 ALCS,” said Rick, another collector and trader.

But there are still many games out there that traders are looking for, and there’s often a lot of lore and aporyphal stories surrounding their existence.

The most infamous of these is the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. One trader called it the Holy Grail of tapes for collectors. Reports on its existence vary: an NFL Films special on the game repeated a rumour that the only surviving copy resides at a Mexican NBC affiliate. It’s far more likely the game was taped over, at least in part. Due to the prohibitive cost of tapes at the time, most stations opted to erase and reuse tapes.

In fact, the majority of the most-sought-after games come from that period: the 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff Game between the Raiders and Miami Dolphins, a.k.a. the Sea of Hands game, and Darryl Sittler’s 10-point game against the Boston Bruins in 1975.

As for the former, the original broadcast had long appeared to vanish. NFL Films’ version of the game had been lost as well. It was only in the past decade that the original footage was found and edited into a third version and was broadcasted on the NFL Network.

But it’s not only traders who are looking for these games. ESPN Classic has a list of their most-sought-after tapes. Surprisingly, it includes two of the most famous NHL games of all time: Sittler’s 10-point game and Game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals. Everybody’s seen the clip of Bobby Orr scoring the Cup-winning goal in overtime… but think about it: have you seen anything else from that game?

“I have heard mixed stories about if the Bobby Orr goal exists, beyond the actual overtime,” said Rick. “There is very little in the way of hockey from 1970-1975.” That period includes: Ken Dryden’s Conn Smythe run against the Chicago Blackhawks as well as most of Bobby Orr’s prime and first few seasons of the WHA.

However, there are many copies of games from as far back as the late 1950s floating around. Kinecope technology, where a film camera recorded a TV monitor, has proven to be a good archiving tool; these games have survived in pretty good quality, considering their age and the primitive technology used to record them.

For example, as part of its launch, the MLB Network aired a rebroadcast of Don Larsen’s perfect game from the 1956 World Series; it was taken from a kinescope recording. Quality-wise, the game is in very poor shape: the picture looks curved and grainy. But at the same time, how many other broadcasts have survived for longer than 50 years?

One oddity is the existence of TV Audio feeds for some games. In these, only the sound from a TV broadcast still survives. Some traders think that’s a sign that the visuals are still around somewhere, too.

“I’d say it’s a safe bet that most ‘TV audio’ games were actually originally recorded on Kinescope, and that somebody is waiting for demand to reach its height before releasing the video,” said Dan. “I don’t understand that strategy. In the tape collecting industry, there honestly aren’t many large profits to be had, particularly because every customer is a potential competitor.”

The demand for these old broadcasts is something that leagues are starting to recognize. All four major leagues have isssued various DVD sets of old games; some, like the NBA or NHL, group these by team (the greatest moments of the Washington Capitals, for instance). Others, like the NCAA or MLB have them grouped by event (the 1987 World Series or the 1983 NCAA Final). But they are not exactly great sellers on their own. For instance, the offical NFL DVD set of the New York Giants (a set that includes what purports to be their 10 greatest games) is ranked fifth overall in sales for sports boxed sets on Amazon.com. Under the much larger category of Movies and TV, it’s sales ranking is 4,140.

Even the best-selling sports set, a set of New Orleans Saints games from this past season, doesn’t even crack the top 1,000 DVD sales on Amazon.

Of all the sports, none have offered as much to fans as Major League Baseball. On their website, a fan can pay just under $7 for a year’s subscription to Baseball’s Best, a portal that showcases some of baseball’s most famous games. On iTunes, MLB offers 132 games for download at $1.99 each.

Still, these sets don’t pose much of a threat to the trading community. The range of interest between traders is so wide and the market so limited it’s hard to imagine a time when they could buy any game they wanted right from the source; there just isn’t much of a profit to be made in it.

If anything, those box sets are helping traders, since they often feature games not commonly in circulation.

“I hope that A&E is able to release more games on DVD,” said Dan. He already owns three of their MLB box sets and said he plans on buying more. “Others complain about the MLB watermark in the corner of the screen, but I don’t mind. Those releases tend to be in incredible quality.”

What comes next for traders? As the internet allows people to connect and as more games get released, new items continue to pop up.

For example, an online retailer recently released an audio copy of the 1934 All-Star Game that included both the pre- and post-game shows. It’s the oldest known complete broadcast in existence.

“Honestly, nothing about this hobby surprises me anymore,” said Dan. “Who knows what else will be released.”

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The Author:

Mark Milner