Net Running: Gathered in a modest warehouse in Barcelona, Spain, with paint peeling off the walls and the sun peeking through a long glass panel ceiling, more than 200 loyal card gamers anxiously awaited the final round of the 2023 Netrunner World Championship last October. The championship showdown was between a pair of players skilled in the art of strategic deception, with William Huang, AKA Sokka in Netrunner circles, taking the victory in the 3-day tournament and crowned as the best in a game played in the shadows.

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William “Sokka” Huang defeated Daniel “CableCarnage” Kalotay in the Netrunner championship in Barcelona. (Photo by of Saif Choudhury)

The trading card game industry is currently dominated by popular games such as Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, and Magic: The Gathering. However, Netrunner stands as an anomaly, carrying a small but mighty fanbase that has carved its lane since the late 1990s. Using chat apps such as Discord and sometimes location-specific Facebook groups, Netrunner communities organize tournaments and conventions with a digital underground feel that aligns with the game’s dystopian influence.

Built with thematics related to the Cyberpunk 2020 role-playing game that was first released in 1990, the Netrunner game involves hackers (Runners) fighting back against a worldwide megacorporation (the Corp), while attempting to steal information and data that can foil further expansion by the power-hungry Corp. It is a two-player game, where the player who takes the Corp side must fulfill their given agenda without being thwarted by their opponent, the Runner. The Runner will try to jumble the Corp servers by building the proper software and hardware. There is also an option to attempt to “flatline” the Runner with cards that dish out damage, while the Runner also has the option to try and stall the Corp long enough that their plans are unsuccessful.

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(Photo by David Laird)

Unlike many other card games, where you can log on to eBay and buy yourself the strongest deck of cards, Netrunner is set up so all players are on equal footing, with equal access to all decks. This means you cannot buy a victory. You must rely on strategy and a little bit of luck.

The popularity of Cyberpunk, which has carried out multiple iterations of its game throughout the last 30 years, would lead one to believe that Android: Netrunner would hold a much larger piece of the trading card game world than it does. The Netrunner design also had a strong foundation, as it was developed by Richard Garfield, who also invented Magic: The Gathering. The game was even used as a plot device in season 3, episode 5 of the hit CBS drama “Billions.”

Still, there was one problem: the printing of cards and coordination of tournaments abruptly stopped in 2018, with little explanation from its developers at Fantasy Flight Games, outside of the expiring licensing agreement with Wizards of the Coast publishing.

“With the announcement of the end of the Android: Netrunner product line, I’m sure many of you are wondering why,” Head of Studio at Fantasy Flight Games, Andrew Navaro, said in a statement. “While I cannot speak to the specifics, I would like to provide as much insight as I can, and hopefully lessen the consternation that this announcement has undoubtedly caused. With the success that Android: Netrunner has enjoyed over the last six years, I don’t think there would ever have been a good time to end it in the eyes of many fans, and in the eyes of many of us here at the studio, but the license agreement has reached its conclusion, and so the product line must do the same.”

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Participants battle at the 2019 Netrunner World Championship in Rotterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Nicita Hopkins)

As Netrunner picked up steam in the 2010s, with new card sets rolling out consistently and fans clamoring for tournaments, it came to a complete stop and was abandoned by its publishers. In its final days, the words of the Netrunner team reverberated through the souls of its fans, with Navaro saying, “Just because we won’t be printing it anymore doesn’t suddenly turn it into a game that’s not worth playing.”

Echoing Navaro’s sentiment, Lead Developer Michael Boggs said, “I hope and believe the community will keep it alive for years to come.”

That is where the “Original 8” at a US-based nonprofit called Null Signal came into play, not only keeping the spirit of Netrunner alive, but also physically creating new cards that not only picked up where the original Netrunner left off but continued to do so, five years later.

“I was devastated, as were a lot of people,” Serenity Westfield, former Vice President of Engagement at Null Signal and one of the original eight Project Nisei members, told L.A. Weekly. “That’s when Null Signal was born basically because there was a group of people who just said ‘No, we’re not accepting this.’”

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(Photo by David Laird)

Null Signal Games was a product of passion meeting execution. Merely weeks after Fantasy Flight Games announced the death of Netrunner, Null Signal on-boarded several of Netrunner’s original artists for their, and in a life-imitates-art moment, hacked its way into the game world, forming the collective that at the time was called Project Nisei, which roughly translates to “second generation” in Japanese.

“Within three days, the first conversations about taking over the game had started,” Westfield said. “By August, the original eight people in the organization and the original eight board members had been selected and we’d started recruitment on our teams. The moment the license ended, we posted a series of seven articles detailing our plans for taking the game forward from that point. As far as we’re concerned, there was a three-day drop in signal between [Fantasy Flight Games] running it and us starting up, then we took over pretty much the moment the license ended.”

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Netrunner players compete at the 2021 PAX Unplugged tournament in Philadelphia. (Photo by Dan Bouchard)

Reaching out to the Netrunner fanbase, Project Nisei had to nail their attempt at making new cards that not only met the previous standard of cards, but were compatible with the original decks.

The organization succeeded and the new, fan-made cards were immediately accepted by the community and deemed the new standard for Netrunner games worldwide.

While Netrunner shares a smaller piece of the pie, the trading card game industry has seen a mainstream surge in the last five years.

There is a pop culture moment happening where celebrities have more outwardly expressed their geeky sides and are seeing an embrace instead of the teasing of walking around with a deck of fantasy-based cards produced in times past. It is no longer unusual to see a celebrity such as YouTuber and podcaster Logan Paul, make public appearances with a $5 million Pokemon card hanging from a chain on his neck.

Similarly, for $2 million, pop star Post Malone famously purchased a 1-of-1 Magic: The Gathering collaborative card with the Lord of the Rings franchise. For Post Malone, it was not a vanity purchase, as he is arguably the most famous fan and player of Magic: The Gathering and those $2 million were “life-changing money,” for Brook Trafton, the card’s previous owner, who posted a TikTok video about his experience meeting Post Malone and going through with the sale.

“This is my dream come true,” Trafton said. “Meeting Post Malone and him buying the One Ring card from me is literally a moment straight out of a fairytale.”

@brooktrafton When I found the One Ring, the first person who came to mind was @Post Malone. I have played MTG since I was a kid and obviously it would be amazing to keep this card. But for a guy like me, being able to sell it is life changing. I just really hoped it would go to someone who would appreciate it as much as I do. This is my dream come true, meeting Post Malone and him buying the One Ring card from me is literally a moment straight out of a fairytale. Post Malone @Magic: The Gathering you have changed my life. Things like this don’t happen to people like me, I guess it’s magic. I am forever grateful 🙏 ✨  #postmalone #onering #oneofone #mtg #magic #mint #psa #card #magicthegathering #lordoftherings #trading #tradingcards #theonering #sauron #collector #edition #one #gandalf #tradingcardgame ♬ original sound – Brook Trafton

While Netrunner may not have global stars flashing exclusive cards, it may be the best trading card game that collectors do not know is still running.

The Frank & Son Collectible Show in the City of Industry is among the largest hubs for all things related to comic books, trading cards, video games and more. It is geek heaven. Post-pandemic, the number of trading card posts at Frank & Son has increased to the point where they added a room dedicated to rare cards from Pokemon, to Magic: The Gathering and even the up-and-coming Disney card game, Lorcana. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse houses more than 200 vendors and as you make your way toward all the card vendors asking about Netrunner, you may get nostalgic responses such as, “Man, I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” or see raised eyebrows followed by, “Those are impossible to find these days.”

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Netrunner game cards with original artwork from Zefanya Langkan Maega, Benjamin Giletti, Adam S. Doyle, Scott Uminga and Cat Shen. (Courtesy of Null Signal Games)

Yet the few in the know can quietly find Netrunner meetups in L.A. County at card shops such as Odyssey Games in Pasadena, or the Game Cellar in El Monte, with out-of-towners finding their way to get a few games in.

It is not unusual for a player to visit other cities and seek out other players through Discord chats. While global, the community is tight-knit, and Westfield says it is why Null Signal has successfully kept Netrunner alive.

“You can have the best card game in the world, but if your community is not welcoming, people won’t be coming back and this is something I hear a lot,” Westfield said. “You need people on the ground to be organizing local tournaments… like, over here in the UK, we have something we call ‘Pubrunner’ where you meet at the pub with your friends and play Netrunner. You need enthusiastic and happy people to do that for you and if you don’t have a bunch of people who love the game, you’re not going to get that, your game is going to suck.”

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Null SIgnal booth at PAX Unplugged 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dan Bouchard)

Although no mega-corporation backs Netrunner, the runners continue to fight in the shadows, which Null Signal is OK with.

“Aside from loving the community, I firmly believe that Netrunner is the greatest card game ever made,” Westfield said. “I don’t see it ending anytime soon.”

L.A. Weekly cover for January 25- February 1:

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