Lee Steinfeld grew up on Pokémon, his love for the franchise burning bright since the late 90s. Now more famously known as Leonhart, Lee has over 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube and an online following that has allowed him to achieve new heights in the last 12 months.
A ’90s kid at heart
Lee was in middle school when the initial mass craze of Pokémon swept North America. “Everybody was collecting the card game, watching the show, playing the Game Boy games. Right from the very start every Saturday I would watch the show with my friends. For every type of Pokémon medium as a kid, I was there.”
Like a large majority of original Pokémon fans, Lee grew older and with that, his love for the franchise dwindled. It wasn’t until 2005 when attending The University of Texas at Austin for an undergraduate degree in Communications and Advertising that the interest returned. “ When I was in college, I started collecting the cards again with my roommates, then in 2010 I started collecting properly and have been fully involved ever since.”
There’s an exact moment when Lee got the nostalgic itch of opening packs back in his life, a mundane trip to Walmart to purchase some toiletries. Walking through the store, he passed by the card section and a Black and White pack caught his eye. “I opened up the pack to see what the cards looked like and I pulled a MewTwo EX. I knew MewTwo from the original game and I felt that rush of pulling an awesome card. From then on I wanted to open some of the newer packs and collect some of the older stuff too.”
That particular rush from opening a pack can’t be replicated from anything else, this is why Pokémon nostalgia has become so impactful in the COVID-19 era. In a world where we have very few experiences at the moment, the rush and throwback to happier times is so easily captured in the form of a booster pack.
From attorney to Pokémon master
Before opening packs to millions of viewers on the internet, the man behind Leonhart was an attorney practicing family law, international property law, and contractual law helping businesses startup. In 2013, Lee passed the Bar exam after attending college with the aspiration of using his creativity to make a career for himself. After finding his old Pokémon card binder in 2014, he sprung into action and launched a YouTube channel. “While I was working full time as an attorney, I gradually grew my channel to the point wherein September of 2017 I quit my job and went full time with my YouTube career.”
In the build-up to this huge life decision, Lee had spent a year convincing his then-girlfriend (now wife) and his family that jumping at an opportunity on YouTube was the right idea. He made bar graphs and posters not only to convince them but ultimately convince himself. “By the time the opportunity came up, I was ready to go. I had checked out of my job and couldn’t wait to go full time as a YouTuber”.
And what a decision that has proven to be, in the last 12 months the Leonhart channel has nearly doubled in video views. Since December 2019, Lee’s channel has gone from 117 million video views to over 205 million. On top of this, he reached the 1 million subscriber milestone in September 2020, just 3 years after quitting his job as an attorney. “It has been such a whirlwind of emotions, with the whole pandemic going on the collecting world has been hot all year”.
In May 2020, Lee uploaded a video opening a Heavy First Edition Base Set pack (Some sets of original Pokémon cards can be weighed to determine a higher chance of a holographic. Due to these cards being heavier, this leads to more expensive sealed packs at higher weights). In that pack, a First Edition Charizard was pulled – the holy grail of English Pokémon cards. “I just wanted to build hype, to get Pokémon cards trending and a more general audience interested.”
“After that video was uploaded, entrepreneurs like Gary Vee started approaching collectors to learn more about the Pokémon card game. This led to getting bigger names like Logan Paul interested which eventually led to Logan’s massive box break that sparked not only new personalities, celebrities, sports figures to get onboard but also Sports card collectors to recognise Pokémon.”
A platform for change
With Lee’s platform on the rise, he is now able to give back to charities and recognise issues that he cares so passionately for. In 2020, the Leonhart channel raised almost $500,000 for charity eclipsing Lee’s goal of $100,000. His passion for raising awareness for mental health and helping charities like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is very close to home. In 2005, Lee’s close childhood friend Grant Halliburton who suffered from Bipolar disorder took his own life at the age of 19. “He used to dress up as the character Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII for Halloween. Anytime he would see me in the hall he would call me Leonhart because I loved the outfit he wore, it was so cool.”
“Ever since Grant passed away, I’ve tried understanding and helping other people who suffer from mental illness. Now that I have a platform, I have the ability and the resources to try and do what I can to make a change for as many people possible, not just in the United States but across the entire world.”
“Mental health has touched me and millions and millions of people. It is absolutely one of the biggest things in the entire world for everybody.”
“Knowing that I’ve had an impact on somebody else’s life makes me happy, that’s what you ultimately want to be in life. What we’ve done as the Pokémon community as a whole is not only raise money but create an outlet for people to reach out to organisations like NAMI.”
Meowth that’s right!
Nothing amplifies Lee’s genuine passion for Pokémon more than his favourite card in his collection. This is a man who owns cards worth thousands and thousands of dollars, yet the Pokémon that matters most is a Japanese common Team Rocket Meowth.
“It’s from when I originally traded with my friends, I traded a Charizard holo for this Meowth and it’s not because I regret that at all – It’s because growing up there were lots of cats in my family, I’m a big cat person.”
“I wanted that card in particular, got the card and I still have it to this day. I’ll never get rid of it. When I look at this Meowth, it brings me back to what Pokemon is all about: having fun with friends.”
In the ’90s Pokémon was magical, the internet wasn’t easily accessible so everything you learnt about Pokémon was from someone you knew. A rumour was either passed around the playground or you read something in a magazine, it created a magical feeling.
Lee’s Meowth is a good example, a Japanese common card with a mysterious laminate that allowed for his 10-year-old mind to wander.
“That’s what I miss, I’m about to turn 34. You had to get the Scrye or other collectible magazines to get the values of Pokémon cards. That was the only way to not only find out the value of the card but also the story behind it.”
“It would be word of mouth from your mom and pop card shop that would get these cards in and they probably wouldn’t even know but would make something up to get you interested. It was the mystery of it that made it so much more special. I miss those days when you didn’t have a cellphone and couldn’t Google everything. It’s too convenient, which is great, but it feels like there is a piece of me missing and I miss those times.”
“Seeing this Meowth card in its original state just makes me happy, I instantly get a flood of nostalgia of going to my local community pool. We would bring out our binder and trade cards. It’s just a magical world and my passion for it is at an all-time high, especially because I can now give back as much as I can.”
’90s pop up shop and more
The future for Lee and Leonhart is incredibly bright, his passion for Pokémon resonating with his audience and emphasising that in life finding something you love and making a difference through the opportunities that it brings is worth more than anything.
This year, Lee hopes to raise even more money for charity setting an even larger target of $1million. He’s also one of very few big Pokémon YouTubers not to live stream, something that he can now start doing after hiring an editor to help with his one-man show. “Now that I have an editor I can begin to live stream, I’ve been missing interactivity between myself and the community which you just don’t get with a prerecorded video.”
At the end of 2020, Lee announced a future project: opening a 90’s pop up shop selling original Pokémon products at a retail price. The kind of idea that would use his platform to bring happiness and hope to the Pokémon community, something we all need during these tough times.
“Imagine a dad and his son walking in and experiencing the joy of opening a Base Set pack. That’s what it’s all about friends, family, and enjoying something together.”
You can donate to Leonhart’s charity page for NAMI here (donations no longer qualify for the 2020 giveaway).
John-Anthony Disotto – Ludkins Media Editor