Former Digital Hyve COO finding success in selling board games
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Two and a half years ago, who would have thought cards and board games would be the next hot thing?
Not Jake Tanner.
At the time, he served as chief operating officer of Digital Hyve, a thriving marketing firm in Syracuse. Now his board and card game business, Unplugged Gaming, evidences its own success as his Pokémon Facebook page boasts 12,000 followers and he has moved more than 20,000 orders online.
In November 2020, his wife, Jess, a laid off medical biller, thought she would start a side business selling games. Her intuition was spot-on. Statista, a provider of market and consumer data, recently said that in the last three years, the board game industry has grown 30%.
“We’ve collected Pokémon cards almost our whole lives,” Tanner said. “We thought we could sell a few as a side hustle, maybe two or five shipments a day. She would be the one working on it, but it blew up overnight. That’s when we realized we could make this bigger than we thought we could.”
At the time, he had no idea that his position at Digital Hyve would end in October 2021. Butler/Till, a marketing agency in Rochester, acquired the company and Butler/Till’s CEO took the helm at Digital Hyve.
In the meantime, the couple began growing Unplugged Gaming. They rented a small storefront in Chittenango where they could organize their shipments and occasionally provide curbside pick-up. But mail order proved their bread and butter during the early part of the pandemic as homebound customers craved home-based hobbies and games, collectible figurines and puzzles. The couple also sells some game-themed merchandise.
In November 2021, the couple opened a store in Manlius. Some of their distributors and manufacturers would not agree to sell to them unless they operated a retail store.
“Our approach is very different,” Tanner said. “It’s online first. It was very community-focused, which is different from online stores. We built Facebook groups around the games we sell and let people trade based on their interests so people could trade easier. People thought of us as a community facilitator.”
They also wanted the store to look more modern than many other, older game stores. The space is a tad large for their needs; however, Tanner views it as an investment in the store’s future growth as they have been able to host game events like tournaments for Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, Dungeons & Dragons and Flesh and Blood. The space can accommodate up to 50 for game play.
Tanner said that the events are mostly for attracting foot traffic.
“They usually buy products like a booster pack of cards or trading cards,” he said. “On Pokémon days, we usually sell more Pokémon cards. A lot of people buy single cards to make their decks better.”
The couple partners with influencers on YouTube who mention the store on social media and on their videos. They also use Facebook advertising and promote events on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’ve been doing a lot of search engine optimization when people search for board game stores or Pokémon cards, especially locally,” Tanner said.
While the pandemic has caused many people to revert to the board games of their youth and seek new games to connect with their families, Tanner does not see this trend ending anytime soon.
“It is not ever going to shrink as much as people think,” he said. “There’s still that ingrained feeling once they discovered board gaming and they’re not going to shut that off. There was kind of a cultural shift of people ages 20 and 40.”
In addition to actually playing the games, many of their younger market demographics are also streaming videos on Twitch and TikTok, to watch people play games, paint tabletop game figures and open card packages.
“We want to carve a space in the tabletop gaming hobby industry,” Tanner said. “We want to create some of our own apparel and accessories for board gaming. We want to create our own products.”
Featured image: Patrons at Unplugged Gaming at a game playing event. Dozens of patrons meet there and play games together on certain nights.