How Northern Liberties’ Nerd Street Gamers helped cement Philly’s status as a hub for esports
From Technical.ly Philly’s Paige Gross. See original article here.
In the last few years, the Philly-born startup launched a deal with Five Below, opened Localhost locations in cities across the country and helped cement Philadelphia as a hub for esports. Fazio grew up an athlete, playing semi-pro soccer around the world during school, thanks to his parents (and a healthy dose of privilege, he said). He learned to code early, and along with Chris Alfano in 2006, created a business plan for a digital arena to bring their hobby, gaming, to a place where gamers could compete, watch and cheer. “We failed to raise capital there, but it catalyzed me to start Jarvus,” the founder said.
Fazio and Alfano bootstrapped the Northern Liberties-based dev shop Jarvus Innovations, on North 3rd street in Northern Liberties, part of the affectionately called “N3rd Street” — a community and collection of Philly’s tech scene stretching from NoLibs to Old City. In the early 2010s, Fazio and Alfano started inviting friends and members of the local tech scene to the Jarvus HQ for gaming parties.“We just drank and hung out and played video games,” Fazio said. “Basically we were doing a version of what I pitched in 2006.”
After seeing the scene play out in real life, the founder decided to incubate the idea at Jarvus, stepping up the gaming parties and ensuring that the model and economics for the startup made sense, Fazio said. The location became a Localhost arena, a space for gaming competitions to thrive and a scalable model for locations around the country. In 2017, SeventySix Capital invested in the startup, making those scaling plans possible. They wanted a leader, Fazio said, so he decided to step in as the company’s CEO.“It was a tough transition to go from software, where you’re working with a million different businesses, to becoming CEO of a video game company,” he said. “But it became obvious that it could be much bigger than just video gaming. We could become a platform for modernized retail.” Shortly after, investments from Comcast Spectator and Five Below followed.
Nerd Street Gamers expanded its presence with Localhost, its brand of facilities in Philadelphia, Denver and Huntington Beach, California, for competitions, gaming boot camps and streaming events. The company recently added facilities in the Wells Fargo Center. Then came a deal to add Localhost facilities, and the state-of-the-art gaming equipment that most can’t afford to install at home, into select Five Below stores.In the last two years, Fazio said, the company added about 30 full-time employees. In just the last few months, it added about 20 more, bringing the headcount to about 50 full-time and about 100 contracted employees.
Eventually, Nerd Street Gamers went from taking up a portion of the Jarvus office to taking over the office, and some space at the adjacent WeWork Northern Liberties. Pretty naturally, Alfano said, Jarvus moved to a remote workplace, which was in the DNA of the software company from the start. Alfano said there’s been a handful of times over the years that he’s realized Nerd Street Gamers had legitimate clout. “For me personally, it’s really interesting, it’s exactly what my dream and obsession was in high school come to life,” Alfano said.
One of Nerd Street Gamers’ major hiring decisions came in Matthew Johnson, the company’s lead designer. Johnson revamped some of the company’s look when he came on in January 2018, adjusting the brand’s signature green and giving the overall look a bit more professionalism. At the time, he said, things were busy like any other startup. “We couldn’t even imagine what could be bigger,” Johnson said. “When I joined, we didn’t really have an office. People would show up in jeans or sweats. But less than a year later we were wearing suits to go to meetings at Wells Fargo.”
As the company expands its Localhost locations, one of Johnson’s main tasks is making sure that each Localhost feels true to the brand. And as the brand extends throughout the country, the company is also focusing on bringing in a wider range of gamers, he said.
This year will likely be another of growth, Fazio said, as influencers around the world and in Philadelphia continue to invest time and dollars into making gaming a legitimate industry. “This is the tech giant I’ve always wanted to run,” Fazio said. “The company that I believe could change the world.”