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Unplugged in Manlius: How a CNY couple turned their Pokémon card side hustle into a nationwide business

Unplugged in Manlius: How a CNY couple turned their Pokémon card side hustle into a nationwide business

Some of the best ideas are born from boredom.

At least, that was the case for Jacob and Jessica Tanner, who began their business Unplugged Gaming in 2020 by selling Pokémon cards online, with a small rental space to store products.

Two years later, the couple own a physical store and warehouse located in the town of Manlius that dominates the national Pokémon card retail market.

If you do Google search for Pokémon card retailers, Unplugged Gaming is listed on page one, trailing closely behind mega retailers such as Best Buy and Amazon, and TCGplayer.com, the largest online marketplace for collectible trading card games headquartered in the Galleries of Syracuse

Unplugged has evolved from its niche Pokémon market to a broader tabletop game market, as well as gaming and anime merchandise. In 2021, the store’s first full year of business, it served more than 15,000 customers and sold more than 80,000 items.

“Let’s open a game store”

All of this success rested on a perfect blend of boredom, teamwork, good timing and the power of social media.

Two summers ago, Jacob and Jessica joined the rest of the world in year 1.5 of the coronavirus pandemic. The two largely worked from home, as Jessica had stepped back from her job as a receptionist to help with Jacob’s digital marketing agency, Digital Hyve, which was acquired last June by Rochester marketing agency Butler/Till.

“After I started working from home, we were just home all of the time,” Jacob said. “We were like, is there something else for us to do?”

The couple twiddled their thumbs, living life on repeat until one night, while the two lounged on their couch and watched a football game, Jacob suddenly had an idea.

Jessica recalled how her husband suddenly declared, “Let’s open a game store.” Her response? “You’re crazy,” she said, bursting into laughter.

Jacob had no real plans, as he is not a plan for every detail kind of guy. His brain churns out ideas and those ideas pester him until he acts upon them.

“You’re kind of running in place if you’re not doing,” he said. “So I’m always one of those doers and just get it done.”

The two are avid Pokémon card collectors, so Jacob thought it would be smart to start selling cards in order to pay for their hobby. It would be a little side hustle, nothing more, nothing less.

What the couple did not anticipate would be the impeccable timing of their decision.

As the pandemic raged on, the tabletop gaming industry exploded as more and more people sought after activities to do in quarantine and isolation.

Not only were more people playing the game out of boredom, but social media influencers on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube began to gain popularity hyping up new card releases and opening card packs with their audiences. Additionally, people found long-forgotten card collections and discovered that antique and rare pocket monster cards could fetch several hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on Ebay.

The card game’s popularity grew so much that some stores began to discontinue sales as people assaulted one another to get the cards. Somehow, the Tanners managed to get some of the last stock of Pokémon cards before the supply dried up and they created a Facebook page for Pokémon card collectors. They rented out a small space in Chittenango to hold stock and to do curbside pickups. Finally, on Nov. 1, their website went live.

“We literally thought when we started we would ship maybe like two to five packages a day,” Jacob said. “It’s not going to be a big deal.”

Their stock sold out overnight.

The Tanners realized they had stumbled on something much bigger than what they had envisioned. Once Digital Hyve was acquired, the couple saw the potential to grow their side hustle into a nationwide business. In October, Unplugged Gaming relocated to the town of Manlius and opened its doors in November as a one-stop shop for all gaming needs. The store expanded its selection of tabletop games, merchandise, collectibles and began hosting game nights.

“We’ve always been game players,” Jessica said. “Let’s share our passion with everybody else and get this crazy, crazy store going.”

The Tanners’ success is not predicated solely on luck, but also an astute knowledge of online trends and social media marketing. Unplugged Gaming has several pages dedicated to the more popular tabletop games, such as Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon, all of which boast several thousand followers. The company has partnered with Pokémon Twitch streamer aDrive who has almost 600,000 followers. And most recently, the company’s Twitter page went viral with a Pokémon meme.

“We would never be able to grow and scale as fast as we did online, if we didn’t have that capability of social media or social networks,” Jacob said. “The only way to become a nationwide brand in the past was you had to run national TV ads, radio ads or in different print capacities, or different kinds of billboards across major cities across the nation. There’s no way we could have afforded to do that.”

A gaming community

Perhaps most important to their success is the team they have built over the last two years and the Central New York gaming community. Their team consists of nine people, including the Tanners, and each person brings an invaluable skill to the business, whether its experience in customer service and retail or expertise in a certain genre of the tabletop gaming world.

Quinten Spicer began working at Unplugged Gaming almost a month prior, and when he’s not manning the retail space he is hosting the Yu-Gi-Oh! game nights on Saturdays.

“(The local gaming community) is so inviting of new players,” Spicer said. “Everybody as a gaming community coming together and just like introducing new people into the space and being so welcoming.”

And Central New York boasts a large gaming community, such as 35-year-old Berry Hayden of Syracuse. Hayden said a lot has changed since he first began playing tabletop games 15 years ago.

“I didn’t learn about most of this stuff until I was in high school,” Hayden said. “Back then it was always like oh you’re old you shouldn’t be playing, but now everybody’s like what skill level are you at?”

Gaming has not had the most pleasant reputation over the years, but as streamers become more popular and people see celebrities, such as Henry Cavill, play games it has become more normalized and mainstream. No longer is it associated as something only nerds do, but as something made for everyone, especially now, as people seek community and friendship during the pandemic.

And while some feared that the internet and the digitization of tabletop games might hurt the industry, in fact it did the opposite.

“This weekend, it’s been coming out that this has been one of the most successful pre-releases (of Magic: The Gathering) across the country from game stores in a long time,” Jacob said.

People could learn how to play games easier online before joining game nights, which can be intimidating for newcomers, he said. Plus, it made it easier to test it out before committing to, what can be, a pricey investment.

The Tanners have no plans to slow down. Their goals are ambitious – they hope to double the size of their business and grow their presence both locally and nationally. Last year was all about expanding their tabletop game selection, while this year their focus is on expanding their merchandise, collectibles, puzzles and figures. They also are looking to host gaming events with food trucks, live-streams and giveaways.

And of course, they hope to continue to provide a space for Central New York gamers to come together and have fun as a community.

“I think you can connect with almost anyone if you have the common interest of playing a game,” Jacob said. “It might be tough to have a conversation with someone…because you just might not connect on very many thing or you might not have the same interests.

“But if you all sit down and play a board game with a group of friends, it’s almost like all of that’s wiped away and you all find a common ground and a common interest.”

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