A childhood hobby of playing video games has turned into a thriving business for Matt McKerall.
The owner of Game World began selling video games as a high school student at an outdoor market in Victorville, California, and subsequently expanded the vendor business into a brick-and-mortar store in nearby Barstow in 1999.
Since then, Game World has steadily grown to become a large independent video game retailer with 18 employees and three additional stores in Spokane, Spokane Valley and Fort Irwin, California.
Although McKerall permanently closed a Game World store last summer in Bakersfield, California, because of the pandemic, video game sales have been brisk at other locations as more customers look for home entertainment options.
That demand has allowed McKerall to add more products in his stores, which sell retro and new release video games, anime merchandise, collectibles and electronic repair services.
“I feel that in our world today, gaming is used to help to take a break and escape from the factors that are increasing stress in our lives. People typically do not like change, and our lives have been forced into change in our COVID world today,” he said. “Sometimes it’s nice to press the pause button and take a break from this ‘new normal.’ ”
From outdoor market vendor to store owner
McKerall began playing Atari video games at an early age while growing up in California. After Nintendo was released in 1985, McKerall and his brother saved up $150 from working various jobs and purchased the gaming system.
In 1994 – when McKerall was 15 – an outdoor market vendor that he bought and traded video games with mentioned his business was for sale.
“I convinced my dad to lend me $1,000 to buy the business, which included some very basic displays, tables and less than 100 video games,” McKerall said. “I’m sure an even more motivating factor for me, aside from turning my hobby into a business, back then was simply the fact I’d have more games to play.”
McKerall rented a display case from a sports shop and sold video games every weekend at the outdoor market.
“It was definitely challenging to juggle that along with school,” he said. “Sometimes it was challenging to stay motivated when there’s times you don’t make enough money to cover expenses, which definitely occurred in the past … at that age, my dad would encourage me to keep going and not give up.”
McKerall said growing up in “a working-class family in an economically repressed small town” taught him how to work hard, sacrifice and take risks, all of which were significant factors in growing the business.
After McKerall opened Game World in 1999, he expanded the product line beyond video games.
“The funny thing is, when I first opened up the store, we sold just as many Pokemon cards as video games because Pokemon cards were the new thing,” McKerall said. “It was surprising because we were a game store selling video games and everybody was coming in for Pokemon cards. But, demand for video games over the years slowly grew.”
McKerall graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance from California State University, San Bernardino and a master’s in business administration from Colorado-based Aspen University.
McKerall wanted to live in a region with a greater variety of seasons than California, so he relocated to Portland and, then, Spokane.
In 2011, McKerall opened Game World at 5725 E. Sprague Ave. in Spokane Valley.
“I wanted to do a much larger store than what I had done in California initially and I felt that if I was going to be the new kid on the block, I had to offer something that would be even more unique than what’s available,” he said. “So, I focused on even more gaming, anime merchandise and collectibles, along with video games.”
McKerall said customers’ response to the store was overwhelmingly positive, in part, because of the multigenerational appeal of its products, which allowed Game World to expand to north Spokane with a location at 8701 N. Division St. in 2014.
“I tried to identify if there’s new product lines we can bring in that customers from different generations would get excited about,” he said. “For instance, I brought in some replica swords from Thundercats and Final Fantasy, which is definitely very generational. But I definitely look for products that excite modern and retro gamers.”
McKerall subsequently opened Game World stores in Bakersfield in 2016 and at the Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center northeast of Barstow in 2018.
Carving your own path
McKerall advises those wanting to become entrepreneurs to identify what they are passionate about and to develop their ideas into a business if opportunity exists in the market.
“It could be something small, starting on the weekends or evenings, offering the service or product that works around their current job,” he said.
He also encourages potential business owners to consider carving their own path.
“You might find a new level of passion emerge. Mentors were very limited in my life. I had to try things, and sometimes it worked or failed,” he said. “I feel these experiences had a stronger impact on building a business than earning my bachelor’s or master’s degrees. I feel that most people get an unrealistic view of starting their own business. It is stressful with long days. I wouldn’t trade it for a 9-5, though.”
Making time for gaming
In addition to overseeing operations of Game World, McKerall also dabbles in real estate part time, mostly assisting friends and customers with buying and selling homes.
In his spare time, he enjoys playing “platform” video games such as Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Tetris.
“My favorite real-time strategy game is Age of Empires III, but I can’t pinpoint one specific game that’s my absolute favorite because I just enjoy a lot of different games,” he said.
McKerall is always identifying future improvements for Game World stores.
“Whether it’s the store presentation, whether it’s product line, there’s always something that can be improved,” he said, adding he’s going to be investing in some remodeling projects to improve the customer experience in stores.
McKerall is also preparing to open a fifth Game World store in April in the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey Army base in California.
“I’m excited about that,” McKerall said. “What excites me about that project is it would be a small store. I’ve never been in a really small store. I know how to build a store that’s 2,000 square feet, but 300 square feet is a different creative challenge.”
While McKerall enjoys the process of building displays or coordinating store layouts, the most rewarding aspect of operating Game World is connecting with customers.
“We have lots of loyal customers that are very passionate about gaming, and getting to know our customers, I feel, is extremely important,” he said. “It reminds me how important connection is to others as well as our community.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.