How an Iraq war vet turned his love of video games into a career

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Adam Nelson found a refuge in video games. Now, he wants to give up and coming players a shot at a career doing what they love.

Nelson is also experience director for veteran-focused nonprofit Bunker Labs.

(Courtesy photo)

Adam Nelson, founder of gaming event organizers Philly Esports, grew up on a horse farm in Lancaster in a household of divorced parents with two older sisters, back when playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. on the classic Nintendo was the thing to do.

“Video games became a quick passion of mine since I lived in the middle of nowhere,” said Nelson, 30. “Getting a new video game for me was like winning the lottery, and I would be locked in my room for hours until I would beat the game. This was better in my mind than shoveling horse manure.”

After high school, Nelson enlisted in the U.S. Army and went on to serve on active duty for four years, with one deployment to Iraq in 2010. Upon returning to Philly, he used used the GI Bill to get an education in tech and eventually connected with the local chapter of Bunker Labs, the national nonprofit helps veterans start and grow businesses as they reenter the civilian life. It was the right breeding ground for his company.

“There was no ‘victimizing’ messages that is often spread by other veteran organizations,” said Nelson. “Bunker Labs celebrated the veteran talents and skills that makes us uniquely equipped to run a business. This was a perfect fit for me and I started to volunteer. Four months later I was offered a full-time job and I took the opportunity in a heartbeat.”

Now, in addition to being experience director for the Northeast region of the nonprofit, Nelson flipped his passion for video games into a career as the founder of competitive gaming tournament organizer Philly Esports, founded in November of last year. The company hosts monthly gaming tournaments that seek to emulate the ambiance of the bigger, more established esports leagues, like the kind Philly’s own N3rd St. Gamers plans to host throughout 2019 in 10 U.S. cities.

“I wanted to answer the question of, ‘How do I bring this same experience from the major championship tournaments that are viewed and attended by thousands of people to a local level where anyone can compete?” Nelson said.


Philly Esports already held its first event and is onto a second one — a Super Smash Bros. face-off happening Feb. 16. How does Nelson keep things looking like the major leagues? There are professional photographers on site, interview stations with lights and cameras doing interviews of the fans and the players, and professional video game commentators (apparently known as “shoutcasters” in the gaming world).

Video games, of course, are a wildly different space than when Nelson was growing up, slaying virtual ducks with Nintendo’s light gun. Dozens of colleges around the country now have varsity esports teams, with many offering scholarships to top players. League-level players can make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing professionally, including some on Philly’s own Overwatch league team.

“Gaming is no longer just a hobby, it can be a career,” said Nelson. “The reality has changed and with real money and potential on the horizon for any gamer to make a living through their passion, opportunities have been presented for everyone. Philly Esports is my attempt at giving gamers in the Philadelphia area a real chance at perusing their dream, and having a great time doing it.”

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