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Against the Odds: The Vault's Story of Perseverance

Kyle James of The Vault

"This is gonna sound crazy, but in 1998, at 14 years old, I had this idea for a gaming center,” said Kyle James, co-owner of The Vault, Ohio’s largest esports arena. “At the time, there was no such thing. It didn’t exist anywhere in the world. So, I wrote this business plan, and my aunt loved the idea and went to a bank to try to get funding.” 

“They laughed and laughed. They said nobody would pay to play video games. Nobody would watch people play video games. Video games would be dead in the next ten years,” he said. “They were wrong.” 

Fast forward 26 years, esports is on trend to generate 1.87 billion dollars in 2025, with a projected audience of 640 million viewers worldwide, according to Statista. 

James, a former pro gamer, envisioned a hub that caters to all kinds of gamers, whether competitive, casual, or simply eager to learn about gaming. “We want to build a culture here, not just a business,” he said. 

In 2019, James and his father, uncle, and aunt purchased a historical building in downtown Portsmouth, right on Chillicothe Street, the city’s main drag. The giant space is practically overflowing with state-of-the-art PCs, virtual reality gear, consoles, hundreds of games, and a vast array of gleaming screens, big and small. 

For James, fun is important, but his community takes precedence. James aims to support at-risk youth by introducing them to opportunities in gaming beyond being a pro player. By highlighting gaming-adjacent careers in roles such as broadcasting, lighting, and computer tech, James hopes to illuminate a career path for struggling kids. “We have hundreds of kids here who’ve had a rough home life or don’t know where their next meal is coming from. When they’re struggling to get by every day, reading books might not keep their interest, but gaming gets their attention. I want to show them that through gaming, there’s another way,” James said. 

He’s also partnered with Shawnee State’s world-class game design program, allowing students to test their games on The Vault’s PCs for real-world feedback. From offering STEM camps to helping Portsmouth’s recovering victims of the opioid epidemic, “Being community-driven has been our goal from the beginning,” James said. 

Like the community it serves, the Vault faced significant challenges that were anything but a game. Like many businesses, they hit a major roadblock with the onset of COVID-19. James knew that an entertainment business with children would be among the first to shut down due to new restrictions and that businesses that relied on crowds might not survive the pandemic. 

But the pandemic wasn’t the only issue. In 2020, James and his partners tried to get a loan through a traditional bank. “They said, ‘We love your concept!’ Then we waited. They kept telling us, ‘These things take time. There’s all this paperwork and COVID, so just put in your own money for now.’” 

James and his family had sunk a quarter of a million dollars before the bank got back to him. One day, out of the blue, the bank told James and his family that they didn’t qualify for an SBA loan because one of the owners lived in Utah. That’s when ECDI stepped in. 

“I know Chris Smalley is technically an ECDI loan officer, but I feel like he’s as invested in this business as I am. He’s been fighting for us since day one, so I can’t say enough good things about him."

Through ECDI, The Vault secured a loan for over $200,000. 

“We got so much help through the Women’s Business Center too, and Kelly Gordon, who is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, let me know it’s not just for women!” he said. 

ECDI helped the Vault with its business plan, projections, logos, branding, lawyers to write waivers, social media training, and ServSafe certification. “They’ve saved us tons of rent money. We got all this stuff without paying a penny. ECDI is an awesome resource,” he said. 

Even though The Vault has just recently opened, James has vast plans for the complex he and his family bought. “We have two other storefronts next door. One will be a noodle restaurant with a 1980s-style arcade, and the other will be a fun candy shop. I want parents to have fun, too, so they can eat dinner and show the kids how cool old-school games are, then come over to The Vault and have their kids beat them in Fortnite. At the end of the night, they all get some candy and go home,” James said. 

Family is an essential part of the Vault and to James. “I’m lucky to have a family and wife who support me. I was lucky enough to have a mom to drive me to Counterstrike tournaments,” James said. “We had a great time, and I will always have those memories of playing, and that’s what I’m trying to give kids in this area who could have the talent to go far and just don’t have the means to get there.” 

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Anna Myagkaya
Anna Myagkaya

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