When Christopher LaPorte decided to give up a career in pharmaceutical and medical-device sales that was financially rewarding but personally uninspiring to pursue his dream—a video-game nightclub downtown—the reaction of friends and family was unanimous. “Everyone thought I was fucking crazy,” he says. “I heard, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a sausage-fest. No one but dorky guys are going to come in. It makes no sense.’ And that’s when I knew it made plenty of sense.”
So LaPorte pressed on, and after a year of pounding the pavement for investors, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native locked up two through his connections in the medical field. Together they committed $1.5 million to turn two former retail shops on East Fremont Street into Insert Coin(s), a 21-and-over spot that features all the elements of a Vegas nightclub—bottle service, sexy waitresses, DJ/live music, dance floor—set against a backdrop of video games, from stand-up classics (Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger) to the latest state-of-the-art offerings from Xbox and PlayStation 3 played on HDTVs.
Sure enough, from virtually the moment the doors opened last April, Insert Coin(s) has been downtown’s hottest nightspot, with long lines at the door on Friday and Saturday nights being the norm rather than the exception. And now that his baby is approaching its first anniversary, the 35-year-old LaPorte is eager to celebrate. “We’re going to just make it a real big party and say, ‘Ha-ha, I told you so!’ to everyone who said we were going to fail.”
A video-game lounge in downtown Las Vegas amid one of the worst recessions in history—what were you thinking?
I was thinking, “Something’s gotta work in this economy!” I say it all the time: Video games are as American as apple pie. Who doesn’t play video games?
I would take some of my clients out to nightclubs on the Strip during my medical-device days, and at one point I just said, “I’m bored. What if there was a video-game system in front of me. That would be more fun.” I did some research and saw there was a bar in Brooklyn called Barcade—it’s a little dive bar with a bunch of arcade cabinets—and I was like, “OK, that’s cool. That works. Let’s just add the Las Vegas nightlife element to it.”
But wasn’t a little part of you thinking, “Oh man, what have I gotten myself into?”
Of course. You get a big sum of money, and you’re like, “All right, make it work!” Yeah, you’re excited in the beginning. But then the couple of days before opening, you’re shitting your pants. But I just saw the success of the video-game industry itself and saw it as one more way to tap into it. The confidence was pretty high—otherwise I would’ve just taken the money and gone to Tahiti or something.
Your logo is on the hardwood at the Thomas & Mack Center for UNLV basketball games. How did that come about?
I’m a huge fan of the New York Knicks. I love basketball. I have a son who’s coming up in the world, and I really want to live in a city where you have a sport to embrace. It helps bring the city together. So I thought, “All right, with UNLV looking like they have a shot to be damn good again, let’s throw our logo on the floor.” Just thought it would be a good look for everybody. We’re going to be there for a long time. It’s absolutely worth the investment. The team’s awesome, the school’s on the up-and-up. It’s just nice to help any way I can.
Do you have any plans to franchise the business?
The exciting thing about this year is we’re already in very serious talks with a casino to open up the next one, hopefully by the end of this year. Ever since we’ve opened, we’ve had several casinos and nightclub management teams come in here to check out what we’re doing. Because, like you said, how is this working during a bad economy? But I don’t want to say it’s a franchise thing, or we’re going to lose our flavor—that’s always a scary proposition where you get too big too fast. But we want to get really big.
What’s your best video-game-related story?
Beating Metroid in basically 16 hours on a Nintendo at a cousin’s house. I was probably 8, and we shouldn’t have been playing that long, but we were convinced we could beat the game. We switched off taking naps, and we beat a very difficult game in less than 24 hours. I felt like I frickin’ conquered the world. And then the character took its helmet off and it was a chick, and we were like, “Oh, my God! What is that about?”
Your son is only 2, but can you already tell if he has your video-game gene?
He doesn’t realize it, but I have these personalized joysticks at home, and I’m always like, “Come on, buddy! Just move your hand like that.” My wife teaches the kid how to dance; I teach him how to throw a fireball.
What’s your advice to a potential small-business owner who’s nervous about following his dream?
Laugh at the people who say no. I can’t wait for this anniversary. I have the names of people—I have a journalist who said this was going to fail; I can’t wait to call him. But you only live once, and if you’ve got something that you’re really devoted to and passionate about, it’s probably going to work. I mean, I put in 18-hour days with a smile on my face, because it’s what I want to do.
In a horrible economy your business is thriving. How do you explain your success?
We’re giving people something very different. Look, people all go to Disney World no matter how much the tickets cost. Why? Because there are only two of them: Disney World and Disneyland.
Las Vegas offers nothing but awesome entertainment, but nothing for video games, which is the biggest entertainment market in the world. So you take the video-game concept and then you infuse it with music and a nightlife element that people want to go to. Not everyone wants to go see EDM every single night on the Strip. It’s huge, it’s awesome, I have nothing but respect for it. But what if we did all kinds of music in here, whether it’s Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Wu-Tang Clan, whatever, and just appeal to a 21-and-up market?
How did you settle on downtown?
I’m originally from New York, and I saw that [downtown] was something that was growing to more of an—when I say urban, to me, urban is city life. And city life is walking to where you need to be. I don’t see how this part of the town isn’t going to become that in five to 10 years. If I was to build this off the Strip, where else could it go? In a strip mall? No way. But you go downtown, and with us around other neighboring bars, it’s a place where people bar hop. So here’s just one more bar to check out.
Do you remember the first video game you played?
Absolutely. It was a real weird one that some poor bastard had in their Laundromat, and it was called Double Dragon. I got to hit people with a baseball bat! It was great!
Why should a kid growing up today go to an old-school arcade when he has a video-game system like X-Box or Wii at home?
Why do people go to the Basketball Hall of Fame? I’m not saying come here to appreciate the history. But, I mean, look man, this is where it all started. There’s an Asteroids machine over there from . Drop a quarter in there. Now you can play Halo. Look where we came from.
The other thing is it’s just a social environment. It’s funny because I’ve been to Japan and I see video games in their culture totally infused with the mainstream. We’re starting to get there. You look at the latest Call of Duty commercial on TV; it has Hollywood actors in it. Everyone’s playing video games. It’s not looked at as the kid who lives in his basement and spends hours all day alone. It’s a very social media. You sit at this bar and you play a video game and say, “Hey, you want to play?” It’s a great ice-breaker.
The real-life graphics in today’s video games are obviously vastly superior to the days of Atari. But do they make for a better experience?
Not necessarily. Graphics are pretty, and they help appeal to a larger audience. There are people who will walk past this building and see NBA 2K on the screen, and they’ll be like, “Oh, what’s the score of the game?” “Uh, it’s 10-4 … and it’s not real.” But I tend to like more of the creatively graphic games, a little more artistic. I look at video games as almost like an art form. You can paint a picture; well, somebody painted a picture and made it move.
Considering where you come to work each day, are you essentially living the cliché “kid in a candy store”?
Ah, dude, truth is, I don’t even get to play as much as I used to. When we first opened up, I was competing against kids and telling them, “Look, if I don’t beat you with one hand playing Street Fighter, I’ll buy you a drink.” And I was winning. It’s almost a year later, and everyone can kick my ass in any video game. I just can’t devote the time.
Still, there’s got to be one game customers should think twice about before challenging you?
A nice fun simple game, besides Street Fighter, would be Pac-Man Championship Edition. You can’t beat me in that.
You grew up in Brooklyn. What’s the one thing or place in Las Vegas that most reminds you of home?
Honestly, it’s the camaraderie of the people who come in here. We brought De La Soul in here; they did a show. That felt pretty Brooklyn right there. Talib Kweli was here; felt pretty Brooklyn. Look, I live in suburbia. It’s hard to develop a relationship with your neighbors sometimes in Las Vegas. We have such a hardcore, devoted fan basehere. I mean, we’ve hired two people who came here so damn much; it was like, “Why don’t you just work with us?” It’s really the community aspect that we’ve created with the video-game world and this [nightclub]—that’s what’s Brooklyn to me.