Chijioge Nwogu and Ian Allen met as freshmen at Brown University and bonded over playing spades after classes together. Fast forward to today—nearly two decades later, the two best friends run a family and community-focused gaming startup.
Based in Chapel Hill, GameFlo strives to bridge the skills gap by helping kids and teenagers learn life skills—particularly social-emotional skills such as decision-making and managing emotions—through tabletop games. It was recently a semi-finalist for NC IDEA’s $50,000 SEED grant.
Nwogu, the company’s CEO, said their games are for those who don’t feel comfortable learning in the classroom. People don’t like to feel like they are learning, so GameFlo’s focus is to make games that are culturally relevant and inclusive.
“For me, it’s always about helping instill confidence in people,” he said. “I think games and sports do that really well.”
GameFlo launched its flagship game “Pick Up,” a basketball-themed card game, in 2021. Through playing the game, players learn problem-solving, decision-making and handling “randomness” or chance.
When growing up, playing sports like baseball, basketball and football helped Nwogu feel comfortable in his own skin. He suffered from self-confidence issues, some of which were caused by his undiagnosed dyslexia.
“I wish there was a way in which I knew about my learning needs earlier on,” he said.
Games can be a great way to do that, to understand how someone learns, Nwogu said, and GameFlo is showing kids they can be good at learning through a medium they enjoy. “Pick Up” requires some mental arithmetic and an understanding of probability basics to improve one’s strategy.
So far, the company has sold 5,000 games and given 2,000 away for free. It recently closed a deal with Target, and “Pick Up” will be sold in over 1,700 stores nationwide starting next June.
More inclusive games
Nwogu and Allen, GameFlo’s CTO, set out to address the skills gap in 2018, after Nwogu finished earning an MBA at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. They held workshops at middle schools to introduce students to data analytics through sports.
Nwogu has previously worked in finance and sports analytics, specifically at Bloomberg Sports and J.P. Morgan. He also mentors young people through iMentor and D.R.E.A.M., Inc.
During those workshops he often saw students were overwhelmed by the subject matter, Nwogu said. But, students engaged the most when they played the games they introduced during workshops.
So the pair decided to work off what the kids are naturally interested in to better reach them.
“That process is what led us to create a prototype of ‘Pick Up,’” Nwogu said. “We believe that we can make that time playing games and consuming content… more productive.”
Nwogu and Allen also noticed a lack of inclusive characters within games. Kids want to see characters that resemble themselves.
“Pick Up” features more than 40 visually stunning characters representing different cultures, backgrounds and abilities. Players can pick from these unique characters—each with their own offensive and defensive stats—to form their own teams.
Just like in regular basketball, the goal is to score the most points. Players take turns rolling the dice to “shoot” with their characters and try to score points by having their offensive stats exceed the opponent’s defensive stats. Characters’ special abilities also contribute.
GameFlo also participated this year in the fourth cohort of the Target Forward Founders 10-week program sponsored by the retail giant, Target. The program was built to equip historically under-resourced founders with personalized education, tools and connections to help them scale into retail.
The startup was one of two gaming companies selected out of 5,000 applicants for the cohort.
Being selected for the program was a validating point for them this year, Nwogu said. They are “pumped” about building a strong retail foundation, evidenced especially by their recent deal with Target.
He also said their games will have a powerful impact on families and community partners such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA.
Though they are experimenting with digital games, GameFlo’s primary focus right now is tabletop games. They will pursue both as the company grows.
“Games is a very crowded space,” Nwogu said. “New games come out every single day. That’s also why we’ve taken time not to rush trying to build a digital game (of Pick Up).”
He recognizes that creating tabletop games is a lot of work and might not have the same profit margin as a digital game. But, he said GameFlo is filling a currently under-served space in retail with inclusive games, featuring diverse characters so all players can see people who look like them represented.
“There’s also lots of value in helping people get back to basic communication and having an avid way in which you can connect when we’re not on our phones,” Nwogu said.
He also works part-time as a professor of the Practice of Strategy & Entrepreneurship at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.