Donna's Detroit: Entrepreneur hosts a haven for Nerf nerds

Detroit Dart Club offers a battlefield for warriors shooting pain-free blasters

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

If you’ve driven I-75 into downtown Detroit you’ve seen it. Artist Kobie Solomon’s five-story rendering of a giant winged robo-lion on Building #2 of the Russell Industrial Center looms over the Clay St. exit.

But did you ever notice that in the very lower right corner of this mural are a few steps leading to a blue door? Walk through that door and you’re in the Detroit Dart Club.

It has nothing to do with traditional pub darts. It’s also not a club. It’s a 2,000-square-foot playroom for Nerf warfare fanatics of all ages.

Connor McGaffey, 28, is the chief gamer here and very possibly the biggest kid in the room.

The Detroit Dart Club started with a trip to Target for McGaffey and a buddy three years ago. “We were looking for Christmas lights but they were having a buy-one-get-one half off sale on Nerf guns. If you know me, you know I would never NOT buy them. We bought a bunch, took them to my 900-square-foot house in Ferndale and immediately began playing.”

Connor McGaffey demonstrates shooting one of the plethora of Nerf guns available to Nerf battle players at the Detroit Dart Club. A self-proclaimed gaming nerd, McGaffey developed his Nerf game plays after encountering a buy-one-get-one-half-off sale in the toy aisle at Target.

He hosted Nerf battles in his house for around six months. “I’d put out a text saying ‘Nerf Slayer tonight 7:30’ and people showed up.” Slayer is a first-person shooter video game in which players destroy enemies, but its only similarity to the game McGaffey created is the name.

In his game, one team would start in the basement and one on the second floor. The team that shot down all the targets in the first floor kitchen won. (It started as a drinking game. If you shot down your empty beer can you got to pop a fresh one and drink until you got shot by another player.) There were other game play variations but all of them left his house trashed. “It was definitely a winter sport, it got so hot and sweaty in there.”

It didn’t take long for McGaffey to take the games to another – profitable – level.

“After a period of working 70 hour weeks for six years straight at multiple jobs you tend to burn out,” McGaffey explained. At the time he was working two jobs, customer service for Henry Ford Hospital and sales at The Detroit Shop at the Somerset Collection.

He has a degree in kinesiology from Michigan State. “I know. Not exactly something I followed through on,” he laughed. “I just realized it wasn’t for me.”

Building the first Nerf arena

He started to research Nerf arenas and found that not only were there none in Southeast Michigan, there were none in the country – or anywhere, for that matter. With that green light he began looking for rental space in Detroit. When a friend told him about the Russell Center, the complex of Albert Kahn industrial buildings that now house artist lofts and small businesses, he knew he’d found a home for his one-man business.

One of his first clients in December 2014 was a group of Quicken Loans employees on a team-building mission, and their word of mouth got the business rolling.The very next day he had 12 bookings from other Quicken Loans groups. McGaffey still doesn’t advertise. He’s now up to roughly 45 groups per month and that first Quicken group still comes in to play.

Kale Ligon, 10, and Ben Pinter, 11, both of Grosse Pointe Park, take aim as they pose for a group photo after their Nerf battle.

McGaffey operates the business solo. He answers the phone, books the parties, sets up and cleans up between groups.

The game plays are named after video games like “Death Match.” “I used to call it Team Elimination but the kids would correct me: ‘No it’s Team Death Match from Call of Duty.’ Team Slayer -- that’s the one with the targets -- that’s from Halo.”

For millenials aged 18 to 35, “it’s nostalgia,” said McGaffey. “We all played with Nerf guns as kids.”

The majority of his bookings are for children, especially birthday parties for the 7 to 12 set. “And then it jumps to late 20s, early 30s – almost specifically thirtieth birthday parties,” he said. A typical Saturday will have a couple of kids parties, then a bachelor party and end up with a thirtieth birthday party at night.

McGuffey’s arsenal is vast, at least 100 guns. “We’ve got the Mega line, we’ve got the Zombie Strike line, we’ve got the Rival line.” There’s even a gun combined with a bow and arrow.

These are not the small front-loading blasters McGaffey grew up with. They’re bigger, more powerful and have clips full of spongy nerf darts. When they hit you, unlike paint ball pellets, they don’t stain your clothes. McGaffey insists all players wear eye protection, which he provides.

This is not a free-for-all. It’s actually quite structured, with McGaffey laying out the rules for each game. He’s come up with five main game plays. Playing each of them three to four times fills the 90 minutes. With the intensity of play and a couple of beverage or pizza breaks, that 90 minutes can seem like three hours.

Groups are divided into two teams, each with its own “base” or fort in opposing corners of the room. There are tires and pallets covered in camo netting and lots of big plastic tubs players can stack to create cover. The lids make pretty good shields too.

McGaffey comes from a game playing family. “Every Christmas Eve my family and I play a game called Bloody Murder, which is basically Hide and Seek tag,” he said. “But every year we try to change it up and keep escalating it.” One year they bought each other night vision goggles.

The Nerf non-connection

He’s reached out to Nerf for sponsorship . He’s become an expert on their products. “I feel we could help each other out. I know which Nerf guns work with certain age groups. I know which ones break, which ones last longest. I know the weak spots in all these Nerf guns and I’d love to give them that info.

“I’d also like to be a retailer for them because when kids get done playing they want to buy Nerf guns specifically from the Detroit Dart Club. I tell them to buy one from Amazon or Target. They say ‘No, we want to buy one from here.”’

McGaffey hopes to add another location that’s larger so he can host open play drop-in hours in addition to his current setup, which only accommodates groups with reservations. The youngest recommended age is six. That’s when they’re strong enough to handle the nerf guns. There’s no limit on the other end of the age range.

P.J. Hill, 11, Grosse Pointe Park, demonstrates the intensity of play as he takes aim during a Nerf battle at Detroit Dart Club.

The minimum number of players per reservation is eight, but the average group has 14 players. The most he’s ever accommodated is 40, playing 20 against 20. “It still works, it’s just totally nuts,” McGaffey said. “I just bring out all the Nerf guns from the back.” That’s an arsenal of just over 100 guns.

The club goes through about 2,000 foam darts a week. “When they get stale they just don’t function. They can jam the guns,” McGaffey said.

Kids can bring their own arsenals. Arsenals? “Yeah, they have crazy amounts of guns.”

If you go

Detroit Dart Club is at the Russell Industrial Center, 1600 Clay St., Detroit. A 90-minute session is $25 per player for the minimum group of eight people, and each additional person is $20. There is no charge for spectators. For reservations, call (248) 841-3753.