Meet The Man Who Supplies Netflix, Disney And Tyson Fury With Vintage Arcade Cabinets 1
Image: National Arcade Hire / Jonathan Thompson

You know when you're watching a TV show or film, and you spot an arcade game you remember from your youth? There's always a buzz in the recognition of an iconic video game, but you might also ponder where that precise cabinet came from.

Now, it might shock you to hear this, but companies like Netflix and the BBC don't have a warehouse full of Space Invaders and Sega Rally cabs – these are expensive pieces of gaming history, after all, and cost a lot to maintain. Instead, they hire them for the duration of the shoot, and one of the leading companies to offer this kind of service is National Arcade Hire, run by Jonathan Thompson.

Those of you of a certain age might recognise Thompson from his stints on Nickelodeon's Turn On TV and CBBC's Prank Patrol, but the biggest passion in his life has always been arcade games. His company currently rents out cabinets to celebrities and businesses, and his client list includes the likes of Netflix, Coco-Cola, Disney, Hamley's, EA, Sony, Anthony Joshua, Under Armour, Tyson Fury, Simon Cowell and David Walliams. What's remarkable is that this business was never part of a grand plan.

Having spotted a Discs of Tron arcade machine in his local Blackpool in his early teens, Thompson was hooked – until the fateful day when he learned what happened to arcade games that no longer turn a profit. "I used to go to Blackpool every year, and then one year I went, and it wasn't there," he tells us. "I found who owned that arcade and asked where that machine had gone. They told me it had been sold."

Thompson made contact with the company that had bought it and was told the cabinet's "astronomical" price, which encouraged him to find alternatives. "I started digging and finding out where the distribution network was for these games." Having traced the distributors for Bally Midway machines, he was quoted £395 – still an incredible amount of cash for this time – but the 14-year-old Thompson eventually raised the cash by pleading with his relatives for help. Despite the fact that the unit had to live in the garden shed of his family's terraced house in Manchester, Thompson had been bitten by the bug. "I became an arcade collector without knowing it," he says with a laugh. "My mum said, 'we want you to be a dentist,' but even at 14, I knew that I did not want to be a dentist; I wanted to do something with arcade games."

Thompson's love of Tron was second to his affection for Star Wars, and that would be the next machine to join his collection. "I was quite lucky actually that Kenny Baker, who played R2-D2, and a number of Star Wars actors were actually quite accessible to me in the UK," he recalls. "So I used to go along to Star Wars conventions." He decided to make it his mission to own Atari's iconic sit-down Star Wars arcade machine and started looking around Blackpool for available units.

"I went off to a company called Arlington Leisure in Blackpool, and there was this Star Wars arcade machine there. I went up to this old guy, and I said, 'how much do you think the Star Wars would be?' He said there was no way I could afford it. I came back a few weeks later, and the machine was broken. I asked another staff member. He said they were trying to fix it. I came back at the end of the season and the machine was still broken. I offered £175, and I took it out the door. At this point, I was 16 years old. I couldn't afford a van, so I got my uncle to hire one to transport it." Thompson still owns both the Tron and Star Wars cabinets.

Having gotten a taste for a good deal and the sense that he was on to something big, the teenage entrepreneur repeated this trick up and down the country, amassing a collection of cabinets at a time when arcade operators simply saw them as surplus to requirements and not worth holding on to. "This was back in the '90s," he says. "I'm very lucky that I collected these games at a time when you could get them for a song – £50, £100, £150 – if you were paying £300 for a machine, it had to be something super."

The playing field has changed dramatically since then, not only due to the rise in retro gaming but also down to the fact that there are only a finite number of these units in the field, and, as time goes by, more and more of them either become inoperable or are taken out of the market by private collectors and other business. "There's been an explosion all over Europe of people setting up their own mini arcades and filling them with their favourite machines," explains Thompson.

Meet The Man Who Supplies Netflix, Disney And Tyson Fury With Vintage Arcade Cabinets 1
Some of Thompson's units in the Warner Music's offices — Image: National Arcade Hire / Jonathan Thompson

His collection eventually grew to accommodate a wide range of units, almost always with a pop-culture hook of some kind. "I specialised in film-themed arcade games and pinball machines; I amassed a collection that then turned into a business, and the rest was history. Lucasfilm remastered the Star Wars trilogy in 1997 and invited me to all the different Lucasfilm-backed Star Wars conventions; I suppose I became a bit of a celebrity of arcade machines."

TV interviews and the aforementioned appearance on Prank Patrol quickly followed, and Thompson gained a reputation for being an arcade game expert. "I was then approached by a company called Fab Cafe, a cool TV movie theme bar chain, and Affleck's Palace in Manchester, to actually house my arcade games. I then got the bug for operating these arcade games across the country and across the world."

Today, National Arcade Hire has machines on both long-term and short-term hires, and Thompson says there could be anything up to 100 machines on hire at any one time – but his expertise and enthusiasm have led to the business being more than just a way of sourcing classic games.

When Disney launched the film Tron Legacy in 2010, they called upon Thompson to recreate an arcade on London's South Bank. "I got to meet all my favourite actors, including Jeff Bridges." More recently, he has worked with British director Guy Ritchie. "He had us do The Gentleman custom-wrapped boxing machine," he explains, which, of course, led to him attending the premiere.

He's also been involved with promotional activity for movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Pixels, both of which have a video game theme. "I'm lucky because I've got this rare stuff to get invited to places that otherwise, a lot of people would not get invited to; you wouldn't get through the doors of a lot of these world premieres if you didn't have a reason to be there."

Beyond film and TV, Thompson's collection has also been featured in museums and galleries. "I've got a machine in a Space Invader Museum at the Think Tank in Birmingham, and I've got a Manx TT at the National Motorcycle Museum. Each machine has a genre, and each genre has a museum or an event that it can be placed in." Retailers are also keen to utilise his services."We did a collaboration with Hamley's in London," he says. "They wanted some machines on the shop floor; I could not believe that they asked little old me to actually appear at Hamley's department store – I was very lucky to be able to do that."

Thompson is keen to give something back as well, though. "Having this business has allowed me to create a production company with some very exciting students from Stoke University," he says. One student he worked with produced a documentary about the rise of arcade gaming called Going 8-Bit. Thompson naturally stars in it.

"The business put me on telly and turned me into a bit of a weird caricature," he says with a smile. "I'm very lucky to have been allowed, I would say, by fate, to do this business. I didn't set out to turn this into a business, but it just kind of allowed me to do it." As for the iconic machines that have driven his career, Thompson just feels he was ahead of the game, so to speak. "I see them as antiques, antiquities of the future," he concludes.