Vying to become "King of the Nerds" and win the $100,000 prize offered by the TBS reality TV competition show airing later this month, 23-year-old Josh Wittenkeller already succeeds in making his living out of the behavior that earned him the nerd label as a boy.
"I had zero coordination. I was ripe for picking," says Wittenkeller, who remembers being a lanky, 6-foot-tall fifth-grader who went on to get high grades, play clarinet in the marching band, and endure frequent teasing while growing up in Grayslake. In middle school, Wittenkeller added arrows to his bullies' quivers by recording rap songs about Pokemon, Mortal Kombat and the Super Mario Bros. video games he played. That's when he coined his "rap name" of JWittz.
Today, his "TheJWittz" channel on YouTube is so popular, with more than 800,000 loyal subscribers, that Wittenkeller makes his living off the advertising revenue. He flies out to Los Angeles several times a year to shoot special episodes with his video-game partners. The 6-foot-4 entrepreneur is kind of a big deal, and a true pioneer in the new online economy.
His fans voted for Wittenkeller's "King of the Nerds" video submission, earning him a place as "The People's Nerd" alongside 10 other contestants living in "Nerdvana" for the show's second season. Hosted by Robert Carradine and Curtis Armstrong, best known for their movie roles in the 1984 cult classic, "Revenge of the Nerds," the show premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 23, on TBS.
Even if he isn't crowned king, Wittenkeller already is a captain of industry in the online world. He has recorded almost 100 million views of his videos in four years. When he attends Comic-Con or video game conventions, fans flock to him.
"I was at Culver's the other day and the guy who was serving was like, 'I know you from the Internet,'" Wittenkeller says. "In many ways the Internet has controlled most of my life."
That wasn't always a good thing.
"I grew up during the creation of cyberbullying," he says, still recalling a few unflattering barbs that found their way to his AOL instant messaging. "The classics, the potpourri of the usual bully slang. It got to me, and I hated that it got to me."
When he was 8 years old, Wittenkeller, like many of his young classmates, became obsessed with Pokemon trading cards and video games aimed at children. By middle school, almost everyone else had moved on.
"Not me. I was still into kids' video games, which is the ultimate irony because that is my job now," Wittenkeller says. "I'm the guy who didn't stop. I was still having fun."
Wittenkeller finished fifth in the 2011 Pokemon World Championship in San Diego.
"Last year, I was the color commentator for their live stream," he says. "I was literally the John Madden of Pokemon for a day."
Wittenkeller ended the physical bullying as a teenager when he punched a tormentor in the face. But teasing still bothered him.
"What saved me was being able to find friends who liked the same things I did. We self-identified as nerds," Wittenkeller says.
An A student (actually his GPA was even higher when given credit for advanced and honors classes), Wittenkeller graduated in 2009 from Grayslake Central High School and enrolled at the University of Illinois as an advertising major.
"Why make art to sell stuff to people when I could just make art?" he remembers thinking as he switched his major to media studies and cinema. In fall 2009, his freshman year, Wittenkeller posted his first YouTube show about Pokemon trading cards. He would sneak into the dorm practice rooms set aside for musicians and record his shows.
"I was extremely happy to hit 100 subscribers. I would be ecstatic if I could get 1,000 views," Wittenkeller remembers. "Now, a million views is a good video for me."
After graduation, Wittenkeller asked his parents to give him six months to live at home and try to make a living from his video game videos.
"We're the lazy generation, but I like being lazy," says Wittenberg, who works very hard to make a career out of being lazy. "If you name a game, I've played it."
He plays video games five or six hours a day, writes scripts for his show, creates, edits and posts videos, and figures he works between 50 and 60 hours most weeks. At the end of the day, he spends time on Twitter.com/TheJWittz, Facebook.com/TheJWittz and interacting with fans on the comment section of YouTube.com/TheJWittz.
Yes, he did record his shows in front of a green screen in his parents' basement, but Corey and Susan Wittenkeller not only supported his young business, they played a few video games with him. His dad still plays the military "Call of Duty," while his mom prefers a simulation game called "Animal Crossing," Wittenkeller says. His brother, Cody, 21, and sister Ashli, 19, are engineering students at the University of Illinois.
Crediting the Internet for helping him find hobbies and a career, Wittenkeller says he also reconnected online with his high school prom date, Renae Antonelli. The couple are engaged and recently moved into their own place in the suburbs.
"I wouldn't call him a nerd, but he was the outspoken, goofy kid in class," says Antonelli, 22, who works as an inventory specialist at a suburban Staples and is rooting for her fiancÚ to be crowned "King of the Nerds." "He does his own thing. I think it works."
Wittenkeller plays "Dungeons & Dragons" with one friend, prefers "Star Wars" over "Star Trek" and can play the part of a stereotypical nerd. But he is a social, outgoing guy, admits that he can't get into the "Dr. Who" TV show and loves to root for the Bulls and the Bears.
"I tell people to watch football but pretend it's a live-action, turn-based RPG," he says, using the slang for a role-playing game where the players alternate moves. "You can geek out on a sport."
That range of interests is one of the reasons he wants to be on "King of the Nerds" and help redefine the word.
"What does nerd even mean?" says Wittenkeller, who has seen the evolution of the word from playground slur to reality TV goal. "People argue that nerd has become too mainstream. I've always considered myself a nerd. I don't consider it a negative thing."
Numbers aren't his thing, but Wittenkeller says he and a statistician on the show bonded over their appreciation for tabletop card games, while he and an engineer became friends because of their mutual love of Japanese animation. He defines a nerd as an "extreme enthusiast," no matter the interest. "There are a lot of different creeds of nerds," Wittenkeller says.
"Some people said I have to turn in my 'nerd card' because I'm getting married," says Wittenkeller, who says he doesn't see why he can't be in love, happily married and a nerd. His wife-to-be is a bit of a nerd when it comes to Spider-Man, he adds. They won't have a nerd wedding, but he might wear his Poke Ball cuff links.
He considers the TBS show and his career rewards for refusing to yield to peer pressure as a kid.
"Hey, I stuck through this from the beginning, even when everyone else quit," Wittenkeller says. "And now I get to share that with everyone."