Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.
On April 5, Philadelphia was still riding high from the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory when it hosted another parade for NCAA basketball champs Villanova. That afternoon, 44,000 fans went to the Phillies’ home opener, which ended a few hours before the Flyers notched a crucial victory in their drive for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That night at Revolutions Bowl, an upscale bowling alley and bar near the Delaware River, the Philly sports lovefest continued in an unconventional way. About 500 people gathered there to cheer on the Philadelphia Fusion, an esports team in the new Overwatch League owned by Comcast Spectacor.
Beer flowed, thundersticks clattered and fans mimicked the “E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!” chant with a F-U-S-I-O-N version of their own. When a star Fusion player entered the Blizzard Arena clad in a “Rocky”-style gray sweatsuit and danced like a prize fighter, the house came down.
As one of the last charter franchises to join the biggest esports gamble to date, the Fusion didn’t even exist until November. But there are never enough outlets for Philly sports pride, and gaming enthusiasts quickly joined the bandwagon.
“I personally didn’t know much about the players prior to this, to have a favorite, but you know how it is in Philly,” 26-year-old fan Bryce Pursell said before the Fusion took on the Boston Uprising, a team owned by the Kraft Group. “You pick the color, you pick the city.”
“Overwatch” publisher Activision Blizzard and its 12 franchise partners are trying something unusual in competitive video gaming: aligning themselves with home markets, adopting a physical location as part of their names and hoping to benefit from built-in loyalty.
It’s not an intuitive move in esports, which appeals to investors in part because of its global audience. Endemic esports organizations such as OpTic Gaming and FaZe Clan have fans on multiple continents, and people play “Overwatch” in every major market on earth — is it wise to align so closely with just 11 cities (Los Angeles has two franchise) at launch?
“It was kind of a shot in the dark,” said Fusion President Tucker Roberts. “I believed in it on a high level, but there was no basis in it. This has never been done before. You just hoped it worked. I was shocked at how quickly we gained fans because of it. We went from zero to 20,000 in a day, because it’s just Philly fans.”
Even when its teams wallow in mediocrity or worse, few cities in America weave sports into their civic identity more closely than Philadelphia. Now with the city’s teams reaching a new apex of pride, it’s instantly translated into fans for the esports startup.
“They represent hometown,” said 20-year-old McKayla Robbins, dressed in a Fusion T-shirt like most fans at the viewing party.
Despite the initial feedback, the Fusion and other Overwatch League teams still have far more questions than answers when it comes to developing local fan bases.
Activision Blizzard’s own stats suggest between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the Fusion’s exclusive team territory play “Overwatch,” Roberts said, but they know little else about those people’s propensity to follow or spend money on a pro team.
“One reason we do things like the watch party is to engage the fans, and two, we also collect data,” Roberts said. “This is a real opportunity to test different regions of Philadelphia, learn where the market is, where it would make the most sense to put a stadium, how big of a stadium.”
Team officials had no idea what to expect. A watch party in January drew more than 400 people, outstripping capacity at a bar in the University City neighborhood. The one on April 5 drew more than 500 but was more comfortable because they reserved Revolutions Bowl, a much larger facility, albeit in a more remote location.
They’ll operate a meet-and-greet with players during an off week in May and believe a Saturday watch party around then will draw the biggest local crowd yet. Roberts and the rest of the Fusion team are in Los Angeles during the season and rely on corporate staff from Comcast Spectator, along with venture-backed esports event operator N3rd Street Gamers, to run the local activations. They also added volunteer labor through Harrisburg University’s nascent esports program.
Much of the local fan base work is building up to 2020, when Activision Blizzard wants to transition the league schedule to home venues. Until then, players and teams spend their seasons in Los Angeles, playing all of their games at the Blizzard Arena, limiting the chance to activate in home markets.
“While we’re estranged out here in California, anything we can do in Philadelphia is good,” said Roberts, 27, son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
But the shift will impose far tougher operational and financial challenges on the league, including developing an events business and a real estate solution of some kind for 12 teams.
How big, and whether to build, renovate or rent are the obvious questions. A league source said most venues likely will seat between 1,500 and 3,000 fans. Roberts declined to say how big Philadelphia’s would likely be, but he did say it probably would use theater-style seating because “until you get up to a size of 5,000 to 8,000, it doesn’t really make sense to do an arena.” He said they’ll probably renovate an existing space.
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