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Volume 21 No. 17

Esports

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.

The Fusion holds viewing parties in Philadelphia while the Overwatch League plays in L.A.
Photo: philadelphia fusion

“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.

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com

Deeming its first esports event a success, MLS aims to build upon that momentum at the league and local level.

 

The league held its first competitive tournament, called eMLS Cup, over four days earlier this month at the PAX East gaming convention in Boston. James Ruth, MLS senior director of properties, who oversees the league’s esports efforts, said that while the gaming community was curious and perhaps a bit skeptical of MLS’s first foray into esports, the league felt it won them over by the end of the weekend.

“Given how new this is for our organization, you never know how it’s going to turn out, and we tried to really stay away from very specific numeric expectations — we just wanted to jump in and see how it would go,” Ruth said.

The competition involved EA Sports’ “FIFA 18” game.

Because the league was hosting the event at the larger convention, which draws tens of thousands of attendees, it was hard to track how many people found their way through the eMLS headquarters. But Ruth said the space, which was heavily branded with the eMLS logo and team jerseys, and featured gaming stations of the 19 club participants, received strong traffic. The tournament’s final matches were held on the main stage of the convention.

The final two days were also broadcast on Twitch, where at its peak, more than 30,000 viewers were tuned in. For comparison, viewership on Twitch for the NBA 2K draft held on April 4 peaked at 20,050 viewers, while most Overwatch League games typically average between 60,000 and 100,000 on the platform. Ruth said the league was pleased with the overall reach and international interest in the event, noting that the audience continued to build until the final, and that it was being covered and discussed by the major stakeholders in the game’s competitive scene.

While this edition of eMLS Cup will be the only significant competitive event the league will hold this calendar year, it is already planning additional leaguewide activations alongside the All-Star Game in Atlanta, as well as alongside its annual rivalry week later in the season.

For 2019, MLS plans to have a full slate of esports events, which will see a reprise of the eMLS Cup as well as a full-fledged league that will run in the months between the end of the MLS season in December and the start of the following season in March.

For the remainder of this year, the league is expecting each of the 19 participating eMLS Cup clubs to broaden their esports efforts. The four teams that did not participate in Boston — Atlanta United, D.C. United, LAFC and Real Salt Lake — are also expected to get involved and could each add a player by the end of 2018.

“I think it’s safe to say that every club that participated in eMLS is looking to create similar opportunities on their local levels, and it’s something that they all think they should continue to build against,” Ruth said. While those plans are being worked out, it might include additional appearances from the club players, hosting local tournaments or other gaming-related features and content on the club websites. Ruth noted that for the nearly 90 league and club staff members who attended the event, it was the first esports activation for the vast majority of them.

Guillermo Treviño won the first eMLS Cup.
Photo: mls

The eMLS Cup winner — Houston Dynamo’s esports athlete Guillermo Treviño — will now participate and represent Houston and MLS in EA Sports FIFA 18 Global Series playoffs for a chance to reach the FIFA eWorld Cup in August. Players representing New York City FC and the Montreal Impact will also participate in the playoffs, and Ruth said MLS is hopeful more of its teams’ esport players will qualify.

Frank Arnold, Houston Dynamo senior director of special projects and administration, has been overseeing the club’s esports efforts. The four days in Boston have made him even more excited for MLS’s push into esports, he said.

“Everyone is keeping an eye on FIFA to see if it can have the same legs as ‘Overwatch,’ ‘League of Legends’ or ‘DOTA’ in esports,” Arnold said. “After this weekend, I think it can be up there with those big games.”

For more coverage of the business of esports, visit our partners, esportsobserver.com