It’s Thursday night at Xfinity Live. An arch of orange and black balloons stretches over the entrance doors; more hang above the commentator’s booth. Fog billows from the ceiling as two young women carrying pom-poms push their way through the crowd toward the crab fries.
But instead of a field, there’s a set of screens. Instead of a VIP room, there’s a computer pod. Instead of Kelce outfits, there are cosplayers. And instead of Gritty — actually, wait — there is a Gritty here. But he’s wearing a Fusion jersey, not a Flyers one.
Philadelphia Fusion is Philly’s first and only professional gaming team. That night, the team was playing in California, not Pennsylvania. And the hundreds of fans clustered there? They’re just the watch party.
Pro gaming, also referred to as e-sports, is the fastest-growing sports industry in the world; according to Newzoo, revenue is expected to rise from $905.6 million to $1.4 billion in the next two years. The firm also estimates a rise in viewership, with approximately 380 million e-sports viewers in 2018 and a projected 557 million by 2021. Pro gaming’s potential for profit is already being recognized by sports and entertainment companies; Fusion’s owner, Comcast Spectacor, also owns the Flyers.
Fusion plays Overwatch, a high-speed, team-based shooter set in a futuristic world. Each Overwatch game pits two six-player teams against one another, with each player taking one of three roles: tank (think lineman), support/healer (think fullback or tight end), or DPS, known as damage per second (think quarterback or running back). With an estimated 40 million players and counting, it’s one of the world’s most popular e-sports now.
This was the first game of the Overwatch League’s second season, which is divided into four five-week stages. There are 20 teams, but only the top eight will make it to the final season playoffs. All games are held at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, about half an hour from Los Angeles, but they are streamed for audiences worldwide.
None of the nine Fusion players are from Philadelphia. They’re from countries around the world, including Israel, Spain, Finland, and South Korea. In May, between stages three and four, the team flew out to Philly for the first time. They were met enthusiastically by thousands of fans.
The 2019 season opener wasn’t set to start for half hour yet. But as people filtered in to the area, the crowd got progressively louder. Some were wearing Fusion gear from other events: one bright-orange lanyard read “Grand Finals 2018.” A group of fans had cleared a side table and was handing out name tags and buttons.
Several fans wrote their real names, but most wrote their online monikers — sashi, sindy, nana, overdrive. After all, many of them have chatted online much more than they ever will in person.
“We don’t know their real names yet,” Sandy Liang, 20, of Northeast Philly, said. “You can see a person at every event and still not know their first name.”
Though the realm of e-sports tends to be predominantly young, white, and male, the crowd at this watch party was surprisingly diverse. Nearly half the people standing at the side table were women or nonbinary fans; many of them were people of color; and though most Overwatch gamers tend to fall into the 18-30 age bracket, it’s easy to spot watch party attendees old and young.
There was even an entire family standing by the commentator’s booth.
Jim and Melanie Garrow of Roxborough have been playing Overwatch along with their three children for more than a year. One of their favorite things about it, Garrow said, is that it’s team-based: “No one can be the superstar.”
“We all have our own mains, so we can play together… even the 5-year-old,” Melanie Garrow said. “It’s a nice way for us to connect around the dinner table.”
They’ve been following Philly’s Fusion since the beginning.
“We get a lot of strange looks,” Jim Garrow said. “But we’d take the whole family to an Eagles game. Why not this?”
Tom Morris of King of Prussia agreed. “It’s the same energy" as a “real” sports game, he said.
Morris’ bright pink hair, plus a set of muscles that rival Wolverine’s, make him impossible to lose in a crowd. He was cosplaying as Zarya, the first female tank that Overwatch released. Pink, he notes, is his favorite color.
Morris said he’d been following Fusion since day one: He worked PAX East, a gamers convention in Boston, and discovered Overwatch there in 2015, before Blizzard officially released the game. Like Garrow, Morris mentioned inclusivity as a primary reason he’s involved in the Fusion community. “It’s super-open, and everyone is very accepting.”
Part of that, he said, could be because of the game itself. There are 29 playable heroes, intentionally designed to represent identities that aren’t often present in big-budget video games: women, LGBTQ+ folk, people of color. Some gaming communities can be toxic, but Overwatch fans, Morris said, are “really inclusive… maybe because everyone kind of has someone to represent them.”
Raven Spearman, 18, of West Philly, has been moderating Fusion’s Discord chat channel for the last year. “It’s cool how diverse everyone here is,” she said, “the staff, the players, the fans.”
At first, she was drawn by the visual interest of the gameplay. Now, she says, she’s there for the community: “I’ve met so many new people here."
Plus, she’s attached to the team. “Sado’s my best friend.”
Sado — and his eight teammates — are known for a combination of grit, unpredictability, and sheer luck. Last season, they surprised everyone by making it to the grand finals July 26 and 27, where they played in the Barclays Center against London’s Spitfire. Fusion lost that match 2-0, but both teams were back again for more in this season opener.
The odds aren’t high that their team will win, Liang says, “but we’re going to cheer anyway.”
And yet Fusion did win, 3-1, and the fans went wild. Interviews at the end of the game were inaudible beneath the music blaring over the speakers — people dancing, screaming, hugging. . One man loudly declared he was going out for drinks, and a passel of other fans followed him.
Despite the novelty of the sport, it’s an unmistakably familiar scene ... right down to the homegrown Gritty in the corner.
Rob Flanagan, the man behind the fur suit, attended his first Overwatch game last year and has been following Fusion since. As his hairy orange mask and custom Fusion jersey indicate, he’s a major fan of multiple Philly teams.
It was Flanagan’s debut of the costume — he originally crafted it months ago for the Running of the Grittys event. “It needs some work,” he said ruefully, holding up a furry sleeve.
Flanagan’s friend Kyle Branson said he’s more of a traditional sports fan but was convinced to follow Fusion by Blizzard’s reputation and Comcast Spectacor’s investment (the team slot was purchased for a reported $20 million). “Spectacor,” he said confidently, “isn’t going in on anything that isn’t worth it.”
“They really got the Philly spirit down,” Branson said of Fusion’s us-vs.-the-world mentality. “We love a winner. And we love a lovable underdog.”