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Comcast tweets out a call for Overwatch gamers and a crowd appears in Northern Liberties

Team owners think that esports, or competitive video gaming, could be the next big thing, as pro-sports TV viewership flatlines and declines. But connecting to a local fan base is a big problem. Comcast's Fusion team recently held tryouts for its farm team in Philly. Tucker Roberts, the son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, is leading the project.

Chase Slay, 13, of Downingtown, far right, awaits the start of a match during the Fusion University “Hometown Hero” competition at N3rd Street Gamers on Feb. 17. Ninety-six Overwatch players competed for the opportunity to join Fusion University, the academy team for Comcast Fusion eSports brand.
Chase Slay, 13, of Downingtown, far right, awaits the start of a match during the Fusion University “Hometown Hero” competition at N3rd Street Gamers on Feb. 17. Ninety-six Overwatch players competed for the opportunity to join Fusion University, the academy team for Comcast Fusion eSports brand.Read moreTIM TAI

Teens and twentysomethings with online "battle tags" and video gaming rankings converged Feb. 17 on a former glass-blowing factory in Northern Liberties. There were boys barely into puberty, accompanied by parents. Men with beards. A few women, one a 24-year-old molecular biology doctoral candidate at University of Pennsylvania.

All were anxious. What drew them to this gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhood was a shot to become a professional gamer and score a slot as the local player on Comcast's video-gaming farm team, Fusion University. Performing well there could mean a chance at Comcast's Fusion team, which competes in the new global Overwatch League for professional gamers.

"I know I'm not the best. I'm realistic about that," said Cait Kolodi, 20, of Schwenksville, who stood around with four other players on her "team." The Overwatch game, which is the focus of the Overwatch League, was her first first-person shooter game that she had really liked. "I'm more of a story-driven person," she said. Yet she still made it into the final six.

Giovani Jimenez-Lara, 19, of South Philly, said it would be "fun and his dream" if he made the team. "I applied the day they posted it on Twitter. I think it was midnight."

With live sports viewership declining on television — or, at best, flatlining — while participation in video gaming is exploding, conglomerates such as Comcast Corp., streamers and video-game developers are rushing to capitalize on esports, competitive fan-based video-gaming.

Gamers such as Kolodi say they like sports but fail to click with traditional ones such as  football or baseball. Some are casual gamers. Others are looking to boost their skills or go pro. They are coming out of their parents' basements and online gaming communities, buying tickets to watch tournaments. About 10 million unique visitors watched the big-league Overwatch games in the first week, the league said. The online streamer Twitch has reportedly agreed to pay $90 million to stream the games for the first two years. Sponsors such as Intel, HP, Toyota, T-Mobile, and Sour Patch Kids are shelling out big bucks for advertising. Some say the market could reach $5 billion by 2020.

Global streaming viewership for video-game championships surpasses that of some pro sports finals with Activision Blizzard Inc., the California company that owns Call of Duty and Overwatch, reporting that the company's games had hit 385 million unique monthly users globally by late 2017. Personal engagement with its titles was 50 minutes a day, on par with Facebook, combined with its Instagram and Messenger platforms.

"They are saying [Overwatch] could be as big as the NFL, at least by people in their 20s," said Laura Martin, senior analyst for entertainment and internet companies with Needham & Co. LLC. She compared esports revenue streams to World Wide Wrestling, with tickets to events, advertising to sponsors, and television or streaming rights.

Overwatch is a shooting game but without blood, played by teams of players. Activision released it in 2016.

Scott Cooley, spokesman for offshore betting platform, which is based in Costa Rica, said it was shocking to have more viewers watching the League of Legends final than the final game of the Stanley Cup. In 2014, the League of Legends championship, held in South Korea, was streamed online and watched by 27 million unique viewers, more than the NBA finals that year or the Daytona 500. The audience has grown since then, experts say.

"We have been offering esports [betting odds and wagers] for three or four years. We recognize it as a budding and exploding industry," Cooley said. The waging volume has not reached the levels of the pro football, baseball or hockey. But they are closing in on tennis, golf and UFC, the martial arts group, he said.

Comcast Spectacor reportedly paid $20 million last fall for the Overwatch franchise in Philadelphia, naming it the Fusion. The Fusion University team will be the development team for the Fusion, like the IronPigs semi-pro team for the Phillies. Activision owns the league and runs it on a pro-sports model — individual franchises in cities. Billionaire owners include the Kraft family of the NFL's New England Patriots, in addition to Comcast. Ten other Overwatch League teams are located around the United States and globally, for a total of 12. Activision Blizzard is looking to sell expansion teams overseas for more than $20 million, company officials have said.

Tucker Roberts, the son of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, is president of Philadelphia's team.

This first year, Overwatch League teams play their games at Activision's Burbank arena as the teams evaluate their options for local arenas. Comcast has rented out a Burbank mansion, a 7,000-square-foot home with a tree fort and gym in what had been a 13-car garage, for its team of 12 players, each of whom is paid at least $50,000 but some more, based on league rules. Fusion's record is 6-4 after 10 of the 40 games coming this season.

Tapping into the social-media generation, Fusion has 40,000 Twitter followers, and its Twitter feed dwells on the gaming lifestyle and celebrity. But the team still needs to connect with Philadelphia. Inspired by the story of Vince Papale, the Philly bartender and the Eagles' special teams walk-on whose exploits were featured in the 2006 Mark Wahlberg movie Invincible, Fusion University set aside one of the eight slots for a local player — a walk-on such as Papale they'd call the "hometown hero."

Enter John Fazio, a Philly software guy  who was developing his own business around video gaming, N3rd Street Gamers in Northern Liberties. Huntingdon Valley-raised Fazio  and his buddies hosted video-game parties – or "lan parties" — in their parents' basements.

As a Drexel University freshman, Fazio entered a business start-up competition with the idea for a "Digital Gaming Arena." He now thinks the idea was ahead of the trend. Too much debt to bear was how Fazio viewed four years at Drexel. He dropped out as a sophomore, launching software firm Jarvus Innovations in North Liberties in 2007. Jarvus is named after the artificial intelligence robot in the movie Iron Man that "conjures solutions," Fazio said.

Fazio rented part of a building at 908 N. Third St.,  a former glass-blowing factory, for Jarvus. Shortly after opening the company, Fazio and business partner Chris Alfano pushed the office's desks together for an all-night video-game party. "We wanted to hang out on Friday night and drink and play video games instead of going out to a club."

Fazio hosted other gaming groups at Jarvus. In 2011, he created the N3rd Street Gamers brand. "We'd post a bunch of pictures on Twitter and word would get around."

In January 2016, Fazio broke N3rd Street Gamers into a separate corporate entity. Jarvus funded it. A year later, Fazio put all his time into gaming. The company hosted esport competitions, maxing out at around 300 participants in Northern Liberties. Last July, Fazio rented out the Sun Center Studios in Aston — a movie studio used by director M. Night Shyamalan. Over the three-day event, N3rd Street Gamers had 400 to 500 players competing against each other in front of 1,900 ticket-buying spectators. Participants competed playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Rocket League, Hearthstone and Starcraft 2.

Conshohocken venture firm SeventySix Capital — one  partner is former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard — took notice and invested in the company. Terms were not disclosed but typical investments are between $250,000 and $1 million. "We are going to create a national framework for developing esports athletes," Fazio said. There was nothing at the amateur level. The idea was to "take the model we had accidentally stumbled into and create a national ecosystem for amateur esports athletes to improve as players."

On Saturday, after 40 Comcast-purchased pizzas were consumed, the field of 96 Philadelphia-area Overwatch gamers had been whittled down to the final six, vying to be the designated local player on Fusion University, joining a team that comprises players from South Korea, Florida, Michigan, California, Georgia and New York. They practice and compete online from their homes, with high-speed internet connections.

Aaron Atkins, the coach for the Fusion University team, said that the team competes in tournaments once a week and practices four days — with two days a week off. They do this online. Fusion said that 277 Philadelphia gamers sought to participate in Saturday's event.

Fusion was looking to develop a younger local player but many of those who applied for the "hometown hero" competition were in their 20s. "We had a lot of applicants older than 25 and, at least for esports, that's pretty old," he said.

David Long, 16, of Haverford, was the ultimate winner on Saturday. Atkins said the Fusion University staff thought he had good skills and liked him because he hadn't competed before — "a clean slate."

Long signed a contract, with his parents' consent, that includes a monthly fee, whose terms were not disclosed. He also agreed to compete exclusively for Fusion University for a year.

Long, the son of Chinese immigrants and a junior at Haverford High, said he hadn't intended to win on Saturday and his parents were  "kind of worried" about his joining the gamer team "and not sure how to react, but they are willing to let me try it."