Philadelphia Fusion esports team makes the Overwatch playoffs. Is this the start of a billion-dollar industry?
As the Philadelphia Fusion prepares to enter the Overwatch League playoffs, Comcast Spectacor is building up the team's fan base before seeking to monetize it.
The Phillies are only at mid-season, but playoff season is upon Philadelphia again.
On Wednesday night, the Philadelphia Fusion will compete against the Boston Uprising in the inaugural video-game playoff match of the e-sports Overwatch League. The contest will be the first time fans will see the team compete in almost a month, and could help further the team's plan to build a vast new audience.
E-sports are particularly popular among millennials, and there are over 30 million Overwatch gamers worldwide, said Fusion chief financial officer Joe Marsh. More than 300,000 of those gamers reside in the Philadelphia region, he said. This year, Comcast Spectacor purchased a team slot in the new Overwatch League and formed the Fusion.
The Fusion play in the Flyers' orange, white, and black colors, and were one of 12 teams in the league that tried to kill each other and achieve an objective in the Overwatch video game — like King of the Hill — before a live crowd and hundreds of thousands of viewers online.
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The team earned its way into the playoffs with a 3-1 win over the London Spitfire in a best-of-five stage four series on June 16. The Fusion must now beat Boston and win two more series to claim the inaugural championship.
The first season is divided into four five-week-long stages before six teams square off in the playoffs. (Two teams have byes in the first round.) With the Fusion team itself located in Burbank, Calif., during the season, Marsh said, team executives have made a concerted effort to build an established fan base here.
The team sets up match watches and other events for fans in Philadelphia. There will be a watch party at the NBC Sports Arena at Xfiniity Live! starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday for the playoff match at 8. Team staff members have filmed videos of the players answering fan questions and going about their lives to post on social media. The players flew to Philadelphia in May, between stages three and four of the season, and about 2,000 fans showed up to see them.
Marsh said fan engagement has led to nearly 67,000 Twitter followers and over 4,000 Fusion fans on Discord — a gaming communication site — in seven months.
"The social engagements are huge," he said. "Every event we've done with a watch party, the attendance has exceeded our expectations, every time."
The fans are also balanced in terms of gender, Marsh said, which he credits to the female voices on the Fusion's staff and social media team. He said the fan base for e-sports is typically 80 percent male, but "if you looked at [Fusion] merch store purchases, at one point it was 50-50 in terms of male-female purchases."
E-sports teams, including the Fusion, monetize league participation through merchandise sales as well as jersey partnerships, in-arena signage, and prize money from playoff wins. The league follows a more traditional sports model in this sense, Marsh said, and the team is looking to "make a splash on the ad sales side" online and in the arena next season.
Still, Comcast Spectator was "keen not to overmonetize the investment right away," Marsh said. There will be more chances for revenue as the league grows — particularly once the Fusion can build an arena in Philadelphia — but the team is starting by building a core fan base.
This focus on maintaining local roots contributed to Comcast Spectacor's recent investment into Philadelphia e-sports firm N3rd Street Gamers.
Based at 908 N. Third St., N3rd Street runs e-sports competitions in several cities and says the Comcast Spectacor funding will enable it to take its infrastructure nationwide.
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"They focus a lot on the amateur gaming scene and the grassroots," Marsh said. The organization has already partnered with Fusion to host certain events, and Marsh said the investment will allow the team to put on more of these events and scout more young local talent.
Marsh predicted that e-sports will be a billion-dollar industry, but that level of success is still a few years off for the Fusion. First, the team needs to focus on its match-up against the Uprising after many commentators said it wasn't going to make the playoffs.
"Making the inaugural playoffs for us as an organization is monumental," Marsh said. "Everyone wants to see the best teams in the world play, so we think viewership is going to skyrocket."