Fresh off an underdog run to the Overwatch League finals at the Barclays Center in New York City, the Comcast Spectacor-owned Philadelphia Fusion are working to make their second season even bigger.
And they'll have a bit of help. Activision Blizzard sold eight new franchise slots in the Overwatch League to ownership groups in North America, Europe, and Asia. These slots were valued between $30 million and $60 million, ESPN reported in June.
That kind of money, along with new team partnership deals and a TV deal with ESPN and Disney, will help the Fusion, which plays all their games in Burbank, Calif., expand as the team prepares to relocate to Philadelphia for the 2020 season, said Joe Marsh, chief business officer at the Fusion.
"You'll see more partnerships for the Fusion in the upcoming season," Marsh said. "We're still going to be strategic; we're not going to be NASCAR by any stretch of the imagination, but we're going to take strategic partnerships when we can find them and really look for partners that we can grow with."
Teams receive an equal share of 50 percent of the net league-wide revenue from sponsorship, advertising, ticketing, broadcast rights, merchandising, and league-affiliated in-game items. Teams keep all local revenue generated from their home territory and venue, up to a set amount each year, and the majority of local revenue thereafter.
E-sports are growing as traditional sports audiences have fragmented and aged, executives say. There are 35 million Overwatch players, with 300,000 to 500,000 in the Philadelphia region.
The Fusion were the first team to offer female T-shirt cuts, according to Marsh, who said they were a hit with the team's passionate female fan base. The most popular merchandise included the Fusion's "Philly vs. the World" playoff T-shirt, and its "Fusion Pride" shirt, which benefited the Pennsylvania ACLU.
The Fusion re-signed most of its starting lineup, which finished in second place this summer and won $400,000. The players, many of whom have agents, were asking for more money and multiyear deals, said Marsh. The team released Georgii "ShaDowBurn" Gushcha, Joe "Joemeister" Gramano, and Jeong-Hwan "DayFly" Park last month, and traded Hong-Joon "HOTBA" Choi on Thursday to an expansion team from Guangzhou, China. What the Fusion got in return could not yet be disclosed.
"We're really excited for him. It'll be good for him, and it will be good for the Fusion." Marsh said of Choi. "The way it works, these players are able to try out and scrim with the teams. It's not like the pros, where it's like, 'Hey! You're getting shipped off to somewhere.' The orgs are really allowed to meet the player, introduce themselves before, to make sure it's a good fit for both parties."
The Fusion's season-two jersey will feature two sponsor patches that will be announced in January. Details have yet to be disclosed, but last season, the Dallas Fuel sold a similar patch to Jack in the Box restaurants in a multimillion-dollar, multiyear deal. Back then, the league only allowed one sponsor patch per team.
The Fusion also hired three full-time staffers to work on partnerships and video content.
"We have our background in media and entertainment, so we really want to showcase our staff skills for this upcoming season," Marsh said.
When it comes to partnerships in gaming, Marsh said, authenticity is key.
"We need to make sure they're not just slapping a logo up on the screen," he said. "They really have to be all-in, in terms of partnership. They have to want to be in the space. It's a very passionate crowd, and they'll sniff you out from a mile away if you're not in it to win it."
One thing that could attract sponsors is the TV deal that began this summer. League matches will air on ESPN, ESPN 2, ABC, and Disney XD, depending on time slots, something Marsh believes is helpful for advertisers.
"It gets advertisers and partners comfortable," Marsh said. "I think it will make partners happy that they're on there with a brand like Disney and ABC and ESPN."
It'll also help the team host live events within its region, which stretches from Harrisburg and Allentown to Trenton, Atlantic City, and parts of Delaware. With a TV broadcast, the Fusion no longer need to worry about streaming with high-speed internet at venues. The Fusion hosted 10 events last season, attracting 3,500 fans. The second season will begin on Valentine's Day. Teams will play fewer games with longer breaks for players. The Fusion will also use the time to bring the players to Philadelphia and reach new audiences in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, in order to build up a fan base to watch them live when teams begin hosting games in their home markets.
"I think we're a bit ahead of the curve on making sure that we are ready to go." Marsh said. "From a fan-engagement standpoint, it's much easier to operate the Philadelphia Fusion in Philadelphia."