Philadelphia's professional gaming team, now entering its second season, had never played in Philadelphia — until Saturday night.
The diverse group of internationals — with such quirky nicknames as "Fragi" and "Poko" — bathed in the love of more than 300 fans and the Flyers mascot Gritty at Lucky Strike in Center City, where the Fusion, owned by Comcast Spectacor, had sold out its homecoming grudge match against the New York Excelsior.
With a rowdy crowd garbed in Fusion jerseys, T-shirts and scarves, the Fusion fell behind 2-0 in a best-of-five exhibition. They roared back to tie the match, only to fall short in the deciding fifth game and lose, 3-2. The Excelsior played them online from their own live event in New York City.
"It's a new experience," said Joona "Fragi" Laine, a muscular native of Finland who plays the tank position, the virtual equivalent of offensive lineman, for the Fusion. "We haven't done anything like this before, just having all the fans behind us. It's pretty surreal. I feel sorry for a lot of teams. From what I heard, the fans here can be a bit mean to the other teams. It's going to be fun."
The Fusion compete in Activision Blizzard's popular Overwatch video game against 20 teams based in North America, Europe and Asia. Weekly matches are played in the league's Burbank, Calif., studio, but teams plan to relocate to their home cities for the 2020 season. Last year's debut finals sold out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the Fusion finished second behind the London Spitfire.
Ownership groups include such pro sports owners as Comcast Spectacor, the Patriots' Robert Kraft, and the Mets' Fred Wilpon. Each team consists of six starters, with room for roster rotations of up to 12. They battle it out in the popular virtual shooter game to win such objectives as "escort the payload," in which gamers seek to kill the other side and push a car to a winning location.
If that doesn't make any sense, ask your nearest millennial. Competitive gaming, better known as esports, is a blossoming industry with parallels to sports and entertainment. Millions of fans around the world tune in to online streams to watch the best compete in such games as League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and now Overwatch. And it's only getting bigger as traditional sports audiences have fragmented and aged, executives say. This summer, Disney announced a TV deal to broadcast Overwatch league matches on ESPN, ESPN 2 and Disney XD. There are about 35 million Overwatch video gamers, with more than 300,000 in the Philadelphia region.
Executives are trying to get on the ground floor of what could be the next big thing. The league hopes to make money for owners through advertising, ticketing, and broadcast rights, with teams receiving an equal share of all league-wide net revenues, according to Overwatch publisher Activision Blizzard.
More than 300 people bought tickets for the weekend's Fusion event, priced at $25, or $100 for a VIP experience that included a private meet-and-greet with the players and more. It featured such professional broadcasters and hosts as Philly native Akinola Verissimo, who hosted the event.
"Philly fans are like no other fans in all of sports, esports, whatever medium of entertainment," he said. "There's just so much energy here."
The event was sponsored by the Philadelphia-based tech firm Linode. A local partnership such as this is one of the appeals of the Overwatch League's city-based setup, which isn't used at the moment by any other esports league, said Fusion president Tucker Roberts. This event was uncharted territory for the Fusion, which has hosted only free watch parties at Xfinity Live and other city venues.
"This is our first time with an actual paid, ticketed event, which is kind of a big deal," said Roberts. "And it sold out. That's a great data point that I think we can run with. It's one thing to get people to come for something for free. It's totally different to get everybody to pay for it. … We're learning we probably could have gone bigger. It's a great place to be."
With plans to sell home tickets in 2020, chief business officer Joe Marsh is looking long term.
"I'm personally excited about 2020 because we're laying the foundation," Marsh said. "We're trying to find office space, a training center, and where we're going to play some matches. We have 20 home dates we have to fill. I've been in and around our DMA [designated market area], which extends all the way down to Delaware, Atlantic City, up to Trenton and Allentown, out toward Harrisburg. We're trying to find the right mix" of match sites while an arena is built.
At the event, hundreds of fans chanted feet away from their favorite players. They were so close that Penn State Abington student Gabby Egan, 20, tricked two of the stars with the classic circle below the waist gag. (If you look at the other person's hand, you lose and get punched.) Though she didn't get to cash in her punches, Jae-hyeok "Carpe" Lee visibly reacted in embarrassment, and nearby fans hooted.
Many were wearing Fusion-branded merchandise that goes for up to $60.
"Me and my cousin have talked about getting season tickets," said Ryan Young, 26, of South Philly. "It's great that esports is being legitimized to this degree. I own five jerseys for the team. I'm a big fan."
And it wouldn't be a Philly home game without a wise-guy New York interloper. Justin Pinsky, 22, recently moved in a couple blocks from the venue. He rolled in cautiously with his NYXL jersey, which brought out a few whispers and even a call-out from Fusion fan Kaylin Espinosa, 25, who reminded Pinsky which team won in the playoffs.