There’s a new team in town — and the game is a new one.
Owned by regional sports media giant Comcast Spectacor, who also owns the Flyers, the Philadelphia Fusion was established in 2017 as the city’s representative in the Overwatch League, an international eSports league made up of 12 teams spanning four countries.
eSports — short for "electronic sports" — is the umbrella term for competitive video gaming, with participants most often competing in "shooter" games or sports games. Though generating controversy over whether the pastime qualifies as true sport, eSports has exploded in popularity in recent years, with Business Insider estimating it to become a $1.5 billion industry by 2020.
And now, that rising craze has finally made it to Philadelphia.
“You can’t look at eSports and not be incredibly enthusiastic about the demographics,” said Tim Buckman, Comcast Spectacor’s vice president of corporate communications. “As we look toward the future, this is going to be an important part of sports and entertainment, so when the Overwatch League formed and they were looking for potential owners for franchises, we let it be known that we were interested, and we’re really happy that it worked out."
The Overwatch League consists of matches of the video game "Overwatch," a team-based, first-person survival game developed by Blizzard Entertainment with more than 30 million players worldwide. This inaugural season of the league will be made up of four stages, each five weeks long and consisting of 12 matches.
Every match between two teams is made up of four rounds, each on a specific stage, with the team that wins the most rounds declared the match’s winner. All the matches in this season are held in Los Angeles’ Blizzard Arena in front of a raucous crowd and streamed in real time on the league’s website.
There is also a worthwhile prize for the team that makes it through the season and playoffs victorious: a cool $1 million, with the possibility of earning a total of $3.5 million by winning various stages throughout the season.
Like other professional sports leagues, the players are paid an annual salary, which the league set at $50,000 minimum, and also receive housing, training, and health benefits.
The Fusion currently have 12 players on their roster from nine countries, though two of them are currently ineligible to participate. Simon Ekström (gamer ID: snillo) cannot play until his 18th birthday in March, and Su-Min Kim (SADO) is suspended for the first 30 matches for "account boosting," or accepting payment to increase another gamer’s "skill rating."
Originally, the Fusion were set to participate in the league’s preseason matches in early December. However, a few days before the first match, the team withdrew from the scrimmages, citing “player logistics issues” in a tweet.
“It was frightening at first when they pulled out of the preseason. I know they had some issues with SADO getting suspended especially, but I think that’s encouraging because it makes us the ultimate wild card,” a Fusion supporter said. “Nobody goes into this knowing our strategy or what to expect from us, so it does give us a little bit of an advantage.”
“It’s a pro and a con, because we could be terrible just as much as we could be good, but nobody knows; it’s Philadelphia at it’s very best,” a companion rebutted.
Since Philadelphia did not play in the preseason, Thursday’s match against the Houston Outlaws was the first time fans were able to see the Fusion in action. Those fans did not leave disappointed, as Philadelphia pulled through with a 3-2 sudden death victory after both teams finished tied after the first four rounds of play.
To commemorate their match, the Fusion set up a watch party for their followers at Wahoo’s in University City on Thursday, and fans came out in droves to support. At the event, which featured a gaming zone, cosplayers, and even Fusion cheerleaders, the main viewing area was packed to the brim with avid Overwatch and Fusion fanatics, a great showing for a promising season.
Despite its lack of previous competition, the Fusion showed no signs of a sluggish start, racing out to a 3-2 victory on Dorado, the match’s first stage. Houston and Philadelphia proceeded to go back and forth, forcing the match to a fifth-stage tiebreaker — but on that final stage, Lijiang Tower, the Fusion’s teamwork and combined power led to a 2-0 win, sending its supporters into an excited frenzy.
The team that nearly everybody had counted out, including all three stream commentators before the match, had done the improbable and defeated a team who many considered to be in the preseason top five.
The Fusion hope to carry this positive momentum into Saturday’s match against the London Spitfire: the first international team Philadelphia will face and 3-1 winners over the Florida Mayhem on Thursday.
Just as Philadelphians have faithfully rallied behind their teams before, they now have another that needs their support.
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