In a match that combined crazy Philly-style fan outbursts with a geeky computer game, an underdog Philadelphia team beat Boston Wednesday night in the inaugural playoff match of the e-sports Overwatch League.
The Philadelphia Fusion defeated the Boston Uprising in the first match of a best-of-three playoff series in Burbank, Calif., as a couple hundred Fusion fans watched from a raucous NBC Sports Arena at Xfinity Live! in South Philadelphia. The series will end Friday with the second match being played in the morning and a third potentially happening later that afternoon if Boston ties it up.
E-sports, a common term for online video games, are particularly popular among millennials. Game developers say there are now over 40 million Overwatch gamers worldwide, and Fusion chief financial officer Joe Marsh said more than 300,000 of those gamers reside in the Philadelphia region. This year, Comcast Spectacor purchased a team slot in the new Overwatch League and formed the Fusion.
The Fusion play in the Philadelphia Flyers’ orange, white, and black colors, and was one of 12 teams in the league that tried to kill each other and achieve an objective in the Overwatch video game — like the children’s game King of the Hill — before a live crowd and hundreds of thousands of viewers online.
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 and is the sixth seed in the postseason, while Boston is third. The first season of the Overwatch League was divided into four five-week-long stages before six teams square off in the playoffs. (Two teams have byes in the first round.)
For the league’s first season, “they’re just kind of making it up as they go” into the playoffs, said Lee Barham, an Overwatch gamer and fan who attended the playoff watch party. He said the e-sports industry is at a “pretty key spot,” and he believes it will only become more popular as the Overwatch League grows and others start.
The league is modeling its structure on traditional sports leagues — with geographically based teams, a regular-season schedule, and playoff series — and that gives it added legitimacy, said Jennifer Madden, who plays Overwatch but was attending her first fan event at the watch party.
“I feel like the reason people didn’t take e-sports seriously before is because it wasn’t structured like typical, physical sports,” she said.
The players might sit behind computers during games, but the league and its fan base closely mirror those of other sports. E-sports players wear team jerseys that fans can purchase. Teams have stars and fans have favorite players. Many teams are active on social media to connect with their fan bases. The Fusion have almost 67,000 Twitter followers and over 4,000 Fusion fans on Discord, a gaming communication site.
And the Walt Disney Co. announced Wednesday that ESPN will air the first Overwatch League finals starting July 27, with other Disney-owned channels showing playoff games leading up to the event. The company made a multiyear deal with Activision Blizzard Inc., which owns Overwatch, to air the matches, another sign of the industry’s growth.
Fusion fan Liza Black has been an Overwatch gamer since it was first released in 2016. As she cheered for Philadelphia at the watch party with her boyfriend, Andy DiAngelis, a photographer snapped her photo.
“That guy takes my picture at every single one of these,” Black said. She has been to every big fan event the Fusion have hosted. She and DiAngelis even traveled to Burbank in June to watch the Fusion play in person. The team lost 3-1 to the Houston Outlaws, but they still had fun, Black said.
As Black and DiAngelis watched the playoff match against Boston, they reacted just like every sports fan would while watching a favorite team. They cheered at Philly victories. They shouted advice players couldn’t hear. When the coach made a substitution before the fourth round of the match, while the score was 2-1 in the Fusion’s favor, they groaned.
Hong-Jun Choi, known as “Hotba,” replaced Isaac “Boombox” Charles. This worried Black, she said, because Choi plays an offensive role on the team while Charles is one of the team’s healers, helping to keep teammates from getting snuffed out. The team was going all-in on offense, but leaving them vulnerable, she said.
Black’s and DiAngelis’s jaws dropped as Boston was overwhelmed by Philadelphia’s offense and the Fusion won the match, 3-1.
“That’s got to be the Overwatch equivalent of the ‘Philly Special,’ ” DiAngelis said, referencing the Eagles’ touchdown pass to quarterback Nick Foles during Super Bowl LII. “We’ve never seen that.”