In March 2014, a trio of friends cobbled together a video game tournament at what was then a Northern Liberties collaborative workspace. They coined the portmanteau "Fragadelphia," incorporating slang for a kill in the first-person shooter game they played, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
In the weekends and evenings following, the friends became business partners. They eventually quit their full-time jobs to devote their time to the company, N3rd Street Gamers, or NSG.
"Over the years, it started turning into a real business, and a real opportunity for everyone, the players and ourselves," said Robert Hilsky, the company's head of production. They've held about 30 events, 10 of which awarded prizes totaling $10,000 or more.
Starting Friday, they're holding Pennsylvania's biggest eSports event to-date, the NSG Summer Championship, a four-game, three-day tournament to be held at Sun Center Studios in Aston with a total prize pool of $65,000. It will include the 11th iteration of Fragadelphia, the Counter-Strike tournament, along with tournaments for Starcraft II, Hearthstone, and Rocket League.
John Fazio, NSG president and chief operating officer, said they provide a convention-like experience to keep attendees entertained. That includes virtual-reality booths, a small movie theater, and plenty of ways to interact with players.
"If you're a family from Bucks County and your kids are into eSports, there's areas to sit and relax while your kids are watching" the games, Fazio said.
Some attendees, such as Joshua Sin of Montgomery County, come to Fragadelphia to improve their game and tap into the energy of live events.
"Just the energy and the competition kept bringing me back to more events," said Sin, 20. "If a player pulls off an amazing play and the crowd goes wild, the player feeds off that energy."
Hilsky said plenty of players come out to get their mouse pads signed by the pros.
"This is it, man," he said. "This is the new world."
Fazio is hoping for at least 500 spectators, and many more online viewers, who provide the bulk of the tournament's revenue. Similar to how a television network pays a professional sports league to air games, the online streaming service Twitch pays NSG for the rights to show the Summer Championship.
One recent Fragadelphia logged more than 1 million online viewers, Fazio said. That count may overestimate the number of unique viewers, however, as a watcher who logs off and on may be counted twice.
The spectators, online or otherwise, aren't what makes NSG unique, and aren't the thing on which the company is staking its future. That's the players.
Chasing the big fish
As Fazio and his partners were building their company, they noticed a problem with the eSports industry. There were plenty of invite-only tournaments, but not much room for non-elite players.
"Our goal is to lay the infrastructure to provide the opportunity for players to go from casual to professional," Fazio said.
As Hilsky, the head of production, put it: "There's this float between super-casual and semiprofessional, and we're trying to capture that niche."
These players will pay to get into tournaments with professional teams drawn in by five-figure prize pools — and they'll have fun even if they don't expect to win.
"They just want to bite on the heels of a big name," Hilsky said.
They're players like Jenn "JeNneSis" DuBois, who lives near Washington. She competed in the first Fragadelphia as a casual player who wanted to become more competitive at Counter-Strike, which is played by teams of five.
"When I first started playing, I didn't know how bad I was," she said. Still, she enjoyed playing against people she'd heard of, even if she wasn't at their skill level.
"When you get to play against people you look up to or admire, that gives you motivation," said DuBois, who at 29 considers herself too old to envision a pro career.
"So, I look to mentor younger people," she said. She plans to volunteer at the Summer Championship's registration desk.
More tournaments coming
Fazio said the Summer Championship may become the template of the company's events going forward, though they would like to find a permanent Philadelphia venue.
Meanwhile, the company's Northern Liberties location serves as something of a training ground. They hold one-day "boot camps" for players, like Sin, to up their game.
"If you don't have that competitive drive in you … I don't think that mind-set to get better will even exist," Sin said.
Fazio, a native Philadelphian, said the city is an ideal eSports hub because the universities bring a wealth of talent and the cost of living is low compared to that of other East Coast cities.
"That density of student talent, ambition, and innovation is kind of unique to Philadelphia," he said. "We see Philadelphia as the city of the average joe."