Fans wearing orange, white, and black jerseys pounded noisemakers and screamed at full roar at Wahoo's, a restaurant and bar in University City, on Saturday night. Some burst into tears of joy and started hugging everyone in sight. Others stood on chairs and tables as they cheered.
The Philadelphia Fusion had just shocked fans of the e-sports Overwatch League, beating the top-seeded New York Excelsior 2-0 in a best-of-three semifinals series to advance to the league's first championship series.
The Fusion will face the fifth-seeded London Spitfire — the team that Philadelphia beat by 3-1 in its final best-of-five regular-season match to earn a spot in the playoffs — Friday and Saturday in the Barclays Center in New York City. The winning team will receive $1 million in prize money to be split between the franchise and players, with the runner-up team earning $400,000.
"I am pretty blown away by our success, not only in the game but also in the content creation and how we've connected with the fans and the message," Fusion team president Tucker Roberts said. "When the stakes are high, that's when our guys show 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 live in the Philadelphia region.
"For us, the Fusion and Overwatch League was super-super-important as a business decision, because it's our first step into e-sports and it's one of, if not the most, premier leagues to join," Roberts said. "We really wanted to make a splash."
Philadelphia faced stiff competition on its road to the finals. In the first round of the playoffs, the Fusion defeated the third-seeded Boston Uprising by 2-1, securing a spot in the semifinals against the Excelsior, the league's best team, which earned a bye in the first round. The Fusion took Overwatch fans by surprise during the first match of the best-of-three series Wednesday night by beating the Excelsior 3-0, the first time New York had been swept all year.
Roberts said the team has gained around 3,000 more Twitter followers since the start of the playoffs — taking the total number of followers to more than 69,000 — and engagement on Twitter — retweets, likes and responses — has almost doubled.
"I knew Philly fans were pretty crazy and passionate as a group, but these are e-sports Philly fans," he said. "They're the next level."
As the Fusion and Excelsior battled in front of a live crowd in Burbank, Calif., Fusion fans in Philadelphia gathered at Wahoo's to cheer on the underdogs. Wahoo's has hosted watch parties for the team since its first match in January, and staff member Jose Paredes said the large crowds have inspired the staff to become invested in the team, too.
"I never even messed with Overwatch until all these people started showing up," he said. "It's one thing to see a game and kind of understand what's going on, but it's another to have the fans explain it and explain why they love it."
The Fusion was one of 12 teams in the league that battled each other and tried to achieve objectives in the Overwatch video game — like King of the Hill — before a live crowd and hundreds of thousands of viewers online. The game is a first-person, team-based shooter game with six players per team in the game at a time.
The bar/eatery has embraced being the home of Fusion watch parties. A banner showing the faces of several Fusion players hangs in the restaurant, and staff members wear Fusion T-shirts on game nights to "make the fans feel at home," Paredes said.
Wahoo's owner Jeff Mattes said Fusion's management knew about his place before the season started and the partnership between the two came about largely because of its West Philly location and "diverse" clientele. He said Comcast Spectacor asked Wahoo's to host the team's launch party in January and since "everyone was really happy with how the launch party went," Wahoo's became the team's official spot for watch parties.
Mattes declined to discuss the impact of the watch parties on his business, but he said a lot of the fans have become regulars at Wahoo's. "We get a lot of repeat visitors, viewers of the Fusion, and we're on a first-name basis with them," he said. "They've been giving us great ideas to improve the experience," such as TVs on the patio.
A group of fans who have followed the Fusion since the beginning has formed a booster club, the "Fusion Fam." Xavier Arthur, an original member from Philadelphia, described the group as the "pinnacle of fans."
The Fusion Fam brought a cake to the watch party Saturday to celebrate Fusion player Gael "Poko" Gouzerch's birthday. Because Gouzerch is French, Arthur said, they made sure "happy birthday" was written in French on the cake. "We're just a bunch of really passionate fans that wanted to make other fans even more passionate," he said.
The championship match will be the first one played on the East Coast in front of a sellout crowd, and Arthur said some Philadelphia fans will be traveling to New York to cheer on the team in person. Fusion management has also chartered buses to take fans to New York free from XFinity Live! on Friday.
Arthur said he can't believe how successful the Fusion has been in the playoff run and pointed out that "New York's own team isn't going to be at the game being played in New York City" because of Philly.
The ability to invest in a hometown team as traditional sports fans do is part of the appeal of the watch parties, Fusion fan Courtney Miller said.