Ion the Prize: An Outlook on Philadelphia’s Newest Sports Venture
By: Matt Dacey
Esports have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. In 2020, an estimated 450 million viewers globally have tuned into esports events, and the industry is expected to break 1 billion dollars in revenue. Establishing successful competitive leagues has become the main focus of many game developers, and the inception of Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League (OWL) is a prime example. In 2017, Activision Blizzard announced their plan to launch the first worldwide esports league featuring their game-of-the-year award-winning title, Overwatch. Overwatch, a first-person shooter released in 2016 played mainly on PC, involves two teams of six players fighting to capture objectives using heroes divided into three categories: tank, damage, and support. Tank players hold the frontline of the fight while damage players look to secure eliminations on the opponent, while support players keep their team members alive. The league’s third season wrapped up its Grand Finals Weekend on October 11th as the San Francisco Shock won their second consecutive championship and the league enjoyed a 38% increase in viewership numbers from 2019’s final weekend. Eleven U.S. cities have bought into the 20 OWL team slots but only two have seen their team make the Grand Finals twice in the league’s three-year existence. The Philadelphia Fusion, Philly’s lone esports team in OWL, has quietly become the city’s sports franchise with the best success rate.
The Future of the Fusion
Only one Philadelphia professional sports team has reached its league’s championship round in two of the last three years. The Eagles, save a title win in 2018, had not made the Super Bowl since 2004. The Phillies’ last two trips to the World Series came in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009 but the club has not been back since. Lastly, the 76ers have not reached the NBA finals since 2001 and the Flyers are without a Stanley Cup run since 2010. The Fusion, however, have competed for an Overwatch League Grand Final Championship in two of the past three years. Squeaking into the playoffs as the 6th and final seed in 2018, the Fusion stormed their way to an appearance in the inaugural OWL Grand Final but finished as the league’s runner-up. This year, the Fusion finished the OWL regular season as the #2 overall seed but once again experienced playoff heartbreak and swiftly exited Grand Finals Weekend following two straight losses in the double-elimination tournament.
Despite their playoff woes, the Fusion are well-prepared for future success both athletically and financially. The 2020 OWL Rookie of the Year award was given to Fusion support-role player, Alarm, and the team still has MVP candidate damage-dealer, Carpe, locked under a rumored $180 thousand-dollar per year contract until 2022. Fusion ownership, headed by Comcast’s Spectator Gaming division, bought the team into existence for $20 million in 2017 and has since further invested into the team by securing sponsorship deals with gaming equipment companies such as Herman Miller and partnering with the Rothman Orthopedic Institute to provide Fusion players with the best medical attention esports athletes could receive.
The Fusion fanbase continues to grow as well. Prior to moving its competition entirely online due to COVID-19 concerns, the 2020 OWL regular season was originally planned to take on the form of traditional sports home and away games over the course of a weekend. The Fusion’s first “homestand” took place February 15th and 16th at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House in front of a 2,000-person sold-out crowd. As long as the OWL continues to operate, the Fusion are to be considered at the top of the pack. How, then, does the Philadelphia esports market fare as a whole?
Esports and the City of Brotherly Love
The Fusion’s first homestand of 2020 was not the first time the OWL has come to town. 2019 was an especially disappointing year for the Fusion because, after losing in the playoffs play-in tournament, they squandered their chances of competing at home in the Grand Finals. The 2019 OWL Grand Finals were held at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia in front of 12,000 fans, solidifying the city as a global esports hub. The event was streamed worldwide on Twitch, broadcasted nationally on ABC, and proved that Philly is taking its esports plunge very seriously.
In the same week, Comcast broke ground for its $50 million-dollar Fusion Arena project.  A future venue for everything Philly esports, Fusion Arena will be located in the heart of the Philadelphia Sports Complex and provide 3,500 guests a new-age entertainment experience. The arena will be the largest esports facility in the Western Hemisphere and will not only serve as home base for the Fusion players and front office, but will also host a multitude of live entertainment events and programs. The project was expected to be completed before the onset of OWL’s 2021 season but has since been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Plans for Fusion Arena have been put on hold, however, as Comcast is still actively shopping the building’s naming rights and could possibly be a destination for Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty League (CDL) in 2022. When the CDL begins to sell franchise expansion slots in 2022, Comcast can use their already substantial relationship with Activision Blizzard as a foot-in-the-door to add to their esports portfolio.
Fusion Arena also stands to be the most logical location to hold Philadelphia collegiate esports competitions or championship tournaments. Comcast purchased a minority stake in Philly esports startup Nerd Street Gamers in 2018 only to watch Nerd St. become a primary esports infrastructure partner for collegiate esports teams. Nerd St., along with Pennsylvania perennial esports powerhouse Harrisburg University, produced and organized the Harrisburg University Esports (HUE) invitational a few weeks ago from September 19th to 20th. The HUE, now in its third year and considered the largest collegiate esports tournament in North America, consisted of over 70 collegiate esports teams fighting for a $20,000 thousand-dollar prize pool in titles such as Overwatch and League of Legends.  In future years, the HUE could find a home at Fusion Arena instead of entirely online.
As it stands now, OWL games may not take place in Fusion Arena until an unknown date, and the league’s future success hangs on the release and reception of its title game’s sequel, Overwatch 2. But if one thing is for certain, the esports scene in Philly has taken off, and the Fusion have cemented themselves as the newest pride of Philly sports. As an avid Overwatch player since its open beta in 2016, I cannot wait to catch the Fusion in action.
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