My Experience Watching Competitive Video Games In Real Life

Nick Speranza

On February 14th, 2019, the first game of the 2019 season of the Overwatch League began. After being in its offseason for the latter half of 2018, the ‘OWL’ triumphantly returned to its throne as a million-dollar gladiatorial video game contest broadcasted worldwide. For the uninitiated, Overwatch is a relatively nonviolent (cartoony art style; almost no blood) shooting game released for computers, Playstation 4, and Xbox One to critical and popular acclaim. After approximately two years of building infrastructure and a fanbase, a professional esports league was launched for it in 2018, with the goal of emulating “real” sports leagues as closely as possible. The Overwatch League has a silhouetted rectangular logo, rigorous match schedule, playoffs, player contracts, trades, corporate sponsorships, stadiums, home and away uniforms, referees, commentators, analysts, sportswriters, coaches, everything a regular sport could possibly want — all for video games. One of the OWL’s biggest efforts to emulate real sports is its implementation of teams as city-based franchises, which is a first for the esports realm.

As luck would have it, Philadelphia is one of the cities fortunate enough to have an OWL franchise. When the OWL was starting to accept buy-ins in late 2017, Comcast jumped at the opportunity, looking to add Overwatch to its existing portfolio of Philadelphia sports teams. Outside of Overwatch, the telecom conglomerate owns the Flyers in the NHL, and used to have the NBA’s 76ers before selling them in 2011. Comcast named the team the Philadelphia Fusion, with the same orange and black colors that the Flyers have. According to the Comcast-Spectacor website, the name “reflects the international makeup of Philadelphia, as well as our brand’s promise, a ‘Fusion’ of players from all across the world.”

The city-based franchising seems to have been very successful in forming local communities around each OWL team. With other esports, walking around Radnor High and asking everyone their favorite team would give you ten different answers. Overwatch teams, as a result of being city-associated, are not so varied: every OWL fan I’ve met at RHS loves the Philadelphia Fusion. I’ll give the shareholders and executives credit — they’ve correctly identified the secret sauce to creating camaraderie over a video game team. It’s safe to say that if I were to do the same survey about ‘real sports’ teams, there would be the same consensus: the Eagles, Phillies, or Sixers would comprise almost all of the answers.

With fanbases like these cultivated around the world, OWL franchises immediately began holding watch parties in every team’s hometown to get fans involved. Most of the fans couldn’t see a match in person, since every OWL match last year was held in one competitive gaming arena in the Los Angeles area. Many cities don’t have the infrastructure in place to host OWL matches live, so the closest thing for fans is having a massive sports bar-style watch party. This, presumably, was the rationale for the Philadelphia Fusion watch parties being held in our very own backyard.

It was time to see what watching video games with strangers in person was like. Would it be as fun as watching a real sport, this time with rules I understand, or was there a reason they could only pull it off in Los Angeles? It was hard to say. That’s was why when my friends wanted to come to the local watch party for the opening day of Season 2 of the Overwatch League, I immediately signed on.

I went with my friends Tony and Josh, both of them RHS students. When it comes to gaming, both of them have more clout than me: Josh, my friend since third grade, is a livestreamer on Twitch, a popular website where people stream themselves playing video games. Josh is a Twitch Affiliate, meaning people can buy paid monthly subscriptions to his channel in exchange for small perks on the website. Tony, who I met in precalculus last year, was born in South Korea, the esports capital of the world, and moved to Radnor a few years ago. Not only does he spend his time playing in the Grandmaster level of Overwatch (including making the rankings of the top 500 best players in North America), but his background lets him have a nice side job as an English-Korean translator for Overwatch teams.

My accompaniment for the evening shows up at 5 PM. Tony, a year older than Josh and I, is driving. Tony has internet friends that he wanted to meet, so he’s trying to get there early. We take the ‘back way’ as Josh and my parents would call it, going through picturesque forest neighborhoods of the Main Line, avoiding the highway until we have no choice but to get on. As we sit in the traffic, Tony mentions to Josh and I that when the highway is trafficky in Korea, food sellers show up in the gridlock selling snacks to drivers. I interrogate him about what the street food is like over there. We also spend the better part of half an hour trying to hook Josh’s phone up to the car dashboard, so that we can listen to his playlist. I forget if we succeeded or if we gave up and started playing it out of the phone speakers instead. Tony needed to focus on the road anyway.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that I didn’t bother finding the address of the watch party until the night before. I quickly Googled it, sent it to them, and thought nothing of it. After we follow those directions on the day of, we are in the middle of the Philadelphia downtown, and it feels off. This is a big gaming event that we know will have tons of attendees–why is no one parked in the parking lot right next to it? We walk to where I say it is, and the location seems to be a small restaurant with a bar. I’m ready to go. This is the place I said we should go to. Tony and Josh are confused, and think I’m out of my mind. I initially assure them that I’m not, but they pull up the advertisements for the watch party on their phones. As it turns out, I have taken them to the place where small-scale Overwatch events were being held last year. Nothing so trivial is being wasted on 2019’s Opening Day — that’s being held at the massive Xfinity Live indoor sports complex across town, apparently. We pack up our things very slowly and then bolt out of the place, kicking up gravel in our run back to Tony’s car. We key in the directions for the correct location, and we’re off again.

After more driving and a mutual agreement that I’m really stupid, we finally pull up to the correct venue. As we look for parking, it feels almost unreal to see the advertisement for the event out on the front of the Xfinity Live building. The juxtaposition is funny: I’m surrounded by bronze statues of the nation’s greatest pitchers and quarterbacks, and here on a massive screen out front is a professional Overwatch player. I stare into his gamer eyes, blown up to satellite-dish size by the billboard, and am reminded that we live in the future.

Once we walk in, it seems our “lateness” (the game still doesn’t actually start for another fifteen minutes) has cost us the chance to get good seats. The front of the massive room has tons of restaurant-style high-top tables and chairs, like a sports bar, and they’re all taken. The remaining area of the room is comprised of a walkway running down the middle and a wide, slightly elevated, carpeted back area which contains special couches for VIP ticket-holders, a fully-stocked bar, and a long table with eight state-of-the-art gaming PC setups, provided by a local organization. The entire room is flanked on each side by entrances and tables giving out free swag, bearing the names of the Fusion and its newly-unveiled sponsor for the upcoming season, tech manufacturer Arris. After meeting up with our friend Paul, the four of us go to the general vicinity of the gaming PCs and decide to just stand up for the whole time. (In keeping with the trend of everyone being cooler than me, Paul left to study abroad in Japan a month later.)

Like real sports, this evented provided those weird inflatable noisemaker things that the audience is supposed to slap together to show their excitement or Make Some Noise. After inflating them, Tony and I go get some food. The selection is not as diverse as I’ve seen in Citizens’ Bank Park, but it’s pretty close — they still have a Chickie and Pete’s. We both get buckets of tepid french fries glistening orange with Old Bay seasoning, and neither of us can finish them without the help of our other two friends. We turn to the big screen as the game finally begins.

OWL matches are best-of-five: the first team to win three ‘maps’ wins the game. The five maps offered run the gamut of the various game modes that Overwatch has to offer, so that the winning team is rewarded for the diversity of its skillset.

Once the match actually starts, the experience of being in the crowd is overwhelming. Having spent all of my life up to this point watching Overwatch alone, or chatting online, it feels almost validating to be surrounded by fellow fans in person. I haven’t just been crazy for sitting in my room cheering for video games — all these people do it too! We wave our signs, towels, and inflatable noisemaker things whenever the Fusion wins a ‘teamfight’ or makes progress in the game. I get to discuss strategy live with experienced minds for Overwatch like Tony, and get to muse about under- and overrated players without drowned by other posts like I would online.

As the first map begins, the fight between Philadelphia and London is actually quite passive and methodical, but we aren’t bored. This is the first major-league Overwatch game we’ve seen in six months, so the audience cheers enthusiastically anyway. Thanks to some clutch gameplay from their star player Carpe, the Fusion pull out a map win, already outplaying last year’s world champions.

The second map saw a little bit of a rocky start for the Fusion, but they admirably refuse to give up. They eventually get the ball rolling and make quick work of London until they reach the end of the map — the hardest part for the attacking team to get through — where they are stopped cold. When the roles switch and London goes on the attack, the Fusion clutch out a defense at the end and pull out another map win. Looking back, this defense was easily one of the most enjoyable and suspenseful moments of the night for us viewers. It seemed like London was going to tie up the game, but Philly showed impressive resilience when it counted and avoided cracking under the pressure. At halftime, the score is 2-0.

The third map, due to a quirk in its design, is very easy to attack and very hard to defend. As a result of this, it can take upwards of 20 or 30 minutes for an actual winner to be determined on it, because both teams are just equally successful for a while. Philly is unable to win this war of attrition, and London finally swings the momentum in their favor. The score is 2-1.

Going into the fourth map, the odds seemed stacked against the Fusion. Both teams got to reset their minds and receive pep talks at halftime, but London seemed to have benefited the most from it. Worse than that, the fourth map also has an unusually biased design, but this time favoring defenders instead of attackers. If the Fusion can’t hold out through a stalemate again, the match could become 2-2 and possibly pave the way for a loss in map 5, and thus a demoralizing loss of the entire game. Starting as defenders, the Fusion show none of the inconfidence that they did in the previous map. The Fusion absolutely dominate London, best summed up by one play in which they swat one of London’s characters off of a bridge, sending him splashing into the water below. On attack, they tear down London’s defense with that same prowess.

The Fusion start their OWL 2019 season by upsetting the team that beat them in last year’s Grand Finals, cinching a resounding 3-1 victory. As soon as they secure their win, the stadium erupts in cheers and applause, shaking the whole building. Everyone is on their feet, and with the hiss of compressed air a massive salvo of confetti shoots from the ceiling. After disappointment at the end of last season, the myth of the Philadelphia ‘underdog’ has been verified once more. We enjoy it for a minute, but apparently the people in charge want the event to clear out as soon as possible, so Tony, Josh, Paul and I collect our free stuff and head out. The drive home is much less eventful, both in and outside of the car. It’s been a long night.

Looking back, one of the things that really strikes me after attending this event was the diversity of the people I saw. It’s cliche, but it was heartening to go to watch video games in person and see all sorts of different people united over a common cause. It’s easy to think that video games are purely consumed by pale, pimpled teenage boys — and that does describe all three of my friends who went — but I realized after going that that simply wasn’t true. People of all creeds and backgrounds were there to enjoy the heat of competition and the camaraderie over a shared team. There’s one particular example that I still like remembering now. About ten minutes after the game began, one of those classic Philadelphian archetypes you see around the city walks in: a big African-American guy in a big winter coat. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s completely decked out head-to-toe in merch for the Seoul Dynasty, an OWL team comprised entirely of Korean players. He was the only one dressed as a Seoul fan in the whole building, and he didn’t seem to mind. He, like the rest of us, was having an excellent time, unafraid to profess his love for his favorite team when no one else agreed or cared.

Thinking about all of this, it’s undeniable to me that Overwatch has left a mark on the world of esports that won’t be forgotten. It has bravely charted new territory with structure of the League, and has created enduring fanbases to go with every franchise. From day one Overwatch was crafted with the intent to incentivize teamwork among players, and, looking at events like these, it’s clear that developers have succeeded in realizing that goal. In both watching and playing the game, the team is elevated above the individual — and that is what allows it to surpass the limits of what esports have ever done before.