Overwatch League Fans: ‘This Game Is My Life’

PHILADELPHIA — Jenna Papagni stood amid a crowd of hundreds outside the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday. She was at the Philadelphia arena for the Overwatch League Grand Finals, an annual e-sports tournament, and she came dressed for battle.

“This game is my life,” said Ms. Papagni, a 20-year-old from Newark who was dressed as D.Va, an Overwatch character who fights in a mechanical exoskeleton.

The league is modeled after traditional sports, with teams in 20 cities on three continents competing in a seven-month season that was drawing to its conclusion.

Like many of the 12,000 fans who converged at the sold-out tournament to see the San Francisco Shock take on the Vancouver Titans, Ms. Papagni was drawn to the game because of its inclusionary nature and ease of entry.

“They made a game where anyone can be the hero, including a woman,” she said.

That was the goal of Blizzard Entertainment, which released Overwatch in 2016 with a strategy to make the game as appealing as possible to all players, regardless of sex, orientation or race.

“It’s always been our intent to reflect the world the way that it is,” said Chacko Sonny, an executive producer and vice president at Blizzard. “There is such a wide range of people out there.”

When Blizzard started a professional league for the game in 2018, it applied a franchise model, similar to that of traditional sports teams. In the league’s inaugural season, every match was played at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif. But this year, the company tested what it called homestand weekends, when some teams played in their home cities, like Atlanta and Dallas.

The strategy has paid off. The league finished the 2019 season with an average global audience of 313,000 viewers, up 18 percent from the year before, according to Blizzard. The company said it planned to expand the hometown model to more cities next year.

As more fans flock to professional e-sports leagues — including ones for blockbuster games like Call of Duty and League of Legends — global revenue for the e-sports industry is expected to surpass $1 billion this year, up 27 percent from last year, according to a report from Newzoo, a market intelligence firm.

To sustain that growth, said Jurre Pannekeet, a senior market analyst at Newzoo, game publishers must keep their fans engaged.

For Overwatch fans, the devotion runs deep.

Many came to the finals in Philadelphia dressed as their favorite characters, and the mood felt as if the N.F.L. and Comic Con had gotten together to throw a rave.

Zedd, the D.J., kicked off the event with a performance and was joined onstage by the singer Kehlani. Questlove, the drummer for the Roots and a native Philadelphian, played during game breaks.

Veronica Kot, 24, of Jefferson, N.J., plays Overwatch about 15 hours a week, and streams Overwatch League matches online when she’s not playing. “Anyone can play it,” she said. “You are not defined by your physique, gender or orientation.”

Tom Morris dressed as Zarya, a tank character who specializes in protecting her allies. “It was good to see a strong female character in the game,” he said.

He added that he was at the tournament to support the Philadelphia Fusion, which did not make the finals: “I’m a big Fusion fan. It’s my hometown team.”

The Fusion will soon have a permanent home next to the Wells Fargo Center, which is home to the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers, when the 3,500-seat Fusion Arena opens in 2021. It will be the first venue in the United States built specifically for e-sports.

Hannah and Madison Katein, 16-year-old sisters from Reading, Pa., came with their father, Mike. “It’s a nice family-bonding experience,” Hannah said as they walked around a fan fest outside the Wells Fargo Center, hosted by corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, T-Mobile and Toyota.

Inside the arena, the atmosphere was pulsing with energy.

Fans raised their arms donned with LED wristbands that lit up in sync when the music pulsed. Booths hawked team merchandise, and fans snapped up caps, jerseys and scarves. Merchandise and ticket sales are expected to bring in $104 million in 2019, according to Newzoo.

Brian Perlstein, 33, a special-education teacher from Bloomfield, N.J., prowled the concourse in a tiger mask, representing the mascot of the league’s Seoul Dynasty. “It’s a traditional sport: Why not go full out and support your team?” he said.

The mash-up of styles drew Jeff Staple, a street wear designer from New York and a fan of the game, to scout trends. “I’m here to study,” he said. “I’m looking at all the things these fans are buying.”

By the end of the final match three hours later, the crowd was showered in confetti. The San Francisco Shock had swept the Vancouver Titans for the title and $1.1 million in prize money.

“I already have my tickets for next year,” said Mr. Morris, the Fusion fan.

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