Walking into N3rd Street Gamers in Philadelphia had a sort of electricity in the air, one that’s common in the many sports bars around the area. However, instead of rooting for the Eagles or the Flyers, these Philly natives were not only cheering on their fellow players but also competing themselves.
The Fusion recognized that due to the Overwatch League’s first season happening in LA, many fans felt a bit disconnected from their so-called hometown teams. To help with that, the Fusion set up the Hometown Hero Showcase: a celebration of Philly’s local talent. Those who were chosen were invited to come to the event to play against other Philadelphia players to decide who amongst them would represent the city on Fusion’s academy team. The victor would get what many only dream of: a contract with Fusion University and a spot on the roster.
While waiting for the games to start, players talked amongst themselves, going into detail about anything from Stage 1 overall to the Mercy Meta to the intricacies of the Stage 1 grand final. For many, it was the first time that they could go in-depth with OWL games with another person face-to-face, instead of discussing it behind a keyboard.
“Normally, when I play Overwatch, I play with a really small group of friends,” said Ray Marke, aka “Memeballs,” a fan favorite at the event. “But when you’ve got this great group of guys and girls [etc] who know a lot about the game… every additional person is a different perspective that’s going to open your eyes to something new that you wouldn’t have thought about before.”
Another player, Brad Blancher, was just hyped to be around others who were dedicated fans of the game.
“I’m excited to play with some people who enjoy the same thing I do,” he said. Blancher also mentioned his dedication to the game, something that he and the rest of the potential University players had in common: “If you put in the time, you’ll get here.”
As players crowded the venue, a man walked through the crowd, camera-ready and megaphone-equipped. Within moments, he was yelling into the megaphone, directing the players to look at the Discord group to find their group as well as instructing the crowd to form an open lane for people to move around in.
His name was Franke Sisto, the host of the evening. With his trusty microphone, though, he also took up the mantle of “crowd wrangler.” For him, the event was all about Fusion connecting with the local crowd.
“If you’re representing the city, you gotta be involved with the city,” said Sisto. “The city has to be invested. They have to know that this is our city and these are our boys. Having something like this – and having a local player on the team – is more important than what I can put into words.”
The players were randomly assigned to their teams and squared off against each other in multiple matches – all while Fusion staff watched via the observing feature and the University team walked around, listening to comms and getting up close to the action. One was streamed while two others were simultaneously played in the next room.
A local feel to a major event
While that was happening, fans and players alike were hanging out in the venue, sitting in the crowd section to watch the stream and be part of the audience. There was certainly an FGC feel to the event – though there was a lot at stake, the feeling was casual but exciting, with players ready to go at a moment’s notice. The crowd was rowdy and hyped for every play, with no negativity to speak of as far as was heard while wandering around the floor. Pizza was provided by the Fusion, while various snacks, sodas, and energy drinks were available for purchase.
Fans included not only players but friends and family, including parents. Though some parents didn’t understand a thing about what was happening, they were extremely excited for their players.
“It was very exciting,” said Barbara Speelhoffer, the mother of Blancher. “We were going to come down just to spectate – he didn’t think he’d get chosen, but when he was chosen to play, I cleared my schedule, canceled work and we were coming down here.”
An outsider would have thought it was just a local event – a feel that’s sorely missed in much of OWL’s official programming. Though many teams have organized watch parties and the like, none had actually given players from their cities a chance to be on the roster.
Hung Tran, the Director of Marketing and Content for the Fusion, said the team saw that as a chance to take fan interaction a step further and give Fusion a personal touch.
“For us, building the relationship with Philadelphia, having someone from the city on the team meant a lot to us”, Tran said. “It’s tough being in the first season in LA, we know that; growing the fanbase from the other side of the country is not easy. We want to make sure that the fans are connected to the team. Our objective… is for the fans to know the players as much as possible.”
As soon as that game ended and the stream finished, the University players gathered around and immediately talked strategy with Beezy. Discussion was already intense – the team weighed first impressions, pros and cons of each player, how they would fit into the lineup, etc. The new player wouldn’t be picked until Thursday, but the team wasting any time. For them, the addition wasn’t just about the most headshots, but rather the player’s personality and general attitude towards the game.
“We have big ambitions with Fusion and Fusion University,” Aaron “Aero” Atkins, the coach for Fusion University, said. “We’re looking for players with a positive attitude, a want to do well and a want to do good… that was the initial building blocks for our University team: people that have great attitudes, great teamwork, work well together, and it’ll be easy to slot them in to grow them.”
Eventually, they’d find that in RownPLB, a tank player, but many on Fusion’s staff commended the high-quality talent that Philadelphia brought to the Showcase.
“There’s 300,000 [Overwatch] players in Philly,” said Ethan “Beezy” Spector, the Data Analytics and Game Strategist for Fusion. “There’s a lot of GM’s, a lot of big talent here.”
A step forward in fan engagement
Despite some team’s struggle to truly connect with their hometown cities, some OWL teams have been able to do so with spectacular results: Fuel, Outlaws, NYXL and others have hosted watch parties while those closer to the Burbank homebase have even gotten their teams out and about to meet the fans.
The Fusion, however, seems to have taken the idea of fan engagement a step further than their OWL counterparts, and the Hometown Heroes Showcase was the pinnacle of that. Though it’s unknown if other teams will take similar steps, the Fusion has certainly found a unique synergy with their home base.