Sports

Will Philly Ever Love Esports the Way We Love the Eagles and the Sixers?

Some local gamers — and the son of the city's most powerful business titan — are betting the answer is yes.


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Will the esports Philadelphia scene ever compete with the Eagles and Sixers? Players like Patrik Mike have reason to hope so. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

One Sunday afternoon in October, Patrik Mike, a 19-year-old semi-pro video gamer, sat hunched over the dining room table in his house — well, technically, his mom’s house — in Langhorne, moments before one of the most pivotal matches of his career. He was playing Overwatch, the first-person shooter video game enjoyed by roughly 40 million people worldwide. The team he was part of, Bye Week, had recently been ousted from the second-highest level of professional play, a league called Contenders, and was now competing in a tournament for the chance to regain its spot. Bye Week needed a victory today to stay alive.

But Mike, a senior at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, was feeling mopey. He’d spent months training and competing four hours a day with his teammates, five 20-somethings scattered in bedrooms across the country, connected only through the internet. They’d been learning each other’s quirks, positional preferences, weaknesses, all while developing among themselves a singular sort of hive mind — the most important attribute an Overwatch team can have. Then, earlier in October, two of the players had quit the game altogether. Their replacements had thrown off the team’s hard-earned equilibrium. Just before today’s match was set to begin, Mike said, “I don’t really find Overwatch that fun anymore.”

But Mike — who has shaggy brown hair and braces and was wearing gray sweatpants — is a professional, so he soldiered on. He stood up from the table and walked toward the battlefield that is his bedroom, a spartan space with nothing on the blue walls and an unplugged keyboard on the ground. It was midafternoon, but with the lights in the bedroom turned off and the blinds drawn, it felt like dusk. He sat down in a full-body padded video game chair, turned on his Asus monitor, and began to play.

Forty miles away, in Pottstown, in a different room in a different mother’s house, 21-year-old Jason Knittle sat down in his gaming chair. He, too, powered on his monitor, then donned headphones over his close-cropped brown hair. Knittle was competing in the same tournament — only he hoped it would be something closer to a coronation. In 2017, he made the decision to drop out of Montgomery County Community College so he could pursue a pro career in Overwatch. By the following summer, he’d cobbled together his own independent team, Phase 2, comprised of under-appreciated players he found floundering — not unlike himself — on the margins of the Overwatch world. They advanced all the way through the Open Division — the lowest level of competitive Overwatch — and emerged from more than 550 teams. Now, Phase 2 was on the cusp of promotion into Contenders.

Despite still living with their moms, Knittle and Mike are among the most skilled Overwatch players in the country: In the past year, each has been ranked one of the top 100 players in North America. They would seem to have exceptional timing, too, peaking at a moment when competitive esports — playing video games for prize money and with spectators watching on their own computers or TVs — is experiencing exponential growth. According to esports analytics firm Newzoo, the industry — a sprawling array of independent leagues focused on various games — is expected to crest $1 billion in revenue this year.

Among its biggest successes is the upstart Overwatch League, the game’s top professional level and the echelon that both Mike and Knittle aspire to reach. In just two years, OWL, as it’s known, has built a résumé fit for a Big Four sports league: a television deal with ESPN; a $90 million streaming deal with Amazon-owned Twitch; big-name sponsors like T-Mobile, Intel and Toyota; franchise owners including Patriots boss Robert Kraft as well as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, whose Comcast Spectacor owns the Fusion, Philadelphia’s local OWL team. All of that investment is why every single player in the OWL earns a minimum salary of $50,000 per year — and sometimes a good bit more.

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Patrik Mike, a Neshaminy High school senior, is an active member of the esports Philadelphia scene. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

Yet despite the boom in Overwatch, and despite their skill, Knittle and Mike have so far been ignored. Because their teams are unsponsored and unaffiliated with any professional OWL organization, they draw no salaries and only make income through tournament prize money. Their combined winnings over two years total no more than $5,000 apiece. (Neither particularly likes the idea of calculating what that equals as an hourly wage.) Both Knittle and Mike have had tryout opportunities with so-called Overwatch “academy teams” — the developmental squads attached to the main Overwatch franchises — that would provide them with steady paychecks and the resources of a full-blown professional organization. But neither made the cut.

“I feel like I’m getting overlooked,” Knittle told me. “I feel like some of these academy teams don’t even know I exist.”

After that Sunday-afternoon game — roughly speaking, the goal of Overwatch is to strategically shoot and kill your enemy; it’s a bit more complicated than that, but do you really want to know more? — Mike’s and Knittle’s paths soon diverged. Mike’s team, Bye Week, lost its match that day, as well as two more over the next week. That ended the team’s dream of regaining its place in the Contenders league. Faced with the prospect of starting over from ground zero, they would disband by the end of the year.

Knittle’s team, meanwhile, came away from the tournament victorious, and his scrappy gang of misfits was promoted to Contenders. At least at that moment, he seemed, like the sport he’s part of, to be on the verge of something big.

Philadelphia Fusion president Tucker Roberts (yes, that Roberts) is standing in the lobby of his dad’s sparkling new skyscraper, trying to get a visitor’s pass. He’s wearing jeans and a gray sweater; at 28, he’s boyishly handsome — which is to say, he looks as much like any kid reporting for the first day of a Comcast internship as he does the son of the big boss. He hands his photo I.D. — which reads “Brian Tucker Roberts” — to the guard at the security check-in counter, but she’s not finding him in the system. “Maybe it’s under ‘Tucker’?” he suggests.

Success! We’re in now, guest passes granted, riding a warp-speed elevator to the 27th floor and heading to a corner conference room with a panoramic view of the city.

If Jason Knittle and Patrik Mike have bet their futures on esports, so too, in a way, has Roberts, who took the helm of the Fusion last winter. He would seem to have the perfect résumé for the job: Wharton undergrad degree; internship at Activision Blizzard, the entertainment company that would eventually release Overwatch; assistant producer at video game giant Electronic Arts; then on to Comcast in 2015. As one of the more knowledgeable Comcast employees when it comes to video games, he sat in on the meeting of higher-ups at which Overwatch League commissioner Nate Nanzer tried to convince the company to buy a team slot. Tucker was there, he tells me, to “kind of fact-check what it is and what they’re selling. And it seemed like they were selling a good deal.” So Comcast Spectacor bought in — for a reported $20 million fee — and soon enough, Tucker was installed as president.

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Tucker Roberts is one of the big names to know in the Philadelphia esports scene. Photograph by Mackenzie Stroh

He and his father are hardly the only A-list Philadelphians to turn on their consoles and start playing the esports game. The 76ers’ Josh Harris and David Blitzer own Dignitas, an umbrella organization that fields teams in a host of different video games. And ex-Phillies slugger Ryan Howard has invested in N3rd Street Gamers, a local training ground that’s aiming to produce generations of top-level Philadelphia gamers. Esports has gone mainstream.

Consider: Nearly 11 million people tuned in — across channels ranging from online Twitch streams to a live broadcast on ESPN — to the Overwatch League’s inaugural season finals last year, which pitted the Fusion in a losing effort against London Spitfire. And it’s not just teens holed up in basement rooms and glued to their screens. Real people are showing up to esports events in person. The 2017 championship for League of Legends — arguably the world’s most popular esport — filled Beijing’s Olympic Stadium with 40,000-plus fans. And that first OWL championship sold out the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with 20,000 people in attendance. Maybe the best evidence of all: We’re now seeing the first generation of bona fide esports celebrities — people like “Ninja,” a 27-year-old (real name: Tyler Blevins) who’s turned up in the New York Times and on the cover of ESPN the Magazine and who reportedly earns half a million dollars per month through his streaming on Twitch and other ventures.

If esports continues its present trajectory, it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which a league could match or even supplant traditional powerhouses like the NBA and NFL. The basic infrastructure is gaining quickly: U.S. immigration officials, for instance, have already deemed League of Legends a professional sport, meaning foreign players can receive the same visas as someone like Joel Embiid. The International Olympic Committee, keeper of the world’s most hallowed sporting event, held a dedicated esports summit last year to consider the prospects of one day adding video games to the quadrennial competition. (The verdict, for the time being: not until the games become less violent.)

The biggest obstacle to the sustained growth of esports, though, is that there’s not simply one esport, but rather a theoretically infinite number, so long as new video games keep being created. It’s a problem for fans and investors alike. Although different genres of games tend to appeal to different people — a team-strategy game like League of Legends doesn’t usually cannibalize fans of a first-person shooter like Overwatch — the fact is, a new shooter could come along any minute and render your league (or the one in which you own a franchise) obsolete. Fortnite, for instance, was released a full year after Overwatch but has already reached 200 million users — reportedly five times the reach of Overwatch. In traditional sports, you purchase a baseball team knowing there’s only been one game of baseball since the 19th century. There’s no such guarantee in the feudal state that is esports.

The genius of the Overwatch League was to tie a virtual game to the most concrete entity possible: geography. “With traditional esports, when a player left the team, you would stop supporting that team and follow the player,” says Joe Marsh, the Philadelphia Fusion’s chief business officer. This was only logical, since teams were highly volatile — in effect, nothing more than loose confederations of players supported by a sponsor. (And sometimes the sponsor support would be brazen: One recent League of Legends world championship team was literally called the Samsung Galaxy.) “With this model,” Marsh says, “we’re hoping if a player leaves a team, you’re still supporting the Philadelphia Fusion.”

That tribalistic power of city affiliation, the ability to make people care more about the collective than the individual, is perhaps the most significant trait of conventional team sports. It’s why Comcast had no interest in mimicking Samsung and purchasing a team that was untethered to a city. “There’s no asset that is protectable and defensible,” Tucker Roberts says. “You may win and be a cool brand, and then you may lose it overnight.” But the OWL changed the calculus. “A franchise is something that you own,” Roberts continues. “You own a market; you’re able to monetize in that market.” And what the company paid $20 million for, the bedrock of the investment, was the right to use a single word: Philadelphia.

The Fusion can brandish their Philadelphia identity all they want, but whether they’ll actually be accepted by the city is another question. For the time being, the team is “Philadelphian” in name only: Along with the other 19 franchises, the Fusion are still based in Los Angeles, where every regular-season league match so far has been played. (Reportedly, the hope is for all OWL teams to move to their home cities, where they’ll be constructing dedicated esports arenas, by 2020. Current plans for the Fusion revolve around a stadium with a capacity of a few thousand people, to be built in the South Philly Sports Complex.) Still, Roberts — who lives in L.A. — is bullish on esports capturing Philly’s attention. Video games are cool now, he insists: “It’s not a stigma to be a gaming fan. Back in the day, when every pro basketball player wanted to be a rapper? Well, now you see all the pro athletes, they want to be gamers.”

There is a stigma attached to gaming, however, and it’s one the Overwatch community is still working to overcome: Sexism permeates the culture at all levels, and women who compete face a constant barrage of misogynistic comments. In February of last year, for example, the Fusion hosted an open tryout in Philadelphia for a spot on their academy team that was live-streamed on Twitch. Users saw that one of the six finalists — a local gamer named Cait — was a woman and attacked her in the chat room, saying she was “built like a school bus,” along with a host of other schoolyard-bully insults.

Cait’s experience is hardly unique. Ali Berkey, who works at the Philly-based talent pipeline N3rd Street Gamers and also streams on Twitch, says she’s been told by male gamers so many times to “make me a sandwich” or “get in the kitchen” that it hardly registers anymore. Once, she was playing Overwatch online when one of her teammates, who thought she wasn’t playing well, told her, “Fuck you. Kill yourself. I’m gonna come rape you before you kill yourself.” Berkey tells that story, then adds: “It’s worse in other communities. Overwatch is not that bad towards women in comparison to other games.”

“We’re seeing a pattern of despicable behavior across the industry,” N3rd Street CEO John Fazio says. “I’ve said for years that our industry needs a reckoning, an awakening.” An avid gamer himself, he witnesses the rogue chat-room culture when he plays online: “Every single night, I’m defending somebody.”

Tucker Roberts chalks the bad behavior up to “a very small subset of the community that is hyper-vocal” and still has faith in the health of the ecosystem. But the conduct appears to be endemic to the soil. Only one of the OWL’s roughly 185 players is a woman. And if the soil’s poisoned, what grows from it will be, too.

Fusion officials hope the benefits of the community outweigh the invective. Fusion fans communicate constantly in online chat rooms, and Roberts says they attend matches as much for the social interaction as the sporting element. Video games, Roberts says, “were, in my mind, the first social networks.” Esports is just the next gradation of that.

Could a video game like Overwatch ever galvanize the entire city the way the Eagles have, or the way the Phillies did before them? The usual knock on gaming is that it’s removed from reality. But all fandom, at its core, is about escapism. And then, somewhere along the way, a city falls in love with a team, and that collective escapism morphs into something quite the opposite: camaraderie. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen with the Fusion? A city’s embrace of a sports team is a strange and mysterious alchemy.

In their quest to become esports versions of, say, Nick Foles or Joel Embiid — or at least escape their moms’ houses — Jason Knittle and Patrik Mike have made plenty of sacrifices. After dropping out of MCCC to pursue his esports dream, for instance, Knittle took a job at the deli counter of a Redner’s grocery store in Pottstown. When I met him in the fall, he was working 20 hours a week, making $9.50 an hour, living at home and playing competitively between his shifts. Most days, he’d work at least five hours, then come home to scrimmage for six more, playing in his parents’ home office because his bedroom was too small.

If that schedule sounds not so different from that of a professional athlete, that’s the point. “You’re putting in, ideally, with proper backing, as many hours as a football player, a hockey player, a baseball player,” Knittle says. He and Mike face the extra disadvantage of having to train in between slicing up pastrami or finishing math homework. Many of their opponents on Contenders teams, on the other hand, live together in team-provided housing and earn monthly paychecks.

For Knittle and Mike, the saving grace is that they’re doing something they love — something they’ve been immersed in their entire lives. Mike’s mother, Bianca Toth, remembers that even at age two, her son was drawn to the computer. Together, with mom mostly playing and son mostly observing, they’d play a primitive PC game called Disney’s Hercules. Mike was usually a quiet baby, but “it was completely the opposite when it came to video games,” Toth says. Those were some of the few times when he’d vocalize anything — sitting on her lap, naming the Greek-god characters in the game.

As Mike grew up, he and his mom continued to play together — Super Mario, Zelda — until eventually he broke off and began to game on his own. When Overwatch was released in 2016, Mike gave it a try. “I grinded it hard,” he says. “I got a really high rank. So I just started to try to get better. And yeah, that’s kind of it.” Simple, right?

That grinding would often mean playing for hours on end and into the night, shouting and making a racket in his bedroom. His mother didn’t mind. “I used to worry about him socially,” she says. In real life, Mike’s still so quiet that you have to pry words out of him. But when he was interacting digitally with his gaming friends, Toth saw a different son, one who was more assertive, more affable. “He’s very confident and comfortable in this gaming life,” she says.

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Jason Knittle is a player on the esports Philadelphia scene. Photograph by Christopher Leaman.

Jason Knittle, like Mike, was big into gaming growing up, especially World of Warcraft in high school. “I probably played too much,” he says. “The moment I got home from school until I went to bed, I’d play.” He had hardly any experience with shooter games, but when a friend turned him on to Overwatch, he was a natural. Like every other game he’d played, it started as a hobby: “At first I had no interest or any knowledge of the possibility of even going pro whatsoever.” But he kept playing, and then he was better than all of his friends who’d introduced him, so he found new playing partners online, and then he was better than them, too, and suddenly he was getting calls about tryouts for competitive teams. Turning pro — and dropping out of college — felt like the next logical step.

Beneath Knittle’s and Mike’s odysseys, and all of esports, really, lies a pretty fundamental question: Is this really a sport?

Anthony Pizzo, a PhD candidate at Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism & Hospitality Management, who’s writing a dissertation on the commingling of esports and conventional sports, says yes. Pizzo co-authored a paper in 2017 that cited a definition of sports from the gaming philosopher Bernard Suits. According to Suits, all sports must share some fundamental components: They require physical skill, as opposed to random chance; they’re widely popular; and they produce attendant institutions, like agents and coaches.

The latter two are unquestionably true of esports. “The big question is physicality,” Pizzo says. “You’re just not going to convince everybody.”

Maybe not, but watching esports is instructive. On the day in October when I observed Mike playing in his bedroom, for instance, he didn’t break a sweat. (Score one for the not-a-sport crowd.) He sat in his chair, legs perched on a red shoebox, hardly moving. But peer a little closer: His right hand, gripping a wireless mouse, whisked left and right and up and down and left again in a series of spasmodic twitches as he trained his gun on the enemy. With each motion, his character, Widowmaker, a scantily clad purple-skinned cyborg with a sniper rifle, shifted her field of vision. The effect was like a series of rapid-fire jump-cuts — utter confusion that, to the uninitiated, can be nauseating.

Meanwhile, Mike’s left hand was equally active, his fingers scrambling across the keyboard while he controlled Widow’s movements. As he played, he was coordinating strategy with his teammates, trying to find where enemy players were located on the “map” (the playing field) and identifying targets to attack. He shouted the names of enemy characters at his computer screen: “D. Va D. Va D. Va!” (That would be another scantily clad cyborg-type.) “I’m on Monkey!!” (a massive simian).

The twitch motion, or “flicking,” as it’s called in Overwatch-speak, lets you lock on a moving target in a fraction of a second. The way gamers see it, it’s as much a learned skill as swinging a bat. And just as baseball players have their equipment quirks — Phillies great Dick Allen used to swing one of the heaviest bats in the league — Mike has his gaming setup tuned like a Swiss watch: keyboard providing the perfect amount of resistance, mouse pad offering maximum glide, mouse optimized to the proper responsiveness.

You can turn into an ouroboros arguing with yourself about whether this constitutes actual sport or simply extreme skill. As Pizzo says, “Ultimately, it’s subjective, the definition of sport.” But spend three seconds watching these people play, and it’s undeniable that whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it exceptionally well. And it’s all happening so quickly, amidst a frenetic fireworks display of colors and explosions on-screen, that the action is impossible for a casual bystander to follow.

That, if anything, may prove the most salient barrier to Overwatch’s sporting dominance: The players are so talented that they’ve made the game indigestible for the average fan. “I love the idea of esports,” Pizzo says. “But I study them for a living, and I can’t make sense of Overwatch. I need someone to explain it to me.”

Overwatch players, like many athletes, talk frequently of the “grind” that Mike mentions — the idea of perseverance and self-growth through practice, embracing the monotony of success. You grind yourself down in the hope that the sum of the new parts is greater than what was there before. But how much can you grind yourself before there’s nothing left? Life as an aspiring Overwatch pro can be fickle.

In January, after Mike’s team, Bye Week, disbanded, he started over with a blank slate, on a new team, back at the lowest rung of the pro Overwatch ladder. A few months earlier, he’d been competing near the top and trying out for academy teams, which would have meant a real transition into full-time gaming. Now, after he graduates from high school in early June, he’s planning to enroll at Bucks County Community College. Mike says his main focus will remain on the game — to get back to Contenders again, and maybe this time make a name for himself.

For Knittle, shepherding his team into Contenders was supposed to be the culmination of his grind. But by January, he, too, faced an uncertain road forward. His squad struggled against the higher level of competition in Contenders, finishing the season 11th out of 12 teams. It didn’t help that just before the competition started, one of Knittle’s best players, “Hawk” — a player he’d scouted, a player he’d brought with him onto his team — got signed by an academy. It was the path Knittle had envisioned, only someone else was walking it. Knittle wasn’t sure how much further he could go. “If I don’t get signed soon-ish,” he said one day this winter, “I’m definitely going to cut my losses and potentially look into one of those collegiate things.”

By “collegiate things,” Knittle meant a scholarship to play Overwatch, currently offered by more than 100 schools across the country. It’s yet another example of esports assimilating into traditional sporting institutions. And it doesn’t stop there. Major sports leagues are also racing to capture the attention of this new generation of fans with their own stand-alone esports leagues. Last year, the NBA consecrated a league attached to the basketball video game NBA 2K; Major League Soccer has its own eMLS league. The longer esports rubs up against the mainstream, the more the novelty wears off. College recruiting trips for players, professional franchises paying big money to stars, ESPN televising Philadelphia Fusion games — doesn’t it all sound like a description of … sports?

As it became clear to Knittle that his Contenders team was failing, he made a career pivot, reaching out to the varsity Overwatch team at Harrisburg University, one of four in the state, about a tryout. “Physical labor and working a dead-end job was breaking me mentally and physically,” he said. Knittle made the team, full scholarship included. He took the offer.

It doesn’t feel like a concession or capitulation. Knittle is quick to note that one college player has ascended to the Overwatch League. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll earn a degree. But this isn’t an end to the grind. “I’m definitely not giving up on esports,” he told me the last time we talked. “At the very least, for the next three and a half years, I’m going to be living it.”

Published as “Game Boys” in the March 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.