The annals of sports are full of superhuman feats. Immortality depends on pushing through your personal limits, and then past the limits of others. Underdog tales abound, too, because who hasn’t felt like one? Another kind of sports narrative—that of the determined amateur—is quieter, though no less powerful: think of George Plimpton, who wrote about his attempt to join the NFL in his 1966 bestseller, Paper Lion, or Vince Papale, an amateur football player who famously made it to the Philadelphia Eagles via a short stint on a semi-pro team. As a 30-year-old rookie in 1976, he was the oldest person to ever join an NFL team without college-football experience.
And why should video games—sorry, e-sports—be any different when it comes to creating myth? On a recent cold, clear Saturday in Philadelphia, 96 competitors (mostly young, mostly white, almost all men) gathered in a large arena decorated with nerd kitsch and exposed brick to prove their worth to one another. N3rd Street Gamers (NSG)—an organization that bills itself as “America’s premier amateur e-sports pipeline”—was hosting a Hometown Heroes tournament in partnership with the Philadelphia Fusion professional e-sports team. The players and coaches were there to find their very own Vince Papale. NSG was there, according to Chris Patten, the organization’s operations manager, to “develop e-sport athletes to find a place in the world.”
The Fusion play the game Overwatch in the Overwatch League, a professional league founded by Blizzard Entertainment in 2017; its first season started this January, with 12 teams, and will run until June, after which playoffs will begin. The prize pool for the inaugural season of the Overwatch League is $3.5 million, which reflects Overwatch’s popularity: as of last October, the game had 35 million players around the world—300,000 in Philadelphia alone, according to one source. It takes the central conceit of Dungeons & Dragons–style role-playing games (a party of adventurers who all have defined classes and roles, such as healers and damage-dealers) and pairs that with the frenetic pace of first-person shooters. Two teams of six players each face off across intricately designed stages, each with its own game play; teams either capture designated points on a map, or escort a “payload” from one side of a stage to the other. The play itself is heavily stylized, with bright, popping colors and cartoonish violence.
Overwatch was created by Blizzard Entertainment, the company that, perhaps more than any other, has defined what we think of when we think of gamers—namely, the unwashed, Cheetos-speckled, Mountain Dew-drinker who spends hours in front of his rig, spending his time grinding out meaningless virtual rewards in World of Warcraft (another game the company developed). Blizzard also created the Diablo and StarCraft franchises—a hack-‘n’-slash dungeon-crawler and the most popular real-time strategy game in the world, respectively—which puts them in the rarified pantheon of video-game companies that taught the world a new way to play. StarCraft came to dominate the world soon after its release in 1998; its success sparked a global competitive scene that metastasized into what we today know as e-sports. Overwatch is Blizzard’s latest attempt to redefine the competition it created.
Tucker Roberts is the 27-year-old president of the Philadelphia Fusion. A former venture capitalist and the son of Comcast’s CEO, Roberts manages game operations, marketing, and partnerships; right now, he’s billing the team to advertisers as a way to connect with “these young fans that otherwise have adblockers on and are really tough to reach.” He put the whole tournament together.
Roberts is a Philly guy. “I always grew up wanting to be on the Sixers, or the Flyers, and when I played in my backyard or with my friends, I wanted to imagine I was those superstars,” he explained. “We wanted to give Philly kids, boys and girls, a chance to make the team. And to dream.” The city’s dedication to its other sports teams is also something that factored into his decision to hold the tournament. “I think that Philly sports fans are pretty notorious for being critical, but also very passionate,” he said. “I think, with the Fusion, we fit right into that. The e-sports fans are some of the most dedicated fans. They’ve always been underdogs, always been a maybe little bit kicked-around group of people. To see them come together and have a lot more power together in numbers is great.”
At the Localhost arena in Philly, it was just after noon, and the room was crackling with adolescent energy. The games were about to begin. There was Overwatch gear everywhere, along with the other requisite nerd signifiers: snacks and energy drinks and game tattoos. The scene skews young; Frankie Sisto, the day’s energetic, unflappable MC, graduated from college in 2012, which made him, at 28, one of the oldest people in the room. The stream commenters loved him. “My knowledge of the game is still relatively light,” he admitted; he’d only started playing recently. Sisto wore a black vest over a purple shirt with a wide collar, unbuttoned low enough to show his undershirt. He had been cramming for two weeks before the tournament and though he enjoyed playing it, Overwatch wasn’t his main game. He was part of Philadelphia’s fighting game community instead. “But I’m not very good,” he said. “I’m not good at any game I do.”
Localhost was split into two areas, which people referred to respectively as “the Pit,” where row after row of computers were set up, reminiscent of Korean PC bangs (gaming-focused internet cafés), and the “main stage,” where 12 machines were set up along the walls in a chevron formation. There were cameras pointed at the players, and a rudimentary host area where, later in the day, Sisto would conduct post-game interviews with players fresh off a victory or defeat. This was also where the nervous energy was concentrated; spectators (mostly eliminated players and their parents) sat in their own rows of chairs, waiting expectantly for matches to begin. NSG had the commentators behind a partition, away from the players’ yells and spectator cheers. The event’s main “caster,” James “Erebos8” Borland—a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology—was doing it for his second time ever; he was joined by a rotating cast of characters from Fusion’s minor-league team, Fusion University, though he was most often partnered with Elijah “Elk” Gallagher, 18, who plays support for the University team. “I’m not in it for the money—like, ‘Oh, so noble,’” Borland said. “But this is a great hobby for me. Even if I’m not playing, just being part of the community is a big thing.” The tournament, he continued, “just reflects what we do online: we made friends online, and it’s the same thing here.”
Ali “Aloebroccoli” Berkey, 22, who was working as a stream correspondent (and media intern) for NSG, went to her first Overwatch event at a bar, Wahoos, on the first night that the Fusion played a professional match this January. “It was like a dream, because I’ve always dreamed of being at a place and watching e-sports with my friends,” she said. “Seeing people cheer for Overwatch—it was like another world.” She quit playing in high school because she was bullied at school for it. But Berkey found her way back to games during her freshman year of college after being diagnosed with depression. Games, she says, keep her up.
The winner of the Hometown Heroes tournament would be offered a contract on the spot and a berth in Fusion University. “We have a lot of young talent, great players, but the one thing that we really felt like we were lacking—that we very much wanted to make sure we had—was additional connections to Philadelphia,” said Aaron “Aero” Atkins, the team coach. He’s goateed and portly, with a gaming laptop resting on his lap and blue Adidas on his feet; he gives the impression of a baseball manager (which he was, once), concerned as he is with efficiency. He’s only been with the team for a month.
The unstated goal of today’s tournament is to bring the Fusion to Philadelphia’s gaming scene—to do for e-sports fans what the Eagles do for the city’s football lovers. As it stands, all the teams in the Overwatch League are currently based in Los Angeles, although there are plans in the works to bring them back to their home cities. Roberts, the Fusion president, told me his latest challenge was to find a venue that could host his team, so he could bring them back to Philadelphia. Today’s tournament is the first of its kind for the League, and other teams will be watching closely to see if the model works.
Sisto hopes that the tournament is a sign of good things to come, though he maintains that he doesn’t know what the future holds. “Philadelphia is actually a very big spot for competitive gaming. A lot of people sleep on Philadelphia for a lot of things,” he said. “They shouldn’t.
“South Korea, Japan—they’re at the top,” he continued. “That just gives us Americans something to aspire to. We see the top of the mountain. We’re hungry. We want to get to the top of the mountain. And, as we saw at the Super Bowl, nobody is hungrier than Philadelphia.”
In Overwatch, there are 27 playable heroes with differing special abilities, divided into four specific roles that players must balance among a team of six in order to win. These are Offense (known in ludic terms as DPS, for “damage per second”), characters who deal major damage to the enemy squad; Defense, which includes those heroes who are uniquely suited to stopping the enemy advance; Tanks, who have the most health points and are expected to draw the majority of the other team’s fire; and Support, the characters who both heal and enhance their team’s players. In practice, the way these roles interact looks insane.
One match I saw between the Broad Street Bastions (named after a defensive robot hero whose main feature is turning into a mounted turret) and the Whoru Groupies (after Fusion University’s main damage guy) went something like this. The game started at Junkertown, a map that supports escort play and is stylized as a romp through a kind of Mad Max civilization, all exposed tin sheets and hastily constructed wooden buildings. The teams entered on opposite sides and met in the middle.
“The big thing is going to be what team can get set up first. If Broad Street can prevent Whoru Groupies from getting set up and getting rolling, they’ll be in a good spot,” said Gallagher, the caster and healer, as the match began. “But one of the things about Junkertown with these comps is that whoever gets set up is gonna be set until a big ult fight.”
Translation: the Bastions, who were playing defense, needed to stop the Groupies from getting their Bastion (turret guy) set up on the payload and rolling through Junkertown’s close quarters, because the composition of both teams would ensure that whoever could get their plan into action first would claim victory—at least until a “big ult fight.” Ult is short for “ultimate,” which is a special ability that’s exactly like it sounds. A well-placed ult can change the course of a match, transmuting a loss to a win. But the Bastions failed to stop Caitlin “Cait” Kolodi, 20, who was playing Bastion, from finding her way onto the payload and hitching a ride all the way into victory. It was over in about two minutes.
I caught up with Kolodi after the game. She’s short and white, with expertly winged eyeliner and a friendly, surprised demeanor; it seemed to me she still couldn’t quite believe she was there. Turns out this was her first tournament. She was one of only two women I saw competing. “Honestly, I saw it on Twitter, and was like, ‘Might as well,’ you know? Take any shot,” she said. “I didn’t expect anything out of it.” She also didn’t expect to see many other women, and certainly not any others who play DPS characters and not healers, like she does. “I believe that the only other girl here is the one on my team, actually,” Kolodi said. “I would love for more women to be able to come out someday.” For his part, Atkins, the coach, said he wanted to make sure everyone had a fair shot. “It’s tough to get into e-sports just because that’s how it’s been in the past,” he said. “It’s not easy for females to get into it.” He’s referring, of course, to competitive gaming’s notoriously misogynistic culture.
Everyone at the tournament was young except for the parents, and even they were barely into middle age. It felt like the average age of the crowd was 17. On the minor-league level, a lot of players are under 18, the minimum age you have to be to compete in professional play; those kids were there to sharpen their skills for a few years and be groomed into the next generation of pro players. “The University team is a bunch of young guys—guys who either didn’t have a chance to play in the Overwatch League because they were too young, or, for whatever reason, their team situation didn’t work out. They’re really good players,” Atkins said. “We took the guys we felt had the best attitude, the best teamwork, and were overall skilled, and put ‘em all on one team.”
As is the way of these things, electronic music played whenever the players weren’t. There was a lot of game media—Blizzard, NSG—and the odd mix of swagger and insecurity that is particular to amateur e-sports tournaments. Sisto, the MC, kept cracking Rick and Morty jokes—“Show me what you got,” he repeated, to cheers—over a megaphone. Philly sports jerseys (Eagles, Flyers) were in evidence, along with Fusion T-shirts.
It had been unclear how people were doing all day. The deciding rounds finally began after 7 p.m., far behind schedule. The event both confirmed and confounded nerd stereotypes: there were a lot of thin, white arms, patchy first beards, hoodies, braces, and beanies—the signifiers of young people in transition. Most people had brought their own keyboards and mice. But it was also palpably different from what I remembered from the old days (and, at 26, I was one of the oldest people there). People were friendlier, more professional, and more media-trained. Half of that was probably due to the influence of streaming sites such as Twitch and Discord, where even amateurs can stream their play to big audiences, but it was also due to just how quickly nerd culture had grown up and gone mainstream. Competitors knew how to mug for the camera and give interviews that were funny but not obviously incriminating (although they weren’t quite insightful, just like the pros). They could do boilerplate sports blather, and that’s not nothing.
By 8 p.m., the crowd was mostly made up of eliminated contestants and their parents. Everyone was tired. We had all moved to the main stage, and everyone understood we were about to find our Papale. At 8:32 p.m., after a full eight-and-a-half hours, the final round approached. The organizers had changed the format: instead of having the best amateurs play the Fusion University team, the pro players would be mixed in with the amateurs. Best of three. It was snowing heavily outside, which made the Localhost building feel more cozy than competitive. The energy died down after the organizers announced that they wouldn’t be picking the Hometown Hero that night after all; they would wait a few days to announce the winner. (They gave no reason as to why they had changed the rules, although it’s possible they realized the event could go all night if they had let it.)
Caitlin Kolodi had made the finals. The online commenters were furious, throwing incessant sexist invectiveness into the stream; these would live on in the YouTube comments under the video recap. “Did you watch the final? The trashcan switched off junkrat like once and was basically invisible the entire time, it's sad the only reason she was there was because of her gender,” Brad Hurst wrote. “Just say it, it is because she was female. Really helping to forward the cause that not all girls are one tricks aren't they? If they wanted a girl in the final they could of at least picked a flexible one.”
Kolodi didn’t seem to notice, though; she was only focused on playing well. “You just gotta zone into the screen and just kinda forget about everything else,” she’d told me earlier.
At the end of the night, Sisto talked to James “InSane” Robinson, 20, another finalist. “How do you feel?” Sisto asked.
“I’m pretty tired,” said Robinson.
“How would you feel if you made the Philadelphia Fusion University?”
“I would go insane,” Robinson said, unintentionally deadpan.
Vince Papale was actually the inspiration for the tournament—well, kind of. “To be fair, it was the movie Invincible,” Roberts said, referring to the 2006 Mark Wahlberg film. “But I think all good ideas should be copied.” The real Papale played for the Eagles on the special-teams squad from 1976 to 1978, before his career ended due to a shoulder injury. During his brief time there, Papale was voted special-teams captain and Man of the Year, for his charitable activities. At the Philadelphia Eagles’ 75th anniversary celebration in 2007, Papale was named “Most Outstanding Special Teams Player” by Philly fans. The lesson of his story isn’t that he was good enough to make the Eagles; it was that he was a consummate team player, a person like Kolodi, who put the team’s needs before their own.
Two days later, Fusion University announced that David “Rownplb” Long, 16, had taken the Hometown Hero spot. The commenters were placated, mostly, although they still couldn’t believe that Kolodi had made it as far as she did. What struck me was how these pseudonymous gamers had missed the point: Kolodi represented the best of both Philadelphia players and the future of the game (and the Overwatch League) itself. If Blizzard is to succeed in its mission of bringing e-sports truly into the mainstream, they’ll need more than just Cheetos-specked boys. “I gave my shot,” Kolodi said. “I didn’t miss the opportunity.”