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‘This Game Is My Life’

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PHILADELPHIA — Jenna Papagni stood amid a crowd of a whole bunch outdoors the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday. She was on the Philadelphia area for the Overwatch League Grand Finals, an annual e-sports match, and he or she got here dressed for battle.

“This game is my life,” mentioned 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 conventional sports activities, with groups in 20 cities on three continents competing in a seven-month season that was drawing to its conclusion.

Like many of the 12,000 followers who converged on the sold-out match to see the San Francisco Shock tackle the Vancouver Titans, Ms. Papagni was drawn to the sport due to its inclusionary nature and ease of entry.

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

That was the aim of Blizzard Entertainment, which launched Overwatch in 2016 with a method to make the sport as interesting as doable to all gamers, no matter intercourse, orientation or race.

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

When Blizzard began knowledgeable league for the sport in 2018, it utilized a franchise mannequin, much like that of conventional sports activities groups. In the league’s inaugural season, each match was performed at Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif. But this 12 months, the corporate examined what it referred to as homestand weekends, when some groups performed of their dwelling cities, like Atlanta and Dallas.

The technique has paid off. The league completed the 2019 season with a median international viewers of 313,000 viewers, up 18 p.c from the 12 months earlier than, in line with Blizzard. The firm mentioned it deliberate to develop the hometown mannequin to extra cities subsequent 12 months.

As extra followers flock to skilled e-sports leagues — together with ones for blockbuster video games like Call of Duty and League of Legends — international income for the e-sports trade is expected to surpass $1 billion this 12 months, up 27 p.c from final 12 months, in line with a report from Newzoo, a market intelligence agency.

To maintain that development, mentioned Jurre Pannekeet, a senior market analyst at Newzoo, sport publishers should maintain their followers engaged.

For Overwatch followers, the devotion runs deep.

Many got here to the finals in Philadelphia dressed as their favourite characters, and the temper felt as if the N.F.L. and Comic Con had gotten collectively to throw a rave.

Zedd, the D.J., kicked off the occasion with a efficiency and was joined onstage by the singer Kehlani. Questlove, the drummer for the Roots and a local Philadelphian, performed throughout sport breaks.

Veronica Kot, 24, of Jefferson, N.J., performs Overwatch about 15 hours every week, and streams Overwatch League matches on-line when she’s not enjoying. “Anyone can play it,” she mentioned. “You are not defined by your physique, gender or orientation.”

Tom Morris dressed as Zarya, a tank character who focuses on defending her allies. “It was good to see a strong female character in the game,” he mentioned.

He added that he was on the match to assist the Philadelphia Fusion, which didn’t make the finals: “I’m a big Fusion fan. It’s my hometown team.”

The Fusion will quickly have a everlasting dwelling subsequent to the Wells Fargo Center, which is dwelling to the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers, when the 3,500-seat Fusion Arena opens in 2021. It would be the first venue within the United States constructed particularly for e-sports.

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

Inside the world, the ambiance was pulsing with vitality.

Fans raised their arms donned with LED wristbands that lit up in sync when the music pulsed. Booths hawked group merchandise, and followers snapped up caps, jerseys and scarves. Merchandise and ticket gross sales are anticipated to herald $104 million in 2019, in line with Newzoo.

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

The mash-up of types drew Jeff Staple, a avenue put on designer from New York and a fan of the sport, to scout traits. “I’m here to study,” he mentioned. “I’m looking at all the things these fans are buying.”

By the tip of the ultimate match three hours later, the group was showered in confetti. The San Francisco Shock had swept the Vancouver Titans for the title and $1.1 million in prize cash.

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


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