Valorant is the hottest game out there right now.
Thing is, not everybody can play it yet, since it remains in closed beta testing, but Thursday, the Comcast co-owned T1 Entertainment and Sports hosted a Valorant invitational tournament featuring professional players they’ve already signed to their team, a couple of old school Counter-Strike veterans in Braxton “Brax” Pierce and Keven “AZK” Larivière.
It’s a weird time for sports not only in this country, but globally, since everything is pretty much shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the world of eSports is uniquely positioned to soldier along, and that’s why nobody should be surprised that Thursday’s stream topped out at 53,000 concurrent viewers, which is enough people to fill Yankee Stadium.
“I love Valorant, very fun game,” AZK told Crossing Broad after the tournament. “Before this I played Counter-Strike for a very long time. Valorant is extremely similar to Counter-Strike but it actually takes some new twists, adds a few things, but it also the retains the best parts of Counter-Strike, I would say. So it’s a really nice blend of games that we have right now. It’s a fun game.”
Larivière admits that the global pandemic hasn’t changed his routine too much, joking that he and other gamers were “already living in isolation” prior to the spread of COVID-19. But in a world where traditional sports are on hold, eSports is uniquely positioned to pick up some eyeballs in April, and you’ve seen the “four for four” leagues turning to games like NBA 2K and MLB The Show to provide fans with something to watch.
“You kind of saw it already with the F1 drivers doing a lot of these tournaments online,” Lariviere said. “They’re going from F1 to the video game itself, and streaming that on Twitch, and I thought that was pretty cool. I think this would definitely bring some of that to the mainstream. It definitely feels like there are a lot of people tuning in right now, a lot more than usual I would say. (The pandemic) is definitely one of the reasons for it.”
Wednesday night, if you were flipping through TV channels looking for something to watch, you might have settled on one of the replays being shown on NBC Sports, NBA TV, or any number of channels broadcasting old games during a time when we should be watching the hockey and basketball playoffs, plus regular season Phillies games. But on ESPN 2, there was a League of Legends broadcast taking place, which, to me, was a perfect example of eSports getting a huge American TV slot that would normally go to a traditional sport.
“It’s an opportunity to get a new audience to see the product, said Joe Marsh, T1’s CEO and the former Chief Business Officer of Comcast Specator’s Gaming division. “The traditional linear TV consumer might not be as well-versed in Twitch or watching things on Youtube. (League of Legends) is one of those games where it’s easier to follow along and it’s a bit slower-paced. It never hurts to introduce games to a new set of viewers. The older generation had told their kids for 40 years to get outside and go play sports, and now you have multi-millionaires playing video games. I guess it’s a cool opportunity, and we always welcome the ability to be on TV and hopefully you start seeing more of that. The viewership has been great. Even the eNASCAR races have drawn higher viewership than the actual races.”
No joke, last month’s NASCAR iRacing competition, won by Denny Hamlin, had 903,000 viewers on FS1, via Richmond.com:
According to @TNLMedia, the 903,000 viewers are the most for any esports competition on U.S. broadcast television, topping the 770,000 who watched a Mortal Kombat tournament on the CW in 2016. It also outdrew 11 of the 17 IndyCar races last season.
eSports… are the future? Maybe that guy in the comments section was right.
— Nerd Street Gamers (@nerdstgamers) April 16, 2020
The Philadelphia Fusion are rolling
What’s up with the Fusion right now?
The Comcast-owned franchise continues to kick ass in the Overwatch League, they just can’t do any live events right now.
“The Overwatch League moved online,” Marsh said. “We actually got one weekend in, back in February, one in-person home stand. Then obviously with the pandemic going on, all games are moved online. But the Fusion are humming along. They’re 8-1, they have the best record in the league, and yeah, everything is online right now. We’re doing really well and gearing up towards finishing strong to hopefully make a run at the grand finals like we did in season one.”
When Crossing Broad spoke with Marsh last year, the Fusion were in the process of packing more than a thousand fans into Xfinity Live for a watch party. This was one year after their first gathering, which featured just 300 people at a fish taco place in University City called Wahoo’s.
Fast forward to February of this year, when fans sold out The Met theater on North Broad Street on a Saturday and Sunday in the middle of winter.
“In our configuration it was 2,000 people per day,” Marsh explained. “They were lively from the jump. They were booing the visiting team and they knew how to be Philly fans, even if they weren’t traditional sports fans. They just knew, in their blood, how to do it. We had a pretty good home field advantage there, and it keeps growing and growing. Right now, because we can’t do live events, we’ve been doing Zoom happy hours with Fusion fans, and we get players to pop in and say hello. We’ve had staff hop in as well. We’re just trying to stay connected with them even though we can’t have live events or see them in person. You’re just trying to get creative and stay engaged with them all.”
Fusion Arena hits COVID-19 construction snag
If you’d been down to the sports complex to see the Sixers or Flyers play in February or March, you probably noticed the fence blocking off parts of Xfinity Live from the rest of the Wells Fargo Center parking lot.
That’s the site of the Fusion Arena, a 3,500 capacity stadium that will host Overwatch League games and other eSports competitions. Comcast broke ground on the $50 million dollar building in September and planned to begin construction last month, but Marsh says a mandate from Governor Tom Wolf put a halt to construction projects in Pennsylvania.
“In March, we were going to start doing the digging, some of the moving over of the things on Xfinity Live property, like the retention basin, where the (miniature) football field is,” he revealed. “We were just going to move that over to the left side of the bar area. We got the fence up, and by the time we put the fence up, we couldn’t get going. The original plan was to have steel coming out of the ground in July, which is the heart of baseball season. You would have been able to see some of the building in July, but now we’re a little bit delayed on that. We keep having weekly calls with our architects and our construction team and we’re just figuring out when we’re gonna be able to get going again. It just depends on how long the work-from-home and no construction is allowed to go on. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern based on the Governor’s guideline.”
Here are some photos from the groundbreaking and renderings of the arena: