Comcast CEO’s Son Wants to Turn Philly Into an E-Sports TownJune 11th, 2019
When the Philadelphia Fusion plays, the team president, Tucker Roberts, likes to stay in the dugout, alongside the coaches and bench players. He hangs out there as long as the team is winning. But if things start to go poorly, he heads onto the arena floor to pace among the fans banging on inflatable thunder sticks. If that doesn’t help, and a loss feels imminent, Roberts parks himself in a backroom, next to the Fusion’s social media editors, who are crafting online videos for supporters at home.
“It’s basic feng shui,” Roberts says. “If your environment isn’t working for you, you have to change it.”
The mix of restlessness, bile, and foreboding he feels would be familiar to the owners of pro football and basketball teams. But despite his family’s great wealth—Roberts’s father is chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., the cable giant that owns NBCUniversal and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, among other businesses—his angst isn’t tied up with the fortunes of a major sports team. Fusion players compete in Overwatch, a frenetic video game, an e-sport, in which squads of professionals (six per side) launch grenades and blast cannons at one another, counting kills and respawning as needed. During games, players wear short-sleeve jerseys—orange-on-black for home games, orange-on-white for away—with their nicknames on the back. If bowling shirts still exist in the 22nd century, they will look like these.
The Fusion’s roster is stacked with talent from Europe and e-sports powerhouse South Korea. Despite missing the preseason last year because several players had visa problems, the team almost won the championship, losing in the finals to the London Spitfire. “We came in with expectations that were, like, Let’s just get some wins, let’s not try to make the playoffs,” Roberts says. “And then once we got there, it was like we were playing with house money.” During the offseason, he beefed up the team’s coaching staff, in the hopes of making another playoff run.
Comcast’s decision, two years ago, to pay a $20 million franchise fee through its Comcast Spectacor division to start the Fusion was the first of several big e-sports bets in which Roberts played a role. In February he and Park Jung-Ho, CEO of South Korean mobile phone giant SK Telecom Co., announced they were forming a venture to field teams that will play Fortnite, an Overwatch competitor, among other titles. Then in March, Comcast revealed plans to build a $50 million arena for the Fusion in South Philadelphia. With a planned capacity of 3,500 fans, it will serve as a sort of sister arena to the 20,000-seat Wells Fargo Center that Comcast already owns, which will host this year’s Overwatch championship. Architectural renderings suggest the interior will feature many screens.
Roberts, who’s tall, thin, and athletic, also recently began dating Olivia Munn, an actress who has a cult following among gamers from her days as a host on the now-defunct video game TV network G4. Roberts won’t talk about the relationship except to say that he admires Munn’s business acumen. “She invested early in Uber and Wag,” a dog-walking app, he says.
The idea of building a long-term enterprise around people watching other people play video games is no sure thing, but Comcast isn’t alone in its enthusiasm. The prize money in e-sports can reach into the millions of dollars, and researcher Newzoo BV expects overall revenue to climb 27% this year, to $1.1 billion, thanks to increased ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and media rights deals. (Comcast is currently considering offers for naming rights for Fusion Arena.) Among the new owners of video game teams: basketball great Michael Jordan, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and Atlanta’s Cox Communications.
Roberts, who’s 29, sees the Fusion as part of a larger strategy to win over young people. E-sports could be to Generation Z what music videos were to Generation X, and Comcast, if all goes well, will be the MTV of this era.
When Roberts was growing up in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood, his dad’s company, then a regional cable carrier, was almost universally recognized, if not exactly beloved. “Having a nightmare Comcast story is practically a residency requirement in this town,” Philadelphia magazine once wrote. Neighborhood service centers were seen as crucibles of human frustration where impassive representatives faced customer meltdowns from behind barriers of bulletproof glass.
It may not be surprising then that Tucker—whose full name is Brian Leon Tucker Roberts Jr.—immersed himself in galaxies far, far away. He read Harry Potter novels and played games. Brian Sr. took the 8-year-old Tucker to the King of Prussia mall for a Pokémon tournament, where he advanced five rounds before coming up against a 28-year-old rival who, as Tucker remembers it, was then getting a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Tucker cried when he lost.
In middle school, Roberts became obsessed with an online game called Star Wars Galaxies. He played as Kiey Ekips, a Zabrak bounty hunter, on the Scylla server and eventually joined a guild. Over time he helped build cities on Tatooine and Naboo, a planet in the Chommell sector. Along the way, he made some friends. “I’m hanging out with a bunch of 30-year-olds who are some German dudes, and they don’t know I’m 13, and they’re just treating me like another person,” Roberts says. On the internet, nobody knows if you’re the heir to an omnivorous cable empire.
Escaping the family shadow was a little harder in college. Like his father and grandfather, Roberts attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied business. On campus at the time, school officials were just completing construction of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, a 75,000-square-foot cancer-treatment facility, supported by his family’s philanthropy.
Roberts got an early peek at the future of e-sports during an internship at Activision Blizzard Inc. After college, in 2013, he took a job at game maker Electronic Arts Inc., where he helped put The Sims game on the Apple Watch. His corporate Rumspringa complete, Roberts joined his dad in 2016, taking a job at Comcast’s venture capital arm in San Francisco. E-sports teams had recently become a hot investment, and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick decided to create a professional league built around Overwatch, the company’s 2016 shooting game, in which a well-armed cast of gifted and talented bioluminescent characters (a freedom-fighting DJ, a transcendentally empowered monk) duel for pyrotechnic dominance over a future version of Earth that’s been ravaged by insubordinate robots.
The league struck a TV deal with Walt Disney Co. to air games on ABC and ESPN, and it arranged for the new owners, Comcast among them, to share revenue. Players would be guaranteed health care and a $50,000 minimum salary. (Most players earn a lot more; six-figure salaries are common.) Like the other 19 teams now in the league, including squads representing Shanghai and Paris, the Fusion would be based in Los Angeles for the first two seasons, playing all their games at the Blizzard Arena, a retrofitted studio in Burbank where The Tonight Show once taped. In 2020 the teams will relocate to their respective home cities.
To prepare for the move, Roberts has been trying to endear the Fusion to Philly sports fans, or at the very least let fans know the team exists. Last season, Comcast produced a promotional video in which players wore dog masks, in the disquieting tradition of Philadelphia Eagles fans, and spray-painted the word “Fusion” on a wall. The nod to vandalism aside, Fusion supporters are abnormally well-behaved, at least by the standards of their hometown. Nobody has thrown batteries at opponents, or intentionally vomited on any off-duty police officers, or assaulted a mascot—exploits that have been credited to Eagles and Phillies fans. Unlike the old Veterans Stadium, Fusion Arena will not come equipped with an in-house jail.
What it will have, it seems, is Gritty—the orange-fuzzed, googly-eyed, and exhaustively memed mascot of the Comcast-owned Flyers. At the Overwatch season opener on Valentine’s Day, fans went wild when Gritty showed up to lead a conga line of Fusion video game athletes into the arena. Gabrielle Egan, a 20-year-old student from Philadelphia, who’d flown to Los Angeles with a friend to attend the event, was in the spirit. “It’s the come-from-behind Philly toughness,” she said. For those fans unable to make cross-country trips, Comcast has organized meetups at local bars and restaurants that televise the contests.
Comcast has also invested in N3rd Street Gamers LLC, which runs amateur tournaments in cities across the U.S. It’s part of a strategy to educate parents about the sport, according to Roberts. “I think a lot of parents never played games, never were a gamer,” he says. “So there’s been a shift of, like, ‘Oh my God, Grand Theft Auto is the devil. Video games are rotting your brain,’ right? And now the conversation has gone, ‘I don’t understand Minecraft, but I’m curious.’?”
The Fusion’s current front office is located 25 miles from Blizzard Arena, in a beachside bungalow in Venice, Calif., whose previous tenant was Snapchat. It’s a cozy place with a well-cultivated sense of geek-chic whimsy. Roberts encourages the staff to wear slippers at work, a tradition he borrowed from South Korea, where e-sports are huge. He’s partial to a furry, Wookiee-like pair.
In the living room, Roberts shows a visitor a 3D-printed statue of himself shaking hands with Faker—the nom de game of Lee Sang-hyeok, a 23-year-old South Korean considered among the best League of Legends players in the world. The statue was a present from SK Telecom’s Park, after his company formed the partnership with Comcast. In exchange, Roberts gave Park a varsity jacket with the logo of T1 Entertainment and Sports, their new venture. “He outgifted me,” Roberts says with a smile.
Fusion athletes live across town in an Ikea-furnished eight-bedroom Tudor with a pool, a hot tub, and a treehouse. On a Monday evening in March, Roberts plops down on a sofa and joins a group of players watching Fusion University, the franchise’s minor league team, play on a widescreen TV. “Dude, we’re stomping it,” he says.
Roberts’s dudely demeanor goes over well with players including Neptuno (aka Alberto Gonzalez Molinillo). “At the beginning, I didn’t even know much about Comcast,” says Neptuno, who’s from Spain and at 27 is one of the oldest members of the Fusion. “I didn’t know who Tucker was. I thought he was just another member of the staff, and I really liked him. Someone told me, ‘No, that’s your boss.’?”
The team lives with all the panache of a high school robotics squad; two Fusion athletes, in fact, share a bedroom. The players rise at about 11 a.m., or “gamer morning,” as they call it. Lunch is at noon, the first of two daily meals prepared by the team’s chef, Heidi Marsh, a Minnesotan whose repertoire includes Cuban sandwiches and pasta with clams. “Italian goes over really well with these guys,” she says. Lately, Roberts has been trying to get the team to eat Philadelphia cheesesteaks. The Europeans are ambivalent.
The players spend the rest of their day online scrimmaging against other Overwatch teams. They also study film, sitting with coaches and reviewing recordings of prior matches. The house has a gym, but gross motor exercise is optional.
As in pro baseball, skipping college and heading straight to the pros is the norm in e-sports—though with the recent proliferation of collegiate teams, some highly touted recruits are now choosing to spend a couple of years on a university campus perfecting their finger work against fellow student gamers. Elk (Elijah Gallagher, 19), the only American player on the Fusion, says his parents were disappointed when he chose to forgo a higher education. He’s saving his salary to put toward college should his e-sports career peter out.
Injuries are more common than a nongamer might imagine. Neptuno began the season with bandages on his arm and is suffering from tendinitis and neck pain. Players use disposable hand-warming pouches to keep limber during matches. Websites list their gear, including the curvature and circumference of their preferred mouse.
In February the Fusion posted a video on YouTube in which Gritty visited the players’ house, ate a trayful of subs, took a selfie, and, when leaving the bathroom, gave the universal sign for “It smells bad in here.”
Overwatch isn’t the only competitive e-sport. Teams have also been formed to play League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Fortnite, and other games, potentially taking fans away from Overwatch. The game garnered tens of millions of regular players after its release in 2016, but it’s since been in decline, on some days barely ranking in the top 10 of most-viewed games on Twitch, the service owned by Amazon.com Inc., where fans watch livestreams of people playing. Todd Juenger, an analyst with Bernstein Research, said in a recent report that he thinks Activision will move up the release date for Overwatch 2, by a year, to 2020, to try to generate renewed interest.
But recently, tickets to an Overwatch match were being offered at $10, compared with the usual $20. On a Friday night, the 528-seat theater was less than half full. “I am extremely skeptical that the current business model of e-sports can sustain the sort of hype that is going into it now,” says Frank Fields, an industry consultant.
Roberts is undeterred. The recent deal with SK Telecom involves a half-dozen different games, an effort, he says, to “de-risk the portfolio” beyond Overwatch. “I think it could be bigger than some of the legacy sports,” he says of Comcast’s e-sports venture. “We don’t have to compete in just one game. We’re not just talking about, like, ice hockey, where it’s only popular in kind of cold regions. Everybody plays video games in every single country, and so that’s going to continue to be the glue that connects people.”
Himself included. On Sunday mornings, Roberts wakes up and plays Overwatch with a group of childhood friends. “It’s a way to keep in touch,” he says. “We’re really bad, but we have a lot of fun.” Although right now Roberts reports to David Scott, Comcast Spectacor’s CEO, there’s a chance that someday he’ll be asked to succeed his father, much as Brian took over from his dad 17 years ago. Roberts says he’s daunted by the prospect. “People don’t understand how hard my dad works,” he says. Presumably, were he running a company with a market cap close to $190 billion, there wouldn’t be a lot of time left over to quell robotic uprisings and perfect his tank skills.
Despite the recent murmurs of an e-sports bubble, Roberts sees an opportunity to reach a new generation of fans, particularly young men, who don’t follow traditional sports or watch regularly scheduled TV. People such as Andres Villegas, a 34-year-old event planner in Los Angeles, who comes to Overwatch games dressed in sandals and armor to cheer for the Los Angeles Gladiators. Overwatch, he says, “gives us nerds something to root for.” His favorite character is Mei, a Chinese climatologist-superhero who freezes enemies with an endothermic blaster. “If she were real, I’d marry her,” he says.