The rise of eSports in Philadelphia

On a quaint one way street in Northern Liberties stood a line of people wearing Philadelphia Fusion t-shirts. Outside in the February cold, these people were waiting to squeeze into a building called Localhost. On the other side of the door was an indoor space filled with computers, monitors and video games. But why were so many people gathered outside of this place on an early Saturday morning? To try and start their careers in eSports.

ESports is essentially competitive multiplayer gaming. Though playing video games has usually been recognized as a leisure activity, competitive gaming is starting to gain recognition as a professional sport. From first person shooters like Counter Strike to classic fighting arcade games like Street Fighter, eSports has several video game genres making for a variety of players around the world.

In fact, eSports is gaining so much popularity that it is now in consideration to become an Olympic sport in the near future. That is why venues like Localhost on North 3rd Street in Philadelphia are starting to fill up to capacity.

Localhost is a gaming venue that is run by a video game organization called N3rd Street Gamers. Robert Hilsky, owner and director of marketing for Localhost and N3rd Street Gamers, started the space and company because he grew up gaming himself.

“I’ve played video games competitively my whole life,” Hilsky said. “Especially when I quit hockey in college. I started playing more competitive video games and I started going to more tournaments. That’s when I started to really see the potential of eSports. The tournaments that I was going to when I was in college were in basements and dirty hotels. Being able to offer a space that give a much more professional space for amateur events is something that I always really wanted to do.”

The Main Stage room at Localhost. PHOTO BY AUSTIN AMPELOQUIO

Hilsky said one of the main reasons why he opened Localhost was to help aspiring competitive gamers develop their skills. He said he grew up playing hockey and noticed that for traditional sports, there was a certain level of support from parents and organizations to help youth improve their skills and fundamentals. For eSports, “it’s just professional or nothing,” Hilsky said.

One of the newest and most popular games in the eSports scene currently is Overwatch. The game was created by video game company Blizzard Entertainment and was developed with a professional league in mind called the Overwatch League. In November of 2017 Comcast Spectator announced the introduction of the Philadelphia Fusion, the city’s first ever Overwatch League team.

For Hilsky however, he said he believes there is no guidance for gamers who want to become professionals, especially for newer games like Overwatch.

“A game like Overwatch, the first thing that Blizzard did was introduce a professional league and they didn’t do much to groom the amateur scene,” Hilsky said. “So, it’s kind of up to groups like us to try to support those scenes.”

With a place like Localhost, a strong community of gamers is starting to have a presence in the Philadelphia area.

Jonathan Narkowski, a student at Penn State University from Kennett Square, took a three hour trip from State College to hang out at Localhost and develop his skills as a competitive gamer.

“I just love PC gaming, so it really calls out to me,” Narkowski said.

Narkowski, who has been gaming since high school and plays for his college’s team, said eSports is giving opportunities to people who enjoy playing video games to do what they love.

Jonathan Narkowski traveled three hours from Penn State University to join fellow gamers at N3rd Street Gamers’ Localhost gaming venue in Philadelphia. PHOTO BY AUSTIN AMPELOQUIO

In terms of the eSports scene in Philadelphia, Narkowski said, “it’s up and coming, especially with Overwatch, it’s helping to give the city a more hometown vibe.”

Other than people like Narkowski, Hilsky said parents are even starting to bring their kids to venues like Localhost and eSports events around the area.

“You’d be really surprised how there’s a lot of parents now,” Hilsky said. “I’m seeing this directly because we run some pretty serious amateur events, so we’re seeing parents now that are pulling their kids out of high school and they’re doing homeschooling. They have their kids on what could be very well considered a professional athlete regimen. They’re trying to groom their kids to be professional eSports athletes. It’s very much the same feeling as trying to get your kid to be a professional football player or a professional athlete”

The gaming scene wasn’t always like this however.

Newer gamers growing up in the era of eSports and Overwatch didn’t grow up playing in the tournaments of the early 2000s. They were “sparse” according to Hilsky.

Hilsky said he still remembers the days of travelling to Toronto, Canada to play a competition where the computers were set up inside of a roller hockey rink.

One time Hilsky and his friends travelled to Brooklyn, New York to play in an event that was above a Chinese Restaurant. Hilsky said there were about 80 competitors and only 10 computers, so people had to take turns to get through the entire tournament field.

Since then, competitive gaming has come a long way.

“When I was younger there wasn’t that many tournaments, so we would go anywhere for tournaments,” Hilsky said. “The big difference now is the 80 guys and girls that were in that tiny little room above the Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn, we’re all grownups now. That’s 80 more people that are willing to put on events like this. If you multiply that across the world, all of those people that were playing in basements, we’re all grownups now. I really wanted to bring more legitimacy to the e-sports world. I saw it when it was younger and so did the rest of us.”

All text and photos by Austin Ampeloquio

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