Ready, set, game: Harrisburg University to field eSports team
Harrisburg University of Science and Technology isn't likely to become a football or basketball powerhouse, and President Eric Darr is fine with that.
Darr is, however, enthusiastic about HU's chances of becoming a major player in the world of collegiate eSports, in which teams face off over video games as spectators cheer them on.
The university this week said it has joined the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), and will offer 15 full athletic scholarships, making eSports the university’s first varsity sport. The program is expected to begin in fall 2018.
School officials have begun a national search for a full-time coach who is either a current or formerly ranked World Gamer.
"We're not an institution that's going to have traditional sports," Darr told the Business Journal. "We're not going to be able to compete with Penn State or Alabama in football."
"We are a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) university with a student base that is driven by technology. eSports is by far our largest club on campus," said Darr, adding that the move to competitive play was "a logical and natural next step."
The varsity team will have the opportunity to compete in some of the most popular eSports games around the world, including "League of Legends," "Overwatch" and "Hearthstone." Harrisburg University will field a five-person team for each game.
Darr could not say how much the program and scholarships will cost, but added that the university is seeking partners for sponsorship opportunities. It also isn't clear yet where the team's home venue will be, but Darr said the school is looking at options.
Whatever the investment, he feels the program will advance tech education, teamwork and networking among students, while increasing the university's visibility in the growing eSports arena.
"It allows us to get our name out," Darr said.
Harrisburg University is the first Mid-Atlantic institution to join NACE. While the nascent field seems divided on whether to spell the activity eSports or Esports, its ranks are growing: NACE started with seven colleges and universities in July 2016, during the inaugural Collegiate Esports Summit held in Kansas City, Mo. With Harrisburg's addition, the number of members has reached 50.
"Our goal is to sponsor eSports programs on campuses with the same level of attention and support given to traditional athletics," NACE executive director Michael Brooks said. "We’re excited to have Harrisburg University join our roster as we continue to grow this program to offer students the opportunity to compete and engage with one another."
That engagement is what has drawn students to Harrisburg University's eSports club, with several members excited about the chance to apply for scholarships and a spot on the new varsity team.
Harrisburg University sophomore Amanda Lee Fidler, from Philadelphia, is president of the school's eSports club, and helped create the group last year.
"It started off as just a stress reliever and then it developed into a passion and a drive to be the best," said Fidler, who hopes to play on the eSports team.
"You also learn to make your own style, and you get to grow with it, and you can make your own 'brand,' and that's why I love gaming," she added. "You really get to show off your true self. You also get to grow with the team and you make a family."
Freshman Jarett Stonesifer, who is from Dallastown, embraces the idea of learning from fellow gamers.
"The benefit that the club offers to my academic goals is the ability to network," he said. "Since I plan to pursue a career in the IT field it is good to get to know people who represent companies in the industry."
Student Quame Roman-Nolen, a sophomore computer sciences major from Richmond, Va., wants to design games professionally.
"eSports helps me with my academic goals, because it ties with my major and what I want to do when I get out of college," he said.
Darr himself is a proud gamer.
During a coding class when he was a student, Darr was tasked with recreating "Pong," a two-dimensional table-tennis video game that took the nation by storm in the early 1970s.
"I fell in love," Darr said, recalling the thrill of being challenged to create games that not only worked, but were engaging.
He passed that love of games on to the next generation at home, bonding with his son at the controller. He's also able to pass it along to generations of students, partly through his favorite game.
That would be "Civilization," a strategy game in which players compete to settle and build new societies. The game, which has gone through several iterations since creation in 1991, is developed by Maryland-based Firaxis Games Inc.
Company officials have been generous hosts to visiting Harrisburg University students, Darr said, allowing them to learn about the development process in a corporate setting.
"They have been very accommodating," he said.