Game on: Whitaker Center CEO sees esports potential in downtown Harrisburg
When Ted Black interviewed for the job as president and CEO of Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, he was asked about steps he would take to attract a younger audience.
One of his answers: Host esports events.
In December, after nine months on the job for Black, the first steps came: Harrisburg University of Science and Technology announced plans to use space at the Whitaker Center as the home arena for its new esports team, which takes the field, er screen, this fall.
The event, scheduled for Sept. 21 and Sept. 22, will combine nationally known music acts such as Lit and Alien Ant Farm with a 32-team collegiate esports tournament.
The music portion of the Harrisburg University Esports Festival will take place on Sept. 22. It is a free festival with VIP passes available for purchase. Bands will perform outside at the intersection of Market and Fourth streets in downtown Harrisburg.
During the esports portion, teams from across the country will compete for a $50,000 grand prize. The semifinal and championship matches of the tournament will be open to a live audience.
A full schedule of eSports matches and more information about the event, access to match tickets and VIP passes will be available at huefest.com.
To Black, the festival could put Whitaker Center on the map as an esports destination.
“At 130,000 square feet, we instantly become one of, if not the largest, esports venues in North America,” Black said during a recent interview. “This is like an athletic arena.”
The esports industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. Short for electronic sports, esports involves teams competing head to head in multi-player games in front of a live audience or online through gaming broadcasters such as Twitch and YouTube. Popular games include League of Legends, Overwatch and Hearthstone.
According to a report from industry researcher Newzoo, esports accounted for $665 million in revenue last year and could exceed $900 million this year.
The bulk of the money pouring into esports is being spent on professional leagues with franchise teams and sponsorship deals. For example, the Overwatch League is a new esports league made up of city-based teams that are largely owned by traditional sports owners. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, owns a Boston-based Overwatch team.
The Overwatch League recently struck a multi-year broadcast deal to air its playoffs on ESPN, Disney and the ABC family of networks.
“Thinking about esports as a spectator sport is a new way of thinking,” said Eric Darr, HU’s president. “But it’s growing every day, every year. For many fans, the whole experience of watching is just as exciting as any sport.”
The digital theater at Whitaker Center can seat about 200 people. The Sunoco theater has about 700 seats. Darr and Black expect both will be sold out in September for the festival.
Darr hopes the tournament will help build a regional fan base for HU’s esports team, the university’s first and only collegiate sports program. HU is part of the National Association of Collegiate eSports. The team already has financial backing from D&H Distributing and Vibra Healthcare, two of the midstate’s largest private companies, as well as multinational brands such as HP and Intel.
Darr expects about 100 fans will attend each of the HU team’s competitions. And he said related events also may take place downtown, including watch parties at Whitaker when the Philadelphia Fusion, a professional Overwatch team, is playing.
As collegiate and professional esports grow, Black said he sees a day in the near future when high schools have esports teams and the PIAA starts hosting state championships.
Hershey hosts Pennsylvania’s high school football championships. Harrisburg could be a home for esports.
Black believes Whitaker Center would be a natural fit for championship events because of its size and its relationship with HU, which continues to add students and facilities.
Whitaker, which is currently spending about $500,000 to add high-speed WiFi and Bluetooth beacons throughout the facility, also is connected to the Harrisburg Hilton and within walking distance of the Harrisburg Transportation Center.
Beyond the festival, Black sees potential for Whitaker to host local recreational gaming leagues and conferences such as Comic-Con.
Whitaker plans to host an esports seminar with law firm McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC in September. The Harrisburg firm recently launched a new esports practice group to help those trying to get into the industry.
Black also sees the esports partnership as a way for Whitaker to add new educational programs tied to video game creation, including events on coding and graphic arts. That, too, could bring new visitors to the center.
Black’s aspirations to make Whitaker a leader in the esports sector are not far-fetched.
The rise of esports has propelled interest and investment in new gaming venues elsewhere. A new $10 million esports stadium is set to open in Arlington, Texas, this fall. Big industry tournaments also are being held at existing sports venues such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Even the International Olympic Committee has been exploring the possibility of adding competitive video gaming to the Olympics. The IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations are holding a forum on esports this week.
With esports momentum building, Allison Rohrbaugh said she has “no doubt” that Harrisburg’s festival in September will be big. She also believes the first-time event will help her organization, the Hershey Harrisburg Sports & Events Authority, attract more competitive gaming events to the city.
The authority is a division of Visit Hershey & Harrisburg, which leads tourism efforts for Dauphin County.
“HU and Whitaker Center are laying out a turnkey operation,” Rohrbaugh said. “Harrisburg has a leg up to attracting other esports events.”