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Not just HU: Collegiate esports popularity stretches to the Lehigh Valley

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Pictured from left to right are members of the DeSales University esports team: Kevin Do, Brian Fox, Al Kloss and Hubert Whan Tong.
Pictured from left to right are members of the DeSales University esports team: Kevin Do, Brian Fox, Al Kloss and Hubert Whan Tong. - (Photo / )

Collegiate esports is growing as quickly as PCs lose lives (player-characters, for the uninitiated).

Lehigh Valley colleges are creating clubs and adding varsity esports programs as a way of attracting students – and of keeping up with other schools around the country.

“It’s exciting for students to be involved and, in a couple of years, every college is going to have a team,” said Karen Ruggles, assistant professor of computer science at DeSales University in Upper Saucon Township. She is also the college’s varsity esports program director.

An exploding market with an estimated value of $493 million in 2017, esports could reach $1.5 billion or more by 2020, according to gamedesigning.org, a website dedicated to the collegiate esports market. Professional teams also are competing in video games with titles like Overwatch and League of Legends, as well as attracting corporate sponsors like Comcast and Coca-Cola.

Ruggles said the growing consumption of esports means it isn’t going away.

“It’s like any other sport. You understand the rules – and with esports they’re complex – and you can be a fan and root for a team. There is athleticism, communication is key and the top players are very bright young people,” Ruggles said.

'Absolutely a sport'

DeSales offers a varsity esports program, though Cedar Crest is considering one. Both Lehigh and Moravian have opted, so far, to offer esports as a sanctioned club sport.

Bruce A. Sarte said he wants Cedar Crest College in Allentown positioned firmly on the map as a women’s liberal arts college, but one that is ahead of the curve in the mostly male-dominated esports arena.

Sarte, the college’s director of information technology, said Cedar Crest started one of the first esports programs at an all-women’s college in the nation, and he believes a strong program can be an effective recruiting tool.

“We want to attract students who are interested in attending a college with an esports program because not every school has that, and we want to be on that list,” Sarte said.

He said the school is considering a plan to create a dedicated esports space aligned with Cedar Crest’s athletic department.

“It’s absolutely a sport,” Sarte said.

DeSales launched its varsity esports program in January, with the videogame competition League of Legends and has plans to grow the program in the fall by adding Overwatch, another competitive game.

Sara Steinman, Moravian College’s director of student involvement, said Overwatch was the most popular esports game on campus, and up to 20 students compete as part of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

Prize money for winners typically takes the form of scholarships or hard goods like computers, gaming systems and accessories like desks, said Ruggles said.

While not a prerequisite, many players are enrolled in majors such as engineering, computer science and computer programming, grouped under the acronym STEM for science, technology, engineering and math.

Michael Boyko, 21, is a junior and vice president of the Lehigh University Esports Association. Boyko, who is from Macungie, said the three-year-old club aims to provide a community for those interested in playing competitive games.

Amy White, associate director of media relations at Lehigh, said the university had no current plans to create an esports varsity program.

Bruce Eisenhard, manager of student technology and repair services at Lehigh, has been the Lehigh esports club advisor since 2018.

He does believe there is a place for esports as a sanctioned program at Lehigh “somewhere between athletics, debate club and chess club.”

Eisenhard said esports requires the same level of dexterity, team cooperation and sportsmanship of any organized sport.

As with traditional sports such as football, basketball or soccer, competitive video gamers need to be agile. Hand-eye coordination, quicksilver speed and executive problem-solving are coveted skills that set top gamers apart.

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