Harrisburg University launches first esports undergraduate program in Pennsylvania

Neil Strebig, York Daily Record//October 22, 2020

Harrisburg University launches first esports undergraduate program in Pennsylvania

Neil Strebig, York Daily Record//October 22, 2020

It’s no longer a secret that esports is a multi-billion industry.

Yet, with all the growth there still are limited pathways into the industry — or rather there are fewer known avenues into esports outside of being a pro gamer.

“It’s like any academic program, you’re going to have a mix of general foundational work, and then you’re going to have the beginning coursework on esports. And for us that looks like an overview of the industry,” Harrisburg University President Eric Darr said.

Darr, who helped launch the university’s esports team in 2017, said the school’s newly offered undergraduate program is aimed at educating students in three main facets:

  • The business side of esports: encompassing the ecosystem of competitive esports including publishers, game designers and professional teams.
  • Personal branding; helping students understand how to build their own brands and marketing through streaming services such as Twitch.
  • Production; helping students coordinate live events and understanding how competitive esports and streaming events are constructed.

The degree program, which began in spring 2020, is one of the few in the nation and the only such esports undergraduate program in Pennsylvania. Currently, 40 students are enrolled in the esports management program at Harrisburg University.

For Darr, the goal has always been ensuring there’s a pipeline here in the Keystone State. Academic offerings at the university are a cog in that machine, but Darr is fully aware of how much the success — and consequential exposure — of the Harrisburg Storm, the school’s collegiate esports team, has done toward establishing that pipeline’s foundation.

Students enrolled in the program have opportunities to learn from current Storm coaches and former pros, Alex “Xpecial” Chu and Joe “Joemeister” Gramano. In addition, students have a chance to work and intern with game publishers, professional teams such as the Philadelphia Fusion and with the Philadelphia-based esports group Nerd St. Gamers, who have helped co-host the HUE Invitational the last three years.

Darr and esports director Chad Smeltz have continued to host quarterly workshops for high school administrators and athletic directors who are interested in establishing an esports program. This past fall the university had over 26 districts partake, and they’re hoping to host another this winter.

“There’s a variety of ways we’re connecting in the Harrisburg and Philadelphia region,” Darr said. “You see school districts [are] more interested in entering the esports world.”

As catastrophic as the pandemic has been, the current climate has created a silver lining in the esports community. As social distancing continues to present a hurdle with student engagement, Darr sees esports as a viable solution.

The shift toward a more virtual world has created an opportunity for esports at both the high school and collegiate levels. The university’s recent HUE Invitational, the largest collegiate esports tournament in the country, was held virtually this year. This prompted an unexpected outcome for the university, Darr said.

Due to the virtual event, the university and tournament logos were on other university streams, prompting a larger level of exposure for both the university and esports as a whole.

“We’ve gotten all kinds of interest from vendors,” he said. “Some outside of the esports world that saw us because of those streams. It was an outcome we had not anticipated.”

While such type of exposure may immediately benefit Harrisburg University, it does help normalize esports as a whole. And at the high school level, Darr said one of the best ways to offset equipment costs for school districts is through sponsorships. Companies such as Sheetz have begun sponsoring esport programs around the state, he said.