HUE Festival: University, Whitaker Center playing the long game with esports

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology wasn’t the first school to start a varsity esports program, but officials have quickly looked to take the lead as competitive video gaming soars in popularity.

There are now more than 80 varsity-level esports programs in the country, up from 50 when HU announced the program last fall. There were just seven colleges and universities with esports programs two years ago, according to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, a governing body for the industry.

Hoping to win the early arms race and establish a blueprint for big collegiate esports events, HU has partnered with iHeartMedia and Alt 99.3 to create the Harrisburg University Esports Festival.

The first-time event, which will be held Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, will be the biggest collegiate esports tournament to date. The event also will double as a music festival with nationally known rock bands such as Lit and Alien Ant Farm.

There will be $50,000 in prize money available to the 32 teams competing in League of Legends, a multiplayer battle-arena video game, and Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer video game.

“We hope others will follow with similar invitations,” said HU President Eric Darr, who sees tournaments in front of a live audience as a way to attract more non-gamers and boost scheduling opportunities for schools who are taking the leap into esports scholarships.

The inaugural HUE Festival will include 21 schools, including some with League of Legends and Overwatch teams, from as far away as Washington.

HU will compete against established university programs such as Grand View and Maryville. The two-day tournament also will bring in Big Ten schools like Penn State University, Ohio State University and the University of Illinois. Lebanon Valley College also is representing Central Pennsylvania.

The tournament alone expects to draw hundreds of players, coaches, friends and family. Darr and Ted Black, the Whitaker Center’s president and CEO, are hopeful that hundreds of others will check out the esports tournament. That could include some people who are coming more for the bands playing outside at Third and Market streets.

Organizers are projecting that 5,000 to 10,000 people will come out to hear the music.

“We expect and have seen interest in both events,” Darr said.

There is an inherent curiosity factor attached to esports, added Black, who believes events like HUE Festival will put Harrisburg on the map as a regional destination for esports. The Whitaker Center will be the home stadium for the HU Storm.

The Dauphin County commissioners also believe that esports, a budding billion-dollar industry with money pouring into professional leagues, will increase visitation to Harrisburg. The county recently awarded a $25,000 grant to sponsor the esports tournament.

“The opportunity to grow it organically is the next phase,” said Black, who sees Harrisburg and Whitaker playing host to high school and regional club level esports events.

As video game titles evolve and new games gain traction, Darr said he could also see HU adding more esports teams to its varsity program. Other schools could do the same, which could expand the tournament at the HUE Festival in future years.

That could mean more teams are added, which also could increase the number of venues needed to host the tournament, he said.

The HUE Festival also could attract a bigger audience if more arts and entertainment is added. Darr also mentioned the possibility of combining the festival with other tech-related conferences and events such as the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania’s UpNext Fest. UpNext is an annual weeklong technology conference.

“This is a big deal for iHeartMedia and will resonate significantly within big companies,” Black said of the festival.

Events like the HUE Festival open up big business opportunities for key sponsors like HP and D&H Distributing to sell more gaming computers and other tech services to a captive audience.

HP could send several senior executives to Harrisburg to gauge the success of this festival. Many of the schools traveling to Harrisburg for the tournament are likely to do the same as collegiate esports competitions have largely been online to date.

The prospect of a large tournament like this prompted more interest from schools than HU could accommodate this year, Darr said.

As interest in esports continues to grow, Black said he expects the arms race moving forward will focus largely on more venues to host events like the HUE Festival. More venues should mean more tournaments with even greater prize money, which can help esports programs expand their recruitment of players and coaches, as well as buy better equipment.

HU was able to offer 16 full scholarships to its three teams of players. It was the first school to make that type of commitment to esports.

“That will change, too, when the big Division I schools get into esports,” Black said.

For now though, the attention is more on the small schools like HU, where esports is the only varsity sport in town and officials are locked in for a long game.

“We want Harrisburg to be seen as a hub for esports,” Darr said.

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