Joy of Victory

Harrisburg University Esports Team Celebrates First-Place Finish

By Jeff Falk  | Photos Courtesy of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

Some people have never heard of Esports.

Some people are familiar with them, but aren’t quite sure what they are.

Some people are really into Esports.

And then there are the members of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology’s Esports team. We’ll call them experts.

Esports, electronic sports or competitive, multi-player video gaming, is the hottest trend sweeping the country’s collegiate sports scene. Video gaming has gone from the sofas of dorm rooms to club teams to full-blown varsity athletics.

On the crest of that wave is Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. A national championship has the power to put one there.

“It’s a team game,” says Dr. Eric Darr, president of Harrisburg University. “You have the same team dynamics of traditional sports. You face the same challenges. How do you communicate? How do you work well with your teammates? How do you communicate with the coach? The level of practice required is the same.

“One of the things that is different is that the athlete has to concentrate in the game for a very long period of time and make fast decisions,” continues Darr. “Your team could lose in an instant, because of your mistake. Another thing that’s different is the requirements. There is no ‘off the field,’ and the physical requirements are different. You need amazing hand-eye coordination, but you don’t need to be able to bench press 300 pounds.”

Esports—a novel concept for some sports enthusiasts and traditionalists—is in its infancy as an athletic pursuit at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, which was founded in 2001 at a 16-story building at 326 Market Street downtown. The Esports program was instituted in August of 2018, as Harrisburg University’s first varsity intercollegiate team.

But what the team has accomplished in just over a year is nothing short of amazing. In May of this year in Houston, Texas, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology’s team captured the national championship in the video gaming discipline of “Overwatch.”

It was akin to Penn State forming a football squad, then winning the national championship in the same calendar year. Sort of.

“It’s very competitive,” says Darr. “It’s very important to the competitors. It’s just like any other sport where the competition is intense. We have a rivalry with Maryville University in St. Louis. We dislike Maryville, and Maryville dislikes us. But you to try to win gracefully.

“We require our players to participate in a physical regiment,” adds Darr. “If you’re going to play Esports at the highest level, against the best players in North America, you can’t be physically out of shape. To concentrate for that length of time, the body has to support it. This is not kids sitting on the couch on Saturday. These are not hobbyists.”

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology offers 25 scholarships to Esports student-athletes, one of about 160 universities across the country currently doing so. On top of that, another 600 colleges or universities in the United States and Canada support Esports club teams.

In Pennsylvania, some 50 universities or colleges support either Esports varsity or club teams.

The pursuit is governed by the National Association of Esports Teams, but as of yet hasn’t been endorsed by the National Collegiate Association of America (NCAA).

“It’s very widespread, and growing every day,” says Darr. “There are some universities which have been in the space for four years. I would characterize us as an ‘early adopter,’ which has set the bar. We do recruit across the world.

“With young people today, vastly everyone plays a video game,” Darr continues. “The kind of student we’ve recruited has committed to the discipline and the time it takes to rise to the very top. They are the top one percent of the one percent of players. Some come from families of modest means, and the vast majority are pretty good academically. They look like any other student, and they’re doing what they love. These guys have spent thousands and thousands of hours practicing and becoming very good at what they do.”

Darr was the driving force behind Harrisburg University of Science and Technology forming a varsity team, in the early months of 2018. At that time, Harrisburg University’s Esports club was the largest on campus, with over 100 student members.

The university began recruiting in April of 2018, came together as a team in August of that year, competed through a series of invitational events in the fall and then formally took to the cyber playing field in January of 2019.

“I played video games for a couple of years,” says Darr. “I’ve been aware of competitive video games for years. It seemed like all the forces were converging on ‘now is the time to launch a varsity sport at Harrisburg University,’ and it was Esports. The student interest was there.

“Everything we do, we try to do it in a differentiated way,” adds Darr. “We were thinking of it as a spectator sport. Having the Whitaker Center right next door gave us an opportunity to think of Esports as a spectator sport. The industry is still expanding and it’s not mature. We thought now was the time to get into this. It was all of those things together.”

Sure, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology was meeting a need, providing a service students wanted. But there were also inherent benefits for the university.

So far, it has been nothing but a win-win situation.

“Why does any university start an athletic program?” asks Darr. “To engage the students and faculty and community. To raise awareness of the university. We were on ESPN for an hour. I couldn’t have bought that type of publicity. Student awareness is up. We’ve been able to raise money through sponsorships. Community engagement and build brand awareness – it’s been a job well done on both of those fronts.

“It makes the university more attractive,” continues Darr. “For the kind of student who is interested in Esports, it makes us very attractive. We’re a narrowly-focused institution, and a national champion in Overwatch.”

Yet, despite that national championship, the jury is still very much out on the overall success of Harrisburg University’s Esports program. Some more traditional intercollegiate sports have been around for decades, others for centuries.

“The structure of collegiate Esports is still very much in flux,” says Darr. “The role of the game publishers and the governing bodies is not yet clear. That will affect the overall playing field of Esports.

“At Harrisburg University, I’d like to see it continue to grow and become even bigger,” concludes Darr. “We have an opportunity to be national champions in more game titles. I’d like to defend our national championship in Overwatch. I’d like to see Esports become part of the mainstream media. I’d like the media to pay more attention to Esports.”

Only time will tell.