Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, a private, STEM-focused institution founded in 2001, is considered an infant in the world of academia. However, in just 20 years since its founding, the university is (quite literally) taking the world by Storm. As if offering unique degree options such as Information Technologies, Manufacturing, Healthcare Informatics, Biotechnology, Analytics and Media Systems isn’t enough, the university has risen to the top of the STEM platform again with the launch of the first varsity sports program at HU — eSports.
You may have heard of eSports — also known as competitive video gaming. Contrary to popular belief, it’s more than just a group of friends in a basement or dorm room sitting in front of their screens for hours on end. There is an element of strategy, team-building, critical thinking and hand-eye coordination. While some are still debating how it fits into the traditional category of sports, it is quickly becoming a billion dollar industry and Harrisburg University is at the forefront — but even more than that — they are eSports National Champions.
The journey to the national championship began in May 2018, when more than 500 students from around the world participated in open tryouts for full-ride scholarships by playing the games Overwatch, League of Legends and Hearthstone.
They came to showcase their experience in competitive gaming along with a vested interest in pursuing an education.
“Full-ride scholarships provide this opportunity for student-athletes to take advantage of an education that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford while doing something they love,” said Harrisburg University President Dr. Eric Darr. “Our eSports athletes are students first, but with the same dedication to their sport as football or basketball players at other schools. We are providing an avenue for these students to pursue their passion and partnering that with education and future career opportunities to follow that eSports trajectory.”
As one of many schools in Pennsylvania offering varsity or club level eSports programs, HU has solidified themselves as the leaders in the collegiate eSports space both here and around the globe. Other colleges in all parts of the country, as well as high schools, are using Harrisburg University as an example of what an eSports program can and should be.
“It has been a privilege to build the eSports program from the ground up. We are really pioneers for collegiate eSports and it’s a true testament to Harrisburg University,” added HU eSports Director Chad Smeltz. “I grew up in the Harrisburg area and have experience on the professional eSports circuit, and to be back in the area and involved in the beginnings of collegiate eSports is surreal. The Storm students really have to trust our vision for the program. They realize that this is a real commitment and they represent the university in everything they do. ”
In the inaugural season, the Storm’s League of Legends, Hearthstone and Overwatch teams finished with strong records and competed against the best teams in their respective titles, including Maryville University and Columbia College. All three teams came home with multiple tournament victories and a lot of hardware to show for it.
From the beginning, the school’s leadership has believed that the foundation of the program revolves around the coaching staff. Earlier this year, former Philadelphia Fusion Overwatch support player Joe “JoeMeister” Gramano joined as head coach of the Overwatch team. In his first year, he took the team through an undefeated season — which included a win at the inaugural ESPN Collegiate eSports Championships held in Houston this past May. The university also hired Alex “Xpecial” Chu as the head coach for their League of Legends team. In his first season, the League of Legends team maintained a top 4 ranking in the ESPN Collegiate eSports Coaches poll. All members of the coaching staff come to Harrisburg with a professional eSports background, which brings a unique perspective and level of strategy that no other college varsity team can claim.
The entire city and surrounding community rallied around the team and have contributed to the success of the program, making Harrisburg a true eSports destination. In September 2018, Harrisburg hosted the Harrisburg University eSports Festival, the largest collegiate eSports tournament to-date, which brought more than 30 teams from 21 universities across the country to the city for a weekend of competitive gaming. Harrisburg University, along with eSports venue partner, the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, activated more than 175,000 square feet of space for gameplay and spectator experiences. In early spring 2019, Harrisburg University hosted the first-ever collegiate state championship — PA Cup — inviting teams from the state to battle it out for the State Champion title.
“Harrisburg University has given me more opportunity in eSports than I thought was possible,” explained Hunter “Retnuh” Rogers, an HU sophomore from Huntington Beach, CA. “From the initial tryouts to when we flew home as ESPN Collegiate eSports Champions, it has been an amazing experience. We are all friends and we work together and support each other in games and practices but also have fun around campus. It’s a good balance but we are also aware that collegiate eSports is big and on the rise, so it’s great to be part of the foundation for collegiate programs.”
This first year was truly the beginning of the established eSports legacy that Harrisburg is making on the collegiate landscape. As more and more colleges begin to invest in their eSports presence, Harrisburg University will continue to serve as the model for what a dedicated eSports team can accomplish with the proper support.
“This has truly been history in the making,” President Darr said of the program’s success. “As soon as we decided to create this opportunity, we were all in. We couldn’t be prouder of these students and the leadership that is shaping the program. Being crowned National Champions is something we do not take for granted and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we can’t wait to see what’s next.”
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