As the lights flickered on in Harrisburg University’s new esports practice space, head coach Geoffrey Wang looked over the 3,000 square foot empty room, greeted only by the hum of the bulbs echoing through the room.
In that moment, he could envision the transformation that those four walls would take over the next few months in preparation for the launch of Harrisburg’s first varsity esports teams.
Harrisburg is all-in on esports, a distinction few other programs have because, as Wang put it, many others have only" dipped their toe in the water.”
The support from the top down has allowed Wang, along with program director Chad Smeltz, to build what Wang described as his dream program. On Thursday, that dream came to fruition as Harrisburg unveiled the team name “Storm” and rosters for their first Overwatch and League of Legends teams.
"It is a big level of trust when you sign on a player for a full-ride scholarship"
The idea is simple
Harrisburg aims to burst onto the scene as a powerhouse. Imagine if a new college football program rose to the level of Alabama or Clemson in their first year; that is the plan in Harrisburg.
“The biggest thing for me here is the guidance I have received from the administration here at Harrisburg. Because they have given us the resources, the time and the creative freedom to really do what we think is right,” Wang said. “Because Chad and I have been around esports for so long, we know what to look for and what to avoid. We really feel like, if we had the resources, a blank slate, a sandbox mode to build the perfect esports team, this is what we would want.”
Wang and Smeltz got to design everything, even down to that 3,000 square foot practice space.
To reach the elite level envisioned, Wang’s recruitment process had to be perfect from the beginning. Harrisburg was the first program to recruit outside of North America. He used tools that targeted his audiences, such as Discord and Reddit. Wang conducted an AMA on Reddit that got 20,000 views and raised the visibility of the program.
“We got over 500 applications,” Wang said. “Through a pool of 5-day online scrimmages and other recruitment methods, we narrowed it down to our top 35. We then flew all 35 out to Harrisburg.
“I don’t really think this is something that has been done in collegiate esports before. A lot of times, you message a player, you sign them, and they show up on campus the first day. Because of that, a lot of programs have failed, because they don’t have people who align with the vision for the team and the university.”
Many of those players are at the top of the world rankings, so the scrimmages were more competitive than anything done in collegiate esports before. In fact, some of those scrimmages were more competitive than actual esports events.
Once those 35 players were brought onto campus, Wang and Smeltz did one-on-one interviews with each of the players.
“One of the biggest questions that I asked was ‘what does this opportunity mean to you,’” Wang said. “The main goal is to understand is this person someone who really is going to appreciate the resources that have been, and will be, put into this program. It is a big level of trust when you sign on a player for a full-ride scholarship. You are telling that person ‘you are going to be an agent of the university. You represent us publically. In many ways, your success will affect the overall view of the university.’”
When Wang saw all 35 players in front of him, he was struck by the diversity of the group. There were the pros, of course, Grae Crawford and Zing “Tails” Jie are established League of Legends players who have competed for MLGB’s LOL league. Alex “Crate” Vissa and Travis “Autumn” Letwiniuk were both ranked in the top 50 in the world in Overwatch, and Vissa even climbed as high as nine overall. The full roster can be found here.
But what really stuck out to Wang was the diversity.
“We have three international students from Canada,” he said. “We have a student from France. We have people coming from all over the US. Different levels of socio-economic backgrounds, different levels of education. Some of them are transfer students, some are first-year students, and some are first-year adult students. They have all competed at the highest levels, and they are battle-tested.”
It's all in the players
Wang set out to build quality teams that can create an identity for Harrisburg moving forward. Every decision was made with an eye on the present, but also great care for the future.
“In that interview I can see, is this someone who I can mold and coach, or is this someone who has a huge ego problem coming in,” Wang said. “I turned away a lot of really, really talented players for that reason.”
University President Eric D. Darr has been the backbone to the development of the program.
“When I first got there and could actually see, it was obvious how passionate these people are,” Wang said. “Our president really gets esports. He can talk in depth about a game and the mechanics of the game. He can also understand what the audience is feeling. That vision and that drive has really kind of shaped what this program can be. You need someone with that kind of vision to build something like what we have here.”
To kick off the inaugural season, Harrisburg University set up a preseason event the likes of which have never been seen in the collegiate esports scene. HUE Festival, which will take place September 21-22 in Harrisburg, combines gaming and music. 32 of the nation’s best esports teams will converge for tournaments with a $50,000 prize pool. iHeart Music Festival has collaborated to bring in “free live music national alternative acts including Lit, Alien Ant Farm and Atlas Genius, with other up-and-comers and renowned EDM DJ Whipped Cream, all on the main stage at the inaugural HUE Festival,” according to the event’s website.
"It’s the kind of thing where a door opened for me, and I am not going to just let it close.”
If successful, the HUE Festival could become the preeminent preseason tournament, similar to the Battle 4 Atlantis preseason basketball tournament, which draws powerhouses like Villanova and Syracuse, and is a great way for fans to get a sneak peak at what their teams will look like in the regular season.
The program has made partnerships with brands like HP Omen, and they even have a partnership with the Philadelphia Fusion, a pro team in the Overwatch League.
With so much hype, the pressure to perform will be big for the Storm this year. But Wang, Smeltz and the players know this. The team was built to thrive under pressure. Should they succeed, it could change the landscape — as storms often do — of collegiate esports.
A worthy investment
Harrisburg University was founded in 2001, opened in 2005, and first accredited in 2009. The school has already invested almost $3 million in esports and are doing so, not only for a chance at esports glory, but to encourage high school students to pursue higher education. One of the school's players, Marc “Gunther” Raskob, is a sign of how fruitful an esports investment might prove for the university:
“I’m 18 and I’m in high school,” Raskob told Vice News. “I wasn’t going to really go to college anyways. It’s the kind of thing where a door opened for me, and I am not going to just let it close.”
Raskob was just one student who had no plans for college and, thanks to the esports push, is now a Harrisburg University competitor. Whether Harrisburg wins or loses on the tournament stage, the path from LAN to library has already been paved.