Harrisburg University Director of Esports Chad Smeltz has had a storied journey in the League of Legends community. Originally a high school teacher who posted the occasional analysis on reddit, Smeltz — then known as "HistoryTeacher" began streaming on Twitch.TV in late 2014. In an era before League of Legends coaching was a standardized field, Smeltz was one of the most insightful figures in the community due to his experience as a teacher, his maturity, and affinity for the game.
Smeltz joined Team 8 as Head Coach in the 2015 NA LCS Summer Split, and spent the following two years serving as General Manager for NRG Esports, and later, Phoenix1. Smeltz' familiarity with education, as well as his wealth of experience in the growing North American esports community, landed him a job that allowed him to do both in directing the HU Storm Esports program.
Smeltz appeared alongside HU Overwatch Head Coach Joe "Joemeister" Gramano at IGEC 2019 to speak on the"What It Takes to Build a Top-Tier Collegiate Esports Program" panel. Following the panel, Smeltz sat down with Inven Global's Nick Geracie to discuss his past positions in LoL esports, his responsibilites as director of HU Storm, and the future of collegiate esports.
I'm at IGEC 2019 with Chad Smeltz of Harrisburg University, but back in my day, you were known as HistoryTeacher. Can you give us background on you career leading up to your time at HU?
Yeah, I don't talk about it too much because I like to joke around about it a lot of the time. One of the first things I did before NA LCS even had coaches was posting analysis on the League of Legends subreddit.
I started streaming and became was pretty highly ranked in Solo Queue, so I started playing with a lot of pros. I would give out historical facts on stream and stuff like that. That was more for entertainment, but I would also analyze League of Legends, talk about the game, and talk about why teachers could coach. I started talking about the game on a much higher level than people expected, because streaming is usually a medium of entertainment.
When I started streaming, that started appearing on reddit as well, and then I was offered a formal NA LCS coaching job. That's where I started out. I was a streamer, and then I coached Team 8. From there, I turned into a General Manager, first for NRG Esports and then for Phoenix1. I did that for a couple of years, and then realized I wanted to combine education and esports all into on thing.
I was missing education the most, and that's what led me to be the Director of Esports for Harrisburg University.
Coaching in the NA LCS was the first time the community got to see you operate in a position of leadership. What was your experience like as Head Coach of Team 8, and has that experience served you in the other positions of your career?
Absolutely. Coaching a team is incredibly hard because you have to figure out your players' personalities and playstyles while knowing a ton about the game in general. In addition, you have to know how to deal with problems outside of the game, and then you combine all of those responsibilities into one job. You're doing a bunch of different things and wearing a bunch of different hats, and that's definitely prepared me for the rest of my career.
Everybody talks about how you have to do so many different things inside of esports even if you have one job title. That helped me in how to work with people in that type of professional environment when League of Legends esports was just getting started. Now, it's getting to the point where things are much bigger and there's a lot of different influences on the scene. It's kind of cool to look back and reflect on how my past experiences shaped how I do things today, which is a lot.
You then moved onto a career as a General Manager. What spurned that transition, and how did your experience as GM prepare you for a directorial position at HU?
I learned very quickly that esports had a sore lacking of qualified individuals to help lead on the management side of things. This was the exact time frame where big investors first started coming into the space, and they were interested in putting money into these organizations and their respective teams.
However, a lot of people in these management and leadership roles were former players roughly around the ages of 17-19. Organizations with investors wanted people who knew the space, but potentially, had some experience doing something else as well. I was interested in that, and was willing to make the jump, so I decided that I would become a GM instead of continuing to coach.
I found that the position lent itself very well to doing what I wanted to do, and you can talk to GMs from any esports organization and find that what they do is so wildly different from one another because of the specific needs of their respective organizations. I learned everything— having to make contracts; VISA work; talking to players; recruiting; all sorts of different things.
I wasn't prepared for it at first, but it made me learn and I was passionate enough about it that I wanted to learn how to do all aspects of the job. This experience absolutely helps me in a directorial position. The university will tell me their goals, but leading a program means I need to be pushing forward on what we need to do to achieve those goals. It's really cool to be able to utilize all of my skills and run with it to see what we can create.
After a year, we're already doing great things at Harrisburg University, not only because of my skills, but because of the support of the university and its president.
What was the main thing about education that you missed during your NA LCS career?
I'm a sucker for seeing people learn. *laughs* There's something very satisfying about it, and you do get that experience out of coaching to a certain degree. You teach something about the game or a certain component of teamwork, but it's still a little bit different. Coaching has a priority on winning, so when you win, it's great, but it can be pretty tough when you don't.
There's something satisfying to me about seeing a student learn more about themselves as a person through educating themselves about what they are studying. They'll find what they are passionate about and then want to learn more about whatever the subject is and go further with it.
I love promoting that and seeing that growth, and it's really cool to be able to implement that for a wide variety of students who are still learning about what they care about and their priorities. I missed that a lot; it was one of the reasons I taught high school before my LoL esports career. I saw a potential avenue at HU to do both at the same time, and I thought I should try and take advantage of it. I'm very grateful for what they've provided.
As Director of Esports, you're speaking to HU's higher-ups, but are you also in charge of hiring coaches and filling out the staff for the program?
Absolutely. Obviously the university has a say, but I point them in the right direction. I generally have a pretty strong opinion on the people I'd like to bring onboard, because you're going to be working with them day in and day out on a multitude of things. It's going to be a pretty close-knit group in terms of what you're trying to accomplish, so it's very important.
Being able to work with the university on that is very nice, because it gives you a certain amount of freedom to make suggestions. It will vary depending on the university, but as a Director, you will generally have some sort of control over that. Working with Harrisburg has been great in that sense, because they're very flexible in regards to talking about what that looks like for our program.
Alex "Xpecial" Chu has been coaching HU Storm's League of Legends team remotely starting in January 2019, and is now relocating to Harrisburg to coach full-time. Was that an idea of your design?
For starters, working in person is a lot better than working remotely. It was originally my idea to reach out to Xpecial about working in the remote position. When I was the GM of Phoenix1, I worked with him as he was the Support for P1 at the time. I understood what type of personality he had, his maturity, and how he felt about education. I reached out to him after his time as a coach on Golden Guardians, and he accepted.
He started working in a remote capacity, and I think he realized that he liked it. Being able to introduce him to this and bring him on full-time now is awesome. I can't even explain to you how happy it makes me to be able to do that and to see how much he enjoys it as well.
Collegiate League of Legends isn't as fleshed out as the professional world, but the professional scene took a lot of time and development to get to its current point. I think Xpecial is realizing he can be a part of something pretty great.
Is it easier to teach college esports kids how to balance responsibilities, or convincing parents and university higher-ups that esports as a budding institution?
They both have massive challenges. I'm very nuanced now on being able to help students learn where they are in life, and that's super rewarding in its own right. I try to do that as much as I possibly can.
Talking to administration, whether its other universities or my own, is rewarding in a completely different sense. When you get people on board and you help them realize there's something here that works really well for a university and its students, that's so rewarding in its own right. Once you talk to parents and get them on board, it's really cool to see the change.
I do a healthy amount of both, and it depends on the day in terms of which can be more rewarding. However, I think working with students in my favorite aspect of the job.
As Director of HU Storm, is it safe to assume that HUFest was of your design?
Yep. I can't take all the credit for it, though. HU Chief of Staff Doug Firestone pushes those types of ideas all of the time to the school. He'll push me to describe what that would look like, and when I start somewhere, he'll say, "No. Think bigger."
It's really cool to be able to do HUFest — obviously I had the idea for a tournament, but for the scope of the event, he increased what we were able to accomplish with the event. To have the university's support in doing something that big is wild. It was awesome to be able to take that endorsement and design the entire thing.
I have so much respect for people in event production, and just events in general. That stuff is so challenging! *laughs* It's amazing to see how many different facets there are that go into it. Running our first event of that size was nuts, and we're going to do it again this year. It's probably going to be even bigger, so it's going to be wild to see how that turns out. It's something else to run an event of that size.
Today, you spoke on the panel "What It Takes to Build a Top-Tier Collegiate Esports Program" and touched on the role that community can play in introducing people to esports. That's reflected at the top level with the community-focused events that Fortnite has put on since its rise to mainstream popularity. How important are events like this in terms of introducing people to esports?
Absolutely. One of my running jokes is that if you have someone who doesn't understand esports at all, you should take them to an event. It doesn't matter what event or esport. You take them to an event and show them part of what esports is, and a lot of people won't understand 'this is a thing' for video games until they get to an event. It opens their eyes to the fact that there is more to esports than first meets the eye, and that goes for gaming in general as well.
That's probably one of my favorite things about events, because I always see people have this eye-opening moment. Even if I'm not the one showing them around, you can see people look around and think to themselves. I think that's super funny, and for Harrisburg University and our surrounding community, HUFest was that event for a lot of people.
On the east coast, there aren't as many esports events compared to southern California, so it's awesome to be able to give that community a way to check out more video games and be a part of things. You're now seeing the community slowly grasp onto it.
As a leading college esports program, you mentioned that HU is often asked about opening up a Fortnite wing of the program, but that there isn't infrastructure to support it at the collegiate level. Even at the top level of competitive Fortnite play, there are a ton of problems. Is there a future of collegiate Fortnite becoming a force in the next few years?
My answer to the people that usually ask is: "When it makes sense." *laughs* That's my very grounded answer. I do think there is a future in it, but like I said, it's generally on the game developers to provide a certain amount of infrastructure. They're not responsible for everything, but they have to provide a certain amount of infrastructure to give universities the confidence to be able to want to invest into it on their side.
If a game is only something that's going to be around for a year or two, and then you have people who are at school on four year degrees and people who are there on scholarships, what does that look like? You need to have some semblance of consistency in what things can look like from a collegiate standpoint.
Tespa has leagues every year; Riot Games has leagues every year — that's what the infrastructure currently is. I would like to see that not just from Fortnite, but from any developers that are interested in their game becoming a college esport.