Harrisburg University Adds First-Ever Varsity Sport
How many times have you heard your parents say, “Stop playing those video games and get outside,” or maybe, “They’ll rot your brain”? Sometimes they combine the two.
Your parents were looking out for you. They wanted you to get off your butt and get some fresh air. Now, however, that fresh air could cost you a college scholarship.
Esports has been gaining popularity around the world, including here in the U.S. — and now in our capital city.
Colleges and universities are taking advantage of the Esports trend by offering scholarships to top high school gamers in the country to join their collegiate-level Esports teams.
Harrisburg University is one of the latest to join the Esports world, and they are not only looking to make an impact in our local community but on a national scale as well.
Within a short period, HU’s program went from a club sport to the only college in the country to offer full rides to their team of 15 players.
Building a program
Last fall, HU’s program was the 50th collegiate program to join National Association of College Esports (NACE), but the program was gaining traction well before that.
“We formed an Esports club in 2016 that quickly grew to our largest club in the university,” said Dr. Eric Darr, Harrisburg University President. “We had about 20 percent of our students involved in the club.”
From there, the program grew when the new director of Whitaker Center for Science & the Arts, Ted Black, took over the downtown science center.
Black had the vision to transform the program into a spectator sport and an event.
“We already had a lot of gasoline with the club sport and support from the university,” said Darr. “Ted came in and was kind of the match and lit the whole thing.”
One impetus behind the group’s formation was to get the HU name out in the public eye beyond Harrisburg.
“Sports are just another way to get a university’s name out there,” said Dr. Darr. “We’ll never compete with the big name schools in basketball, but maybe we can beat them at Esports.”
HU’s program is garnering national attention and has already been featured on ESPN’s Esports update several times.
Setting themselves apart
HU not only wants to be a player in top-flight tournaments, they want to be a hub for Esports on the east coast.
“The east coast is so hungry for Esports,” said Program Director, Chad Smeltz. “The only places you can go to find a lot of games is out west and maybe Atlanta once a year.”
With the combination of top gamers and the allure of Whitaker Center’s digital cinema, HU is poised to become a significant factor in the Esports world.
“From day one, we always looked at Esports as a spectators sport,” said Dr. Darr. “This is something very different than other programs who just have people playing games in a dark closet.”
HU also wants to be involved in the local community, starting by bringing in local businesses and people to see what Esports is all about.
“We think Esports as a set of activities, and we’re trying to create an ecosystem around it,” said Dr. Darr. “We’re looking to find out how we can involve the community more or how to make Harrisburg a venue for Esports.”
HU’s first season powers up October 2018, and they hope to partner with the HU Music Fest to create a full event weekend.
Assembling a staff
Esports are just like your typical college sports.
They need to recruit. The need to hold tryouts. They need coaching.
With the makings of a program in place, HU next needed to find a group to lead their team in battle.
They set out on a nationwide search and found what seems to be a one-two punch that will rival any school in the country.
Head Coach Jeff Wang and Program Director Chad Smeltz both have reached some of the highest ranks in Esports, and they are now bringing their wealth of experience to HU.
Wang, 23, started playing video games when he was a kid. He rose to be a top player in some of the most popular PC titles and was integral in building the Esports program at The University of Minnesota.
Wang also spent time as a professional coach and consultant for numerous programs and players.
“I find my passion in coaching a lot more than being a player at this point in my life,” said Wang. “Especially after going through school and continuing to think about my future.”
Smeltz, 26, is originally from Lower Dauphin and returned to the area to become HU’s Program Director. He has experience in all sectors of Esports. He’s been a top gamer, coach, and manager at several different levels.
After coaching professionals, Smeltz is now looking to get back to his roots.
“When I was playing the game originally my name was ‘History Teacher’ because I was getting my secondary education history degree,” said Smeltz. “I was interested in education, and I saw that collegiate Esports was getting a bit bigger.”
He started his search for a job to incorporate both education and gaming and soon found the perfect situation after talking with NACE.
“I actually laughed when the person from NACE told me that there was an opening in Harrisburg,” said Smeltz. “I couldn’t believe that the one school in the country that was hiring was where I was born and raised.”
“Fielding” a team
Wang and Smeltz are tasked with finding the best gamers in the world and bringing them to Harrisburg.
For them, this doesn’t seem like too daunting of a task.
“It kind of sells itself when you just sit them down in front of that huge digital screen, and they see the game that they love up there,” said Smeltz.
Another bonus for HU is that they are the only school in the country to offer full scholarships to their Esports players.
“There is a lot of opportunities to get top-ranked players throughout the world and bring them to Harrisburg to create this kind of super team,” said Wang.
HU is already looking at prospective players and will hold their first tryouts in April.
Esports are here, and Smeltz has some advice for anyone who hasn’t been to an Esports event before.
“Once you go to your first Esports event, it changes you,” said Smeltz. “You see how into it everyone is, and even if you don’t love the games, you experience everything else that is going on.”