As time goes on, it’s becoming more common to hear of new varsity esports initiatives being founded in North America. While every one of these announcements brings the promise of sustainable growth for the collegiate scene, not every one of them ties in the hopes and dreams of the city around it as well. Harrisburg University’s recent press release detailing the Fall 2018 launch of their esports varsity program has stirred up excitement in an urban community that is looking towards every opportunity for revitalization.
Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, has long had an “image problem” like many other Rust Belt cities in the Northeast. Despite being the center of state government, it shouldered the burden of declining 20th century industries such as manufacturing and steel for years that resulted in population decline and economic malaise. Since the late 1980s, however, it has made positive moves towards re-centering itself on industries such as technology and healthcare. Harrisburg University has been at the forefront of the redevelopment of the city’s downtown district since it began accepting students in 2004, making a mark on the skyline and for itself as a STEM-oriented institution. The announcement of an esports program fielding teams for Overwatch, Hearthstone and League of Legends seemed to be the logical next step in pushing the bar forward.
According to university president Dr. Eric Darr, “Esports is a natural extension of what we’ve already been doing, and is connected to already established programs, faculty and clubs on campus.” Darr, an educator and tech startup veteran, is just as excited about what the program can do beyond the campus. “Esports is a great vehicle to engage our students with each other and with the university,” he said, “but it also a great way to engage the community.”
More specifically, there are plans to take the HU varsity teams beyond the level of competitive outlet to a truly spectator-oriented one as well. Aside from developing new facilities for players on campus, Darr is forging relationships at the local level with businesses that can provide a location where the public can watch the teams play live. More about this will be announced in December when sponsor relationships are revealed by the university.
The president continued by saying: “This is another way of bringing together the community to rally around Harrisburg and see our team on ESPN for instance, and feel proud about our community instead of only focusing on the problems.” Harrisburg natives enthusiastically attend minor-league sporting events, so adding more events for local fans to attend is an attractive option to local business leaders. Darr went on to outline how Harrisburg could grow and be seen on par with other Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with their strong university presence and “college town feel.”
Other administrators at the school are just as enthusiastic about the idea of an esports team as Darr is. Steven Infanti, Director of Communications added, “We’ve never had a competitive sports team at HU and used to joke that all our athletic teams were undefeated. Our students are excited about this and we plan to field a competitive team from day one.”
Amanda Fidler, president of the HU esports club, is one of these excited students. When asked about her thoughts on the varsity plans for 2018, the sophomore stated: “I am excited to see if I can make it on the team, but if I can't, then I want to use the coaches that the school is hiring so I can see what I need to improve on.” The promise of institutional support is driving motivated students to up their game for the next year, so to speak.
Ensuring gamers like Amanda have more options to succeed in academics and play esports competitively motivates Darr to provide a solid foundation at the university level. Partnering with key long-term sponsors and aligning with esports groups like NACE are a few parts of the developing game plan. Darr went on to outline what seem to be the core goals for HU esports:
“To be competitive gamers, at least at the elite levels, you have a limited lifespan like you do in any athletics. An institution like HU affords someone to be a gamer, compete competitively and earn a college degree in a topic they’re interested in. Our graduates get jobs, they get family sustaining pay, and careers they’re set with for the rest of their lives. It’s the best of both worlds for students.”
Darr is also currently in beginning-stage talks with the Philadelphia-based Comcast Spectacor Overwatch League team to possibly extend the talent that will be grown at HU to their professional roster in the future. While currently nowhere near fruition, the potential for a varsity esports program to have inroads to a pro team is an exciting thought for the scene.
Just a few days after the esports program announcement, HU put a request for proposals out to construct an entirely new high-rise to accomodate health sciences programs in the city. This thirty-plus story structure will house everything from classrooms to dorms, hotels and shops. It’s easy to see how this is a time of real growth and development for both the university and the city. Will esports lie at the root of the area’s image-change? Darr seems to truly believe that it will. “We’re excited to be part of the scene and be a part of the conversation, and to now contribute in a meaningful way,” he concluded. “I really do think that esports has the opportunity to change a community and how we think about ourselves here in Harrisburg.”
Theresa Gaffney is the Director of Content at Collegiate Starleague and can be found on Twitter @theresagaffney. For more in-depth coverage of new varsity esports programs as they pop up, follow @cstarleague.