HARRISBURG, Pa. — It’s not often that Ohio State enters a sporting event against a smaller school as an underdog, especially when the competition comes from a recently founded science and technology college with an undergraduate enrollment of just 750 full-time students.

But that’s exactly how Ohio State’s student newspaper, the Lantern, described its team.

“With no jerseys, scholarships or prior practice as a team, Ohio State League of Legends was the underdog heading into its semifinal match against Harrisburg University Team A,” student reporter Aaron Lien wrote in a recent article about a college esports tournament.

Through a traditional sports lens, it’s a ludicrous scenario: A school that has no other varsity sports teams is expected to beat a competitor that has an NCAA Division I athletic program with a budget of $175 million or more and a student body more than 10 times its size. But there is nothing traditional about esports, nor Harrisburg University.

The school’s esports training facility is state of the art. DC comic books, Lego action figures and vibrating massage therapy balls lie scattered next to HP OMEN monitors and ergonomic gaming chairs. The 2,500-square-foot space, known as Stage 2, is a gamer’s haven.

Since 2017, Harrisburg has invested heavily in its esports program. In preparation for its inaugural season, the university embarked on a $750,000 project to build the on-campus facility. Harrisburg’s communications director, Steve Infanti, estimated the total annual budget at $2 million for the esports teams, including coaching and staff salaries, facilities, technology, travel and event production.

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The thinking behind the move is twofold. Investing in the emerging field of competitive gaming can help separate Harrisburg from other schools, giving it a way to appeal to students who otherwise may not have been interested in the tiny school in central Pennsylvania. Second, by aggressively moving into the territory, Harrisburg can establish its brand through gaming while other, better-known institutions with deeper coffers aren’t involved. If the university can establish a brand of excellence in college esports similar to what traditional powerhouses such as Alabama or Duke have done in football and basketball, the thinking goes, it can elevate the profile of the school as a whole. 

“That’s why we have to move as quickly as we can to differentiate ourselves and to build a reputation,” said Eric Darr, the school’s president. “And in some sense, [the goal is to] become the Notre Dame of esports — a smaller, private, independent [university] that can keep pace and, on any given day, beat the big guys.”

The Harrisburg University Storm — the varsity esports program that fields teams in Overwatch, League of Legends and Hearthstone — has many points of pride. In the program’s first year, the Overwatch team won the 2019 ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship. The six players competing in the finals turned down offers from professional teams in the Overwatch League. The program also recently won an international Tempest Award for “Best Collegiate Esports Program,” beating out schools such as UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and Utah.

“It’s definitely increased the recognition for the university,” Darr said. “We’ve generated sponsorships for the team, so we’ve generated revenue in a way that we haven’t been able to before.” The school’s sponsorships include Intel, HP and D&H Distributing.

“There’s also programmatic opportunities for us, meaning expanding our academic programs to provide sports management and audio-video production programs to support esports events,” Darr added. “There’s a whole burgeoning and growing esports industry, and there’s a whole workforce that’s needed to support that industry. We’d like to be one of the universities that supports the education of that workforce.”

Harrisburg isn’t alone in its approach to using esports to attract students to a small school. Maryville University, based in St. Louis, won the Harrisburg University Esports Invitational in League of Legends and Overwatch. Full Sail University in Orlando and Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago also have devoted significant resources to esports programs.

“Smaller schools are extremely interested [in adding programs] because of recruitment and retention,” said Victoria Horsley, head of marketing at the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE). The NACE is one of several esports regulatory operations at the college level. “They see esports is popular so they want to jump in and try to grab all the students in their market as soon as they can.”

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As schools with larger student pools add esports programs, the Storm and its small-school peers will face stiffer competition, in both their gaming matchups and recruiting. NACE membership nearly tripled to around 200 teams in the past year. Only a fifth of its members are also Division I institutions in the NCAA, which has so far declined to govern collegiate esports.

“Some colleges are just kind of dipping their toe into esports,” said Chad Smeltz, the Storm’s program director. “They’re feeling it out because they know it’s something they should look into, but more schools are actually committing to it and wanting to do more.”

Smeltz, a former professional gamer and team manager, said the secret to the Storm’s success lies in how the university supports the program. For example, players are scouted online and selectively recruited, just as any other elite college athlete is. Each of the 26 roster members receives a full-tuition scholarship and housing stipend, which is better than what most athletic programs offer.

The players also commit to the program knowing they will undergo a demanding training and academic schedule, which includes mandatory physical training, regimented meal plans, study hall, four-hour daily practices and a full course-load in which they must maintain a 2.0 GPA to remain on the team.

“Our team here is no different than my experience I had as a college athlete,” said Ryan Korn, who runs the university’s high school partnerships program. “I had a full [scholarship] for football. The experiences [that players] have with regards to training, with having the work-life balance between their sport and college … that’s how it was for me.”

The program has rapidly claimed a spot within the university’s culture and the surrounding community. Students wear Storm gear to class. The school president knows each of the players on a first-name basis and regularly attends their events. Classes were canceled for two days in September when the school hosted its invitational tournament, which drew 64 teams from across the country.

Joshua Street, also known by his gamertag, “LikeAMaws,” is a fourth-year player on the Storm’s League of Legends team. He said that while he doesn’t feel like a celebrity, he occasionally gets stopped by strangers when he’s walking around campus and is asked whether he’s on the team. When he says yes, the response is usually, “That’s so cool!” or “How is that?”

“The initial goal of having the scholarships and having all the players here on-site is to help foster a community,” Street said. “And I know that one of the drivers the school had for even creating this program is to kind of make Harrisburg flourish again.”

Darr agreed, saying he was inspired to launch the program last year in response to students’ growing interest in gaming. He wanted to create a program that would have a lasting impact.

“We couldn’t do what other people were doing,” Darr said. “Which is, ‘Here’s a glorified computer lab or a rehabbed classroom, and we’re going to call that the home of our esports.’ That’s not going to make an impact. That’s not going to raise brand awareness, and that’s just not good enough.”

So far, the university has done more than “good enough,” putting Harrisburg on the national (and even international) esports map. For now at least, the program is enjoying the view from above.

“I’m looking forward to big schools getting in,” Smeltz said. “When they get in, depending on the school, there will probably be an attitude of, you know, ‘We’re Penn State’ or we’re this or whatever, ‘and we’re going to be the best.’ And they’re not going to be the best right off the bat, because it takes a lot of work to start up. …

“It’s going to be kind of funny to see that adaptation.”