HUE Fest puts Harrisburg esports front and center

Harrisburg University announced in October 2017 that it would sponsor esports, with 16 scholarships among three games: Hearthstone, Overwatch and League of Legends. Provided by Harrisburg University

Titus "Titus" Bang fell in love with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the moment he set eyes on it.

"When I was trying out for this school, I saw photos of the city," the League of Legends support said. "It's so beautiful. There's a park that runs along the river, City Island, where there's a baseball stadium. It's a great blend of city and nature. That's when I knew I had to come here."

Harrisburg runs along the Susquehanna River's eastern bank. There's the beaux-arts state capitol building with its iconic dome and lush grounds, the island-bound FNB Field, the snaking boardwalks of Wildwood Park, the riverfront greenbelt that extends for miles. An outsider like Titus couldn't help but be struck by the picturesque town or the college esports program that calls the city home.

"Just look at how beautiful this place is."

It's a page out of recruiting brochures for colleges across the country, and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is no different.

Well, maybe a little different.

Founded in 2001, Harrisburg University lacks a traditional varsity sports program. The school has no football team to rival nearby neighbor Penn State, nor a basketball team to challenge the NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats.

Instead, just a year ago, Harrisburg played to the strength of its popular esports club and established varsity esports teams in League of Legends, Overwatch and Hearthstone. Backed by the full weight of the university's resources, these esports teams make up the backbone of the HU Storm -- a mascot the school announced this summer because, well, it didn't have a sports team that needed a mascot before.

On Friday and Saturday, Harrisburg will be the center of the college esports world as it hosts HUE Festival, a music and esports event that will feature 32 teams from 21 universities competing in League of Legends and Overwatch. The prize pool for the tournaments is $50,000, and participants will include College League of Legends Championship finalist Columbia College, semifinalist Illinois and quarterfinalist Maryville University. HUE Fest will be the first official competition for Harrisburg's Overwatch and League of Legends teams and the largest-ever offline college esports tournament in North America.

The process for building those teams included an international search for players and bringing in a former NA LCS content creator, coach and manager.

A few months after the program's Oct. 30, 2017, launch, its staff came together. Esports director Chad "HistoryTeacher" Smeltz, who worked for the now-defunct Phoenix1 League of Legends team, and head coach Geoff "CentralTime" Wang were tasked with building a winning esports program from scratch and turning Harrisburg into a capital of collegiate esports.

Doing so meant whittling down roughly 500 applicants from all over the world during five weekends of online evaluation. The top 35 prospects were flown in to Harrisburg to tour both the city and the school's burgeoning facilities at the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts. After hours of on-campus interviews and scrimmages, 16 players made the cut. All were given full-tuition scholarships and a housing stipend, just like the blue-chip football and hoops recruits at those marquee in-state athletics programs.

Titus was one of the lucky 16. A native of Parkland, Florida, he'll split time as support on the League of Legends team with Christopher "Teesum" Fong, a 2017 North American League Championship Series Scouting Grounds participant. Players vary in competitive experience across the teams. AD carry Zixing "TailsJJ" Jie has bounced around professional organizations for years, but he's more the exception than rule. Most others are like top laner Joshua "Moss" Street, high-ELO amateurs who haven't been a part of pro play or seen time on an esports roster.

That's the first obstacle Wang and the coaching staff need to help the newer players clear: adapting to the team environment.

"A lot of people build up bad habits playing by themselves to get to a really high ranking," Wang said. "It's really about you trying to maximize your own performance over everything else, whereas in a team environment, the game is played in a completely different way. All of our players are really talented, really skilled, but trying to mold that into a cohesive team is really the challenge."

Unlearning bad habits takes hours of in-game practice and repetition, but a winning team isn't just a product of refined mechanics and macro. The development of chemistry among players who were strangers until a month ago is nearly as important, and it often grows away from practice time.

"We bond over common things," Titus said. "I remember one night we just piled in a room and played Super Smash Bros., things like that. We all go out to eat together. I walk to class with my teammates because sometimes you just need someone to talk to in the mornings. We're building friendships."

The team's outings around town bind the players closer together but also act as a valuable marketing tool. Clad in eye-catching red and gold uniforms, players helped fellow students move into the dorms last month. The team also passed on some team jerseys to the Dauphin County Commissioners during a weekly public meeting as thanks for a $25,000 tourism grant.

There are signs that the message is registering. Moss said he remembers a time where the team members were getting food together while still wearing their jerseys. A group of people came up to them.

"They were like, 'Oh, are you part of the esports team?'" Moss said. "We said yeah, and they were asking us questions about it. A lot of us try to make analogies to other sports, so I'll say it's like soccer. A striker, their main goal is to be in a position where they can score a goal; the goalie is the person who has to protect that stuff. Each person has a different role. Each person has a different job they have to do."

Lately, the Storm have been on a promotional binge across Harrisburg for the HUE Fest. The esports tourney and music festival, headlined by Lit, Alien Ant Farm and Atlas Genius, also serves as a showcase for the city of Harrisburg. This weekend, Market Street will be covered by food trucks and a beer garden. The gathering, the team hopes, will announce the town of about 49,000 as a North American esports destination.

"We're meshing well together. We're learning a lot. We're working long hours," Titus said. "We have practices three times a week, then we have team meetings after that, too. We all are putting in the hours, grinding out all the kinks for us as a team, learning how other people think.

"My teammates are just so knowledgeable about the game, so talented. I go up to them and say I didn't know what you did was possible. I'm confident that we're going to have a strong showing."

The program aspires to be more than just a competitive juggernaut, though. Winning is a byproduct, not an end goal, of the program Smeltz and Wang want to institute. Providing players with the skills to pursue whatever professional life they choose, be it in the esports industry or otherwise, is the ultimate pursuit.

"A lot of people talk about how we're trying to trailblaze and set different standards," Wang said. "I don't think internally we really see it that way. For Chad and I, we're really focused on trying to do things the right way for a collegiate program that happened to not have been done before, not only on the esports side but on the student-life academics side. We're really just trying to create the best environment and foster talent the best way possible. If we end up winning some championships on the competitive side along the way, that's going to be awesome, too."

Although the professional landscape for esports remains hypercompetitive, the outlook for college players to become pros might be improving. FlyQuest support Juan "JayJ" Guibert is a product of the University of Toronto esports system, as are his Academy teammates Alvin "Ngo" Ngo and Sang "Erry" Park and head coach Gabriel "Invert" Zoltan-Johan. Confident young players who are comfortable in a team environment are getting more attention than they used to as teams recognize the relative importance of intangibles alongside stellar mechanics.

"Professional esports teams are looking for more educated, more professional, prepared players that are not only skilled in the game, but are also skilled outside of the game," Titus said. "The way they learn to communicate, the way they process information, that's stuff you learn in college."