A small Pennsylvania university is aiming to be America’s best institution for video gamers as it taps into the booming college e-sports industry.
Despite having just 750 full-time undergraduate students, Harrisburg University describes itself as a "trailblazer in a rising industry", with an ever increasing number of schools exploring e-sports.
The University has devoted all its efforts into making its single competitive sports team – the HU Storm – the best team of gamers in the country, in the hope of making it as attractive a destination as any of the historic sporting powerhouses for prospective students with an interest in e-sports.
Its efforts appear to be paying off – the university won the first ever ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship – founded by the cable network this year in response to the growth of e-sports spreading across college campuses.
E-sports, which refers to multi-player video game competitions, is slowly being introduced into the American college sports offering.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) formed in July 2016, with just seven colleges and universities offering esports programmes.
The popularity has rapidly grown since then, with more than 170 institutions now offering varsity programmes.
College sports are a serious business in the US – college football is thought to be the country’s third most popular sport – and the national collegiate competitions are estimated to bring in around $1bn in revenue a year.
While the traditional sporting universities have been focused on maintaining their dominance over physical sports, Harrisburg saw an opportunity to make a name for itself in a new arena.
It began heavily investing in its e-sports programme in 2017, with a total annual budget now around $2million, and has built a state-of-the-art e-sports training facility, boasting "world-class coaches" and an "arena that will blow your mind".
It offers 22 players full tuition scholarships each year along with a housing allowance. The gamers get to practice in specially designed chairs, with massage therapy balls and cutting-edge technology – and the chance to compete in tournaments offering as much as $50,000 in prize money.
In return, they must commit to a rigorous schedule which includes maintaining good academic grades, compulsory physical exercise sessions and strict meal plans on top of the four-hour daily gaming practices.
Harrisburg is by no means alone – a handful of smaller universities in the US have begun using their e-sports to attract students who might otherwise go elsewhere.
Victoria Horsley, from NACE, said smaller universities are eager to add the e-sporting programmes because it helps with student recruitment. “They see e-sports is popular so they want to jump in and try to grab all the students in their market as soon as they can,” she told the Washington Post.
While Harrisburg has succeeded in putting itself on the national e-sports map, Chad Smeltz, the team’s program director, told the newspaper he is looking forward to big universities getting involved.
“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," he said. “It’s going to be kind of funny to see that adaptation.”