Esports comes to Lehigh Valley colleges, pushing gaming to a bigger arena
By Jacqueline Palochko, reporter at The Morning Call Originally Posted November 5, 2018
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“As a child, Andrew Padilla spent hours trying to rescue Princess Peach, a damsel often in distress in the Super Mario Galaxy. With his brothers and friends, Padilla helped the video-game character Mario save the universe from antagonist Bowser.
“That was my first actual game that I played,” said Padilla, a Moravian College sophomore. “That’s the biggest memory I have. It was a way for me to escape.”
He never imagined he would be playing video games competitively in college. But Padilla, 20, is on Moravian College’s electronic sports team, as the Bethlehem school joined a growing number of institutions participating in esports.
This semester, 24 Moravian College esports players are competing in the Eastern College Athletic Conference against 16 colleges. Padilla is captain of the “Overwatch” team, a popular shooter game that includes 10 Moravian players. Moravian has teams for two other games: “League of Nations” and “Fortnite.”
More than 80 colleges have gone a step further and added varsity esports programs, including Edinboro University in western Pennsylvania, Albright College in Reading and, starting next semester, DeSales University in Center Valley.
For colleges, investing in esports can be a recruitment tool, ECAC President Dan Coonan said. Students who enjoy gaming also tend to be interested in STEM, he said, noting that science, technology, engineering and math are the majors that offer the best job opportunities and the ones colleges are focusing on.
Overall, about 9 percent of the 200 schools that are members of the ECAC — which also has traditional sports such as baseball, basketball and football — are involved with esports. Coonan predicts that in a few years, 100 ECAC schools will participate in online gaming competitions.
“It’s exploding in popularity,” Coonan said.
Esports has been part of the competitive landscape at colleges for a couple of years, with schools such as the University of Utah and Ohio State awarding scholarships to top players. While the leagues are co-ed, the teams are dominated by men, which has been the case with STEM majors as well. Both Moravian and DeSales’ teams do have female program directors: Sara Steinman and Karen Ruggles, respectively.
Moravian’s team is working to be approved as an official club sport, which would mean the student government could fund the team’s uniforms, equipment and tournament fees.
Moravian is working with an esports consultant on how to grow its program and possibly turn it into a varsity sport in the athletics department. As a varsity sport, the team would have a coach, designated competition area and tryouts.
Lehigh University also has a club esports team; the athletics department has no plans to add it as a varsity sport, spokeswoman Lori Friedman said.
Next semester, DeSales will become the first college in the Lehigh Valley to have a varsity esports team, competing in the National Association of College Esports, which formed in 2016 and includes more than 80 institutions.
The Center Valley school is spending about $250,000 to build a competitive arena with 22 computers in the Dorothy Day Student Center. DeSales also will offer $4,000 per year per player in scholarships.
The NCAA, the biggest college athletic association, does not yet recognize esports but last year said it is exploring the possibility. NCAA regulations could be a drawback, since the association generally does not allow student-athletes to accept money based on their athletic ability. In esports, however, it’s common for players to compete professionally in tournaments that have monetary prizes. One of the Moravian players, for example, has played in professional Fortnite tournaments.
On average, NACE said, it costs about $32,000 to start an esports program, which could include computers, headsets and keyboards. But depending on a school’s plans, it could be more. When the University of Akron spent $750,000 on three esports venues, it met with some pushback from professors because the university also was phasing out 80 academic degree programs.
Some colleges see esports as worth the investment because they have the potential to bring money and prestige. As with professional sports, esports draw spectators — sometimes, lots of them.
With the evolution of video games, esports are complicated and sophisticated, involving multiple players who communicate with each other over headsets. Professional games are held in packed arenas and aired on ESPN. Professional players, for example, participated in an “Overwatch” League this year that ended in July with a two-day championship event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn before 20,000 spectators.
Practice and teamwork
Once a week, Moravian sophomore Darien Petty logs in to his computer in his dorm and joins the rest of his “Overwatch” team to secure and defend points on a map.
“Overwatch,” played with two teams of six, is set in the future, with each player selecting a character, known as a hero. Moravian’s “Overwatch” team is 2-2 so far this year.
Gaming is more than just a hobby for some players. Petty fell in love with gaming after playing the game “The Sims” as a child. In the life simulation game, he had control of aspects he might not have had in real life.
“Things I’m not able to do, I can in that game,” he said. “I can look however I want. I can be as tall, short, big or small.”
Padilla, a native of Maplewood, N.J., likes the social aspect of gaming. He toyed with the idea of starting an archery club on campus because he was looking to get involved. But last semester, Padilla, a psychology major, found out that Moravian was going to have an esports team, including one for “Overwatch,” which he has been playing for two years.
“The reason I joined is because I want to do a sport or something on campus,” Padilla said. “Then this started off, and I really enjoy ‘Overwatch.’ I hopped on board and thought, ‘Let’s see where this takes me.’ ”
Padilla knows that there is a misconception that gamers are loners playing in a dark bedroom or basement. But that’s not the case, he said.
As captain of the “Overwatch” team, Padilla gets his players together once a week for at least two hours for a practice. The team goes online an hour before a match to warm up together and go over strategies.
In many ways, esports is like more traditional sports in that strategy, teamwork and communication are needed as much as skill and talent. Hubert Whan Tong, a member of DeSales’ “League of Legends” team, uses what he learned in traditional sports to help him be a better esports player.
“I played rugby, football, and track and field all throughout high school,” he said. “The same sort of team camaraderie and communications is still there. You really have to come together as a team.”
Between his part-time job at CVS and his school work, Whan Tong, a computer science major, plays video games for about 15 hours a week. During breaks, it’s closer to 30 hours.
“Any free time I have, I go toward gaming,” he said.
Like Padilla, Whan Tong, of Delaware, has early memories of playing video games on a Nintendo system. For him, gaming is a way of connecting with people.
“The same way you’d bond with someone over music, gaming to me is very much something I can talk about with other people,” he said.
Last year, Whan Tong and some other DeSales students put together a team to compete in an esports tournament. When they compete in the spring as a varsity sport, they’ll have jerseys, a coach and a designated space to play.
“That’s like a huge boost because we can have dedicated practices, film reviews, stuff like that that I think is going to be really helpful,” Whan Tong said.
Players will even have to try out for the team as they do for basketball and volleyball.
Besides the price tag for the arena, DeSales isn’t sure how much creating the program will cost.