When Ted Black walked into Whitaker Center for the first time, he knew he’d stumbled upon an architectural gem.
Constructed with 1,405 tons of structural steel and 6,455 pieces of golden sandstone, the distinctive building in downtown Harrisburg houses a three-level, hands-on science museum, a 200-seat cinema and a 700-seat performing arts theater.
“It’s spectacular that a community of any size, let alone the size of Harrisburg, was able to pull off something of this magnitude,” Black said.
In March, Black became the president and CEO of the center and, as such, he has three major goals: replace timeworn exhibits that opened with the center in 1999, upgrade the space to support WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity and provide a venue for “esports,” competitive video game tournaments.
That last item on the list may be his greatest initiative.
Having worked as the president of the Buffalo Sabres NHL hockey franchise and as a vice president for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Black knows a thing or two about how to identify growing sports markets and trends.
He doesn’t play video games personally, but he’s noticed that the market for esports has been growing at an astounding rate. The industry generated $1.5 billion in revenue last year and is projected to bring in $2.3 billion by 2022, according to SuperData Research, a game industry research firm.
Black thinks the center’s unique layout make it the perfect venue to host live esports competitions at the Sunoco Theater and stream tournaments in the Medical Digital Cinema (formerly the IMAX theater). He has already secured a venue partnership with Harrisburg University’s new esports program. With a little luck and planning, the objective is to make Harrisburg the hub of Pennsylvania’s burgeoning esports community.
Chad Smeltz, esports program director at HU, thinks this just might work.
“It’s in the middle of the state, so it’s easy to get to,” he said.
Smeltz, along with head coach Geoff Wang, was hired in January to lead HU’s first esports athletes, who will arrive in the fall. In early May, the university awarded 16 full-ride scholarships for students to train and compete within two popular, team-based video games—League of Legends and Overwatch.
Partly due to Black’s suggestion, partly due to overwhelming student interest, HU became the first mid-Atlantic university and the 50th in the United States to recognize esports as a varsity sport last October, according to the university.
Marcus Raskob, an incoming freshman studying interactive media, will be one of the full-ride athletes on the Overwatch team.
“It’s a commitment because you’re playing 20 hours a week on top of whatever else you have going on,” Raskob said, noting that he is nervous but excited to have the opportunity to play games at the varsity level.
According to Smeltz, the university expects to host several statewide competitions a month at Whitaker Center and at least one national competition a year. The national competition, he thinks, will put Harrisburg on the map, since there aren’t a lot of big gaming competitions on the East Coast yet.
What’s more, hosting esports tournaments will draw in new audiences and spike the center’s attendance numbers, which, according to Black, average around 150,000 visitors per year right now, a third of whom are kids on field trips.
He hopes that Whitaker Center’s esports partnership with HU, alongside the possibility of hosting adult recreational leagues and educational events that explore the science and art behind video games—coding, graphics, animation, etc.—will attract attendees of all demographics, socioeconomic statuses and ages.
In a way, Black’s plans to immerse Whitaker Center in esports may be the venue’s first step in acknowledging the notable difference between the world today and the world of 20 years ago when it it was founded.
“Now, there’s more competition for customers’ attention,” Black said. “The key to gaining that attention is figuring out how to leverage the center’s assets.”
For more information about Whitaker Center, visit www.whitakercenter.org or call 717-214-2787.