Video games have become part of the American fabric. Even if you’re not a gamer yourself, you’ve likely watched someone play, maybe a friend, child or grandchild.
But watching a live, high-stakes tournament, with hundreds or thousands of screaming, cheering fans? That’s still a relatively new concept.
This month, Harrisburg University (HU) will join a nationwide trend by launching its collegiate e-sports program at the HUE Festival near its downtown campus.
The brainchild of HU President Eric Darr, the festival merges two of the nation’s largest entertainment industries: video gaming and music.
This is actually the third year that HU has sponsored a free fall music festival. But “nothing of this magnitude,” said Darr. HU will spend more than $500,000 on the festival, which is expected to draw upwards of 10,000 visitors, Darr said.
The festival will serve as a debut of sorts for the Storm, HU’s newly constituted team of varsity-level gamers. The Storm will compete against 32 e-sports teams from across the country, playing two of today’s hottest games, League of Legends and Overwatch, and vying for a $50,000 prize pool.
The action starts on Friday, Sept. 21, with early rounds taking place in HU classrooms, at no cost to spectators. Saturday’s ticketed semi- and final matches are at Whitaker Center’s Select Medical Digital Cinema and Sunoco Performance Theatre.
Whitaker Center Production Manager Brian Ariano has been tasked with preparing the venues for optimum viewing, both onsite and online. He’s been working with local marketing company JPL Creative to make the necessary enhancements.
“[The challenge] is finding a way to tie the two venues together and make them accessible to external audiences, especially the Sunoco Theatre, designed for live performances,” he said.
The festival’s music portion will take place on Saturday at a block party just outside of HU and Whitaker Center, at 4th and Market streets. The headliners will be two rock bands from California, Alien Ant Farm and Lit, as well as Atlas Genius, an alternative rock band from Australia. Joining them will be local bands the Great Enough and Skela. For the late-night crowd, there’s an after-party at Club XL featuring Toronto native DJ Whipped Cream.
Frank Schofield, a media executive with iHeart Media, which is handling the music portion along with ALT99.3, said that video games and music are a natural fit
“Video games always have a soundtrack, like movies and television shows,” he said. “Video games are just a different form of medium.”
The audio also provides players with cues and helps engage the audience. Schofield said that media outlets are still catching up with the live trend, trying to determine how best to manage and maximize the sound portion.
Besides live music, the block party will feature food, vendors, a beer garden and children’s free gaming.
Chad Smeltz, HU’s e-sports program director, marvels at the potential for the program and the sport, which, until now, has been West Coast-centric. Harrisburg’s central location, he said, makes the city a natural East Coast hub.
Originally from Harrisburg, Smeltz returned here recently to head up HU’s program after leaving his role as a full-time coach and general manager for a League of Legends team in California.
“At least for this fall, HU is the only school offering full-time e-sports scholarships, 16 full-time and one presidential,” he said.
Much like Division 1 athletes, jersey-clad students on the Storm even have their own dorm. Smeltz said that players who opt to “go pro” can make up to a seven-figure salary, including paid food, housing and travel.
For players not pursuing a professional career, Darr anticipates a future filled with “an interesting set of career options” in the rapidly growing e-sports industry. He also envisions HU playing a big role in developing and educating the highly trained workforce required for the burgeoning field. But first, they play.
As Harrisburg watches the inaugural Storm team assume their starting positions, HUE Festival 2.0 is already in the works.
“The plan is not to take the festival to the world, but to bring the world to us,” Darr said.
HUE Festival takes place Sept. 21 to 22 at several locations downtown, including at Harrisburg University, at Whitaker Center and at a block party at 4th and Market streets. For more information, visit www.huefest.com.