"We had no teams, no mascots, no anything," says Harrisburg president Eric Darr. "We toyed with the idea of athletics, knowing our students are not typical dirt-sport athletes."
Esports — competitive gaming — was a natural fit. In the fall of 2017, Darr says, "through Twitch, Reddit, Discord, we put out a call that we're building a team. ‘Come one, come all. Full scholarships on the line!’" Around 500 people engaged in online tryouts playing Overwatch and League of Legends, and 36 were flown to Harrisburg . The school awarded 16 scholarships (which are internally funded, according to the school), to students ages 18 to 27. Eligibility requirements, set by schools and the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), are looser than NCAA rules; players must maintain minimum GPAs, but some have professional experience.
Harrisburg University's team, with separate units competing in Overwatch and League of Legends, became the Storm, complete with stylish uniforms and a mascot: an angry red tornado holding yellow lightning bolts.
NACE says it has 98 member schools, up from just six in 2016. Many are smaller institutions like Harrisburg, Maryville and Bellevue. "The cost to start an esports program are a fraction of traditional athletics," says Michael Brooks, NACE executive director. "So it's really a chance for a school to plant their flag in uncharted territory. The schools that create the opportunities first are the ones that get first-mover advantage, to establish their brands on a global scale."
College players can segue into new professional leagues, and the mushrooming industry offers careers beyond playing.