Gamers smash competition, build community in Harper College's growing esports team
Enter the Harper College Esports lair, and you'll get swept into the frenzy of protagonists and villains waging intense battles in pursuit of the prime objective: Achieve the mission for the honor and victory of the team.
The Harper Esports (short for "electronic sports") Team is an energetic, competitive PC and Nintendo Switch gaming juggernaut in the making. The growing program features teams of students who work together to master the top games and compete in structured and ad hoc tournaments. And they're learning life lessons in the process.
Harper Esports Head Coach Don Curley says gaming is about more than racking up high scores and Twitch streaming.
"We're learning about respect, commitment to teammates and the value of practice," Curley explained. "Meanwhile, I'm always working to make the esports experience as enjoyable as possible for the players."
Curley should know. He's ranked 87th in the North American region for the popular game League of Legends. He gamed competitively for four years at Robert Morris University, where he served as an esports assistant coach before becoming Harper's head coach in fall 2022.
The Harper team has since exploded to 30 students, including second-year student Joshua Soc, a computer science major and former competitive Fortnite player who echoed Curley's sentiment.
"Participating in esports at Harper has positively impacted my college experience," Soc said. "Gaming provides a supportive community and has taught me valuable skills like communication and comprehension, which are applicable in school and professional settings."
Curley hopes to expand the program to 40 or 50 students by the end of the 2023-24 academic year, which will involve a significant expansion of the esports facilities - a project that is currently underway.
Esports: Organized, competitive video gaming
In practice and tournaments, players actively refine the interpersonal and logistical skills that will help build community and excellence long after their college experience is "game over." Developing lightning-fast reflexes and committing to a rigorous practice schedule doesn't hurt, either.
Harper's eGaming Room, soon to be known as the Gaming Lounge, is the battleground for gamers in six games: League of Legends; Overwatch; Rainbow Six: Siege; Rocket League; Super Smash Bros.; and Valorant.
All are played on PC except Super Smash Bros., which is played on the Nintendo Switch.
Harper competes in the National Esports Collegiate Conference (NECC). The conference sponsors regular season virtual and in-person competitions and championships in popular games for more than 300 member colleges and universities.
The Harper team practices twice a week. When it's time for action, second-year student Zachary Lewis serves as the team's In-Game Leader (IGL).
"It's my responsibility to lead the team to victory," he said. "That might include creating strategies or instructing the team on what to do and where to go."
Soc values the opportunity to help build the new esports team with his new friends.
"We recognize that we're relatively new to this scene compared to others who have been in the field for longer and professionally," he said. "We acknowledge our setbacks but also provide encouragement and support."
Gaming builds academic support and teamwork skills
Similar to traditional athletics, college competitive gamers are required to prioritize academics. Harper team members watch over each other - they've built a supportive community where they share accountability and help meet classroom commitments.
"When it comes to balancing esports, classes and competing, we try to help each other out if someone falls behind in their coursework," Soc said.
From the leadership perspective, Lewis agreed: "We're all students, so everyone understands we can get busy with schoolwork sometimes. We respect each other and even though everyone's individual skill is different, we are all team players and we all get along together."
Lewis, who is earning his associate degree in computer science at Harper, said the organizational and people skills he's learning will benefit him when he goes on to earn his bachelor's.
"I'm learning how to organize the schedule for five-to-six people, how to lead the team and how to document everything so we're on the same page," he said. "These are things I've never had to do before. It's all very fun and rewarding."
For Curley, coaching Harper's Esports Team provides an opportunity to give more gamers a chance to grow their skills - in their forthcoming, cutting-edge gaming space and in real life. But it's also about one, super important thing: having fun.
"I always remind the players to enjoy the experience," he said. "After all, we're here to have fun."