When Lebanon Valley College student athlete Ben Witmer scores points or wins a game, there is no crowd present to cheer him on.
There may be some fans online watching games unfold live, but when Witmer and his teammates experience victory on the field of play, it’s decidedly different from what the average fan of collegiate varsity sports would call playing a sport.
Witmer is a part of Lebanon Valley College’s emergent esports team, participating as a member of the “Hearthstone” squad and a captain of the “Overwatch” squad (both titles of video games). In layman’s terms, “esports” refers to any video game played on a professional level around the world. Though on the surface it might be difficult to draw a correlation between Witmer and, say, a football or basketball captain, the similarities become apparent as he describes his in-game leadership style.
“As a captain, I pick what heroes our team play depending on what map we are on and what team we’re playing against,” Witmer explains. “I’ll tell my teammates where they need to be positioned in certain situations and when it is time to initiate, as well as back out of the fight.”
Competitive video gaming has been happening since before most of Lebanon Valley’s current varsity squad was alive, with a famous example being the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. Beginning in the 2000s, however, esports saw a popularity boom, leading to games being broadcast in sold-out arenas and winners receiving millions of dollars.
The National Association of Collegiate Esports has been steadily increasing its school membership over the past several years. Once David Shapiro, Lebanon Valley’s senior director of information technology, caught wind of the esports association at the end of 2017, he immediately brought it to the attention of the director of athletics and other senior staff.
“We quickly decided it was something we wanted to do, and then even more quickly decided there was a huge marketing advantage,” Shapiro says. “There was no one in the area doing this, and we knew there was student interest on campus.”
By Dec. 22, the word was out that Lebanon Valley had joined NACE, and by the first week of January there were 40 students on campus, with another 20 in the recruiting pipeline, interested in joining Pennsylvania’s first collegiate esports program.
“I didn’t play video games until my junior year of high school, when I built a computer,” says Nick Pollak, whose main game is “League of Legends.” “This is my first time playing anything more than casually, and it’s a lot more responsibility than I expected, but I’ve quickly developed a passion for it.”
Passion isn’t hard to come by when visiting the esports training room, located in the Clyde A. Lynch Memorial Hall on campus. Thanks to a partnership with Annville-based technology company Candoris, the room is outfitted with Alienware Aurora R7 computers, known as some of the best machines for competitive gaming.
“Watching [the room] come together is incredible,” Pollak says. “It’s so exciting that we’ll have every technological advantage when we play.”
Because there’s no geographical limitations, Lebanon Valley has been able to compete in its inaugural season with schools such as Rutgers and Boise State.
Players adhere to a strict practice schedule, usually gathering three to four times a week for multiple hours, depending on the game. Shapiro, director of the college’s esports, also notes that NACE athletes adhere to the same strictness as NCAA athletes, although the two organizations remain unaffiliated.
“We hold them accountable just like any other student athlete,” Shapiro says. “And unlike the NCAA, which has no academic restrictions, students have to hold at least a 2.5 GPA to remain on the team.”
Esports also remains the only varsity-level sport that is coed, which allows Shapiro and other coaches to “find the best players, regardless of gender.”
Later this year, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology will join Lebanon Valley on the Pennsylvania varsity circuit, and there’s already been talk of the schools gathering for public intermural play to showcase what esports has to offer in front of a live crowd.
With the season wrapping up in the coming weeks, the off-season will provide some much-needed practice to come back stronger in the fall. Along with raising their skill levels, the student athletes are hoping for a greater visibility for esports in general.
“The majority of people don’t take esports seriously, even with their huge worldwide viewership,” Witmer says. “The emotional and some physical toll that esports can take on players is similar to sports such as soccer and football.”
Adds Pollak, “Many people are hung up on their old notion of what a sport is or how you define it. They fail to see the bigger picture — esports is a huge, growing international market.”