The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg is getting into gaming with Westmoreland County’s first college esports team.
The players met for their first official practice this week, gathering in a classroom to play “Overwatch,” a popular team-based competitive shooter game with a Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic.
Al Thiel, director of student involvement, said students led the creation of the team. It started with the campus Nerdfighters club, a group devoted to all forms of pop culture. Many of the club’s members play video games, and wanted to take it to a more competitive level, Thiel said.
The club members joined Tespa — one of several organizations jockeying to become the esports equivalent of the NCAA — to participate in tournaments against other schools.
“It’s basically competitive video games, approached with an athletic mindset,” said team captain Ben Hill.
The university took that athletic mindset a step further this year by creating an official varsity esports team, separate from the Nerdfighters club.
“It’s grown into so much more than that,” Thiel said. “I’m proud of all of this.”
Players will meet twice a week for practice, and be required to put in at least 10 hours of practice time on their own. They can’t shirk their health either — research has shown that physical fitness helps gaming performance, so hitting the gym will be mandatory, coach Dan O’Connor said.
“My goal for them is to have essentially the same mindset of existing athletes on campus,” he said.
The team will participate in some tournaments this year, but the focus for the spring primarily will be on getting things organized, with hopes of a full-fledged launch next semester, O’Connor said.
“We’re working on just cohesion, then hit the ground harder in the fall,” O’Connor said.
The team has about 15 members currently, and hopes to expand to about 30 by next semester.
The team is separated into three groups, each devoted to a different video game. The largest plays Overwatch. Another plays Hearthstone, a digital card game. The third plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, another team-based shooter game.
An esports program is a bit like a track and field team, O’Connor said. A player on a track team might specialize in sprints, javelin or hurdles, while a player on an esports team might dedicate their efforts to one of many different video games.
The games the team plays will likely fluctuate over time, based on what titles are popular among students and in the broader esports scene, according to O’Connor.
Unlike traditional college sports, which mandate players be unpaid amateurs, Pitt Greensburg’s esports program will allow its players to keep any prize money they earn.
The world’s best gamers can earn big payouts. The winning team in last year’s professional Overwatch League Grand Finals split $1.1 million.
Kyle Giersdorf, a 16-year-old from Pottsgrove Pennsylvania, won $3 million last year at the Fortnite World Cup.
In addition to prize money, top players can get hefty salaries by joining professional teams.
Pitt Greensburg’s team is unlikely to bring in that kind of money, but the large prize pools show the growing popularity of digital competition.
The world’s most popular esports event, the League of Legends World Championship, had about 100 million viewers last year, about the same as the Super Bowl.
While traditional sports’ biggest games are primarily broadcast on TV, esports events are more often streamed online. Pitt Greensburg will start broadcasting its own games this fall at twitch.tv/pittgbgesports.
The rising popularity of esports has attracted attention from colleges. Robert Morris University started a team last year, and Point Park University’s team will start competing this year.
Pitt Greensburg President Robert Gregerson said the university is excited to get involved.
“Interest in esports is growing across the country, and we want to be sure that our students have the opportunity to compete in this arena,” he said in a statement.