'More than video games': York-area esports team enters its fourth season

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Student athletes are primed and ready for the start of a new season on fields, courts and gridirons across York County.

And so are the Hawks.

"What we're doing here is more than video games," said Neftali Perez, who coaches the Harrisburg Area Community College esports team, which features many York-area students.

Perez said the team got its start primarily because of the COVID-19 pandemic — because so many students were isolated with so little to do. But it's helped many students learn the skills they need out in the real world.

"A lot of the athletic teams weren't doing anything," said Perez, himself a gamer and systems administrator for the college. "We were trying to think of a way to congregate students, to have a place to go to."

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Esports, a form of competition where participants play each other in video games, has been on the rise in the United States and across the world. That includes the broadcasting of Overwatch, a multiplayer first person shooter, on ESPN and the introduction of tournaments where cash prizes are won, like the Evolution Championship Series.

Players on HACC's esports team can choose which games to compete in. Overwatch involves players working together to accomplish goals using pre-made characters. The game, published by Blizzard Entertainment, has wide popularity, leading to a sequel that will release this year. 

"I was excited about the game and wanted to strategize," said Overwatch player Azeria Lloyd of Spring Grove. 

Lloyd said she's been playing Overwatch since a year after its release in 2016. 

"I tried it at a friend's house and was really interested, but I'm not really much of a first person shooter kind of person," Lloyd said. 

She got Gary Lilly, also of Spring Grove, involved. The two frequently watched a professional Overwatch player, Stylosa, who would go over the latest changes to the game and how to take advantage of them.

Lloyd mainly plays support characters like Moira or Mercy, who are able to do damage to opposing players but focus on healing their teammates.

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Other roles in Overwatch include tank, for players who absorb damage that would've been dealt to their teammates, and offense, for players who focus on damaging the enemy team.

HACC is a part of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), which hosts more than 200 two-year colleges in sports. According to NJCAA esports director Matthew King, the association started hosting esports in 2019.

"NJCAA esports initially started in 2019 because NJCAA members were developing esports teams and searching for support focused on the two-year and community college space," King said.

The room at Harrisburg Area Community College where the e-sports team competes.

Since its beginning, the league has gone from 12 schools participating in esports competition to 131, with several more colleges preparing for future participation.

Increasingly, esports is becoming part of student life. Indeed, it has spread beyond college campuses to primary schools. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 8,600 high schools reported having video-gaming teams as of last year.

That makes sense, given the widespread popularity of gaming.

According to Pew Research Center, about 90% of teens play video games.

Perez said the college plays other two-year colleges in its league.

"If you think about it, it wouldn't be fair if you have a team who's been playing together for six seasons. The chemistry for that team would be really good if they were going up against a team that's only been together for two semesters," Perez said.

Jonathan Cunnings, of York Township, who recently switched his major to computer science from psychology, said practices involve meeting to play games and sometimes scrimmage against other teams.

Once, the Hawks won exclusive practice with a professional coach in both Overwatch and Valorant, another multiplayer game.

"That was a good experience," Perez remembered.

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The students who compete in Overwatch were able to learn from Aramori, a professional Overwatch player, by winning a side tournament.

"Just in a few days, I felt like I learned a whole lot," Lloyd said. 

That included learning how to progress through the game map in ways that the other team might not expect in order to prevent taking damage too early and conserve resources.

Lilly generally plays the damage role on the team. He says he hopes to continue to play Overwatch after he finishes his time at HACC. 

[from left to right]: Gary Lilly, from Spring Grove, Coach Neftali Perez, from Harrisburg, Jonathan Cunnings, from York Twp, and Azeria Lloyd, from Spring grove, a part of the HACC e-sports team showing their gamer tags on the back of their jerseys at the HACC York campus on August 17, 2022.

The upcoming release of Overwatch 2, the sequel to the original game, is expected to shake things up for the team. Set to release in October, the release will have a major impact on the competitive scene, including for HACC.

"I'm hoping that when it releases, it's still a fun and enjoyable experience like Overwatch was," Lilly said. 

Students must be registered as full-time students and must maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher to participate in competitive play. They cannot fail any class and must submit an affidavit.

Perez said one of his priorities with the team is to make sure that there isn't toxicity among his players. The social aspect — and the collaborative, goal-oriented nature of the games — can counterintuitively help many students improve their social and academic skills.

"Ultimately," he said, "the whole goal of this is so they can do well in their academics and go off into the world with a good education so they can be successful." 

The Hawks play a match each week. In their three seasons so far, the team has gotten at least one team or player into the playoffs in their respective leagues.

Cunnings said he'll likely keep playing once his time at HACC is done, but it won't be the same.

"One of the best things is playing with these people," he said, "and as much as I would love to play later, I don't know. You've got to have that team component."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.