York Region esports team enters fourth season

Student-athletes are geared up and ready for the start of a new season on the fields, courts and grills of York County.

And the Hawks too.

“What we do here is more than video games,” said Neftali Perez, who coaches the Harrisburg Area Community College esports team, which has many York Region students.

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

“A lot of sports teams weren’t doing anything,” said Perez, himself a college player and system administrator. “We were trying to think of a way to bring the students together, to have a place to go.”

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Esports, a form of competition where participants compete in video games, is on the rise in the United States and around the world. This includes streaming Overwatch, a multiplayer first-person shooter, on ESPN and tournaments where cash prizes are won, such as the Evolution Championship Series.

HACC esports team players can choose which games to participate in. Overwatch involves players working together to achieve goals using pre-made characters. The game, published by Blizzard Entertainment, is enjoying great popularity, leading to a sequel coming out this year.

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

Lloyd said she had been playing Overwatch for a year after it was released in 2016.

“I tried it at a friend’s house and was really interested, but I’m not much of a first-person shooter,” Lloyd said.

She also involved Gary Lilly, also from Spring Grove. The two would watch a professional Overwatch player, Stylosa, 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 mostly focus on healing their teammates.

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

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

“NJCAA esports began in 2019 because NJCAA members were developing esports teams and seeking support focused on the 2-year-old space and community colleges,” King said.

The hall at Harrisburg Area Community College where the esports team competes.

Since its inception, the league has grown from 12 schools participating in esports competition to 131, and several more colleges are preparing for future participation.

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

That makes sense, given the games’ widespread popularity.

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

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

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

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

The Hawks once won an exclusive workout with a pro trainer in Overwatch and Valorant, another multiplayer game.

“It was a good experience,” recalls Perez.

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Students who participate in Overwatch were able to learn from Aramori, a professional Overwatch player, by winning a side tournament.

“In just a few days, I felt like I learned a lot,” Lloyd said.

This included learning ways to progress through the game map in ways the other team might not have expected in order to avoid taking damage too early and conserve resources.

Lilly usually plays damage on the team. He says he hopes to continue playing Overwatch after finishing 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, part of the HACC esports team showing their player tags on the back of their jerseys at the HACC York campus on August 17, 2022.

One of the aspects of the coming year that will have a major impact on the Overwatch team is the release of its sequel, Overwatch 2. Scheduled for October, the release will have a major impact on the competitive scene, including for HACC .

“Hopefully when it comes out it will still be a fun and enjoyable experience like Overwatch 2 was,” Lilly said.

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

Perez said one of his priorities with the team was to make sure there was no toxicity among his players. The social aspect – and the collaborative, goal-oriented nature of games – can counterintuitively help many students improve their social and academic skills.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “the main goal is that they can be successful in their studies and go out into the world with a good education so that they can be successful.”

The Hawks play one game every week. In their three seasons so far, the team has brought at least one team or player to the playoffs in their respective leagues.

Cummings, who recently changed majors, said he would likely continue playing once his time at HACC was over, but it wouldn’t be the same.

“One of the best things is playing with these people,” he said, “and even if I would like to play later, I don’t know. You have to have that team component.”

– Contact Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.

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