Wilson’s newest athletics team have hit their screens running thanks to a generous donation.
By Darrach Dolan
Esports, an umbrella term for competitive video gaming, is the fastest growing sport globally. Not only are more people playing competitively, but hundreds of millions regularly watch tournaments where the top professional players can earn millions of dollars in prize money and even more in endorsements. Last year in the USA, only the NFL had more viewers than esports.
In other words, the sport has come a long way from kids playing video games in their parents’ basements. Today’s tournaments are held in large venues such as Las Vegas casinos and traditional sports stadiums where live audiences watch players and teams compete, and the games are simultaneously streamed to audiences worldwide. With global participation and viewership in the hundreds of millions and growing, esports are on an explosive upward trajectory.
This academic year, Wilson has joined the ranks of colleges with esports teams thanks to a seed grant from Charlene Cronenberg Berardino ’63 and Tom Berardino. The College used their donation to help create and equip an esports “arena” on the ground floor of Prentis Hall. The windows are covered, and the lighting is muted to minimize reflections and glare on the screens. The walls are freshly painted and decorated with Phoenix decals. Comfortable couches and chairs are arranged around coffee tables in the middle of the room and close to a large TV where games can be replayed and critiqued. And, most importantly, the walls are lined with computers and monitors where individual student-athletes in gaming chairs practice or compete.
“The College didn’t skimp on anything in this room,” Josh Bound, one of the two coaches the College has hired to launch the Phoenix esports team, said as he showed off the facility. The room has a dedicated internet connection, which means there is virtually no lag time when the players compete against other teams (to be competitive, you cannot have any delay between a player’s actions and their avatar’s actions in real-time).
He explains how even the chairs are state-of-the-art — meaning they’re ergonomic and built to withstand a beating because gaming sessions can go on for hours, and the players are often quite physical as they manipulate their avatars on screen. He is pleased that Wilson has taken the sport so seriously and has been prepared to fund this new team and “do it the right way.”
The Berardinos knew nothing about esports when President Fugate mentioned that adding an esports team would benefit students. Always on the lookout for ways to support the College, the couple did some research. They learned about its popularity and got firsthand endorsements from family and friends who play. They agreed it would be an exciting addition and a driver of recruitment and retention.
Tom Berardino has been a fan of the College since witnessing the fight to save her from closure in the 70s. In particular, he has admired her scrappy spirit and her willingness to adapt while remaining true to her principles. He believes that by providing the inaugural funding of the team, he and Charlene are facilitating yet another forward-looking step by the College. Charlene adds they are very measured and thoughtful when it comes to giving. Instead of taking a scattershot approach and giving to all the causes they like, they focus on three or four close to their hearts and make contributions that will have significant impacts. Wilson, she says, will always be close to their hearts.
They were so proud of the Phoenix’s first semester accomplishments that they have made a second gift. This will help expand the team’s space, create a shout-casting room (where a “caster” streams live play-by-plays), and expand the number of console gaming systems.
When Dean of Students Mary Beth Williams approached Bound about coaching the Phoenix team, he asked, “Do you want a program that wins or a program that is a positive experience? You can have both, but that’s a rarity.” Williams said she wanted the latter, and Bound jumped onboard — provided the College hire a second coach — his longtime esports collaborator, Mike Pittenger. Again, Williams agreed.
Mike Pittenger is younger and quieter than Bound, wears his hair in a bun, and prefers to stay in the background, whereas Bound is out front. This complimentary dynamic has contributed to the early success of the team in competition and in creating the right “room culture.” Pittenger explains, “He’s like the stern dad, and I’m like the mom. I’ll have the real heart-to-heart, and he’ll be the one who tells them they’ve messed up.”
Bound, who has a long history of coaching “traditional” sports, including rugby, ice hockey, lacrosse, and wrestling, says coaching esports is not all that different. “It’s very much a sport in terms of teamwork; it’s just not traditional. We’re not going to blow out knees; we’re worried about carpal tunnel and too much screen time and balancing life.”
The biggest difference between coaching esports and the “traditional” sports is that he is not teaching techniques per se. A baseball coach may teach a pitcher how to throw a curveball. Esports coaches, on the other hand, don’t teach moves. They teach strategies and how to work with others. “The kids are more dexterous than I will ever be, so I can’t teach them the mechanics,” Bound says. “I manage them and teach them the nuances. It’s more like a general manager role because it’s more about timing and working with your teammates, and if you don’t stick together, you won’t win.”
When Pittenger arrives one Monday afternoon, the arena already has around 15 players there. Mondays and Tuesdays are practice days, and over the next hour, players come and go; some come to practice or review games; others are there just to hang out. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Pittenger gets everyone’s attention and asks for a show of hands if they’ve played a team sport before joining the Phoenix. Two players raise their hands. The rest have never played an organized sport before in their lives. He is making a point — one of the most important jobs he and Bound have is to teach teamwork and how to be part of a group.
Bound puts it more directly, “They don’t understand how to behave around their teammates, or the sort of accountability other sports teach you. But these kids grow up quickly when a guy like me tells them that they can’t quit in the middle of a game.” He explains how most of them not only don’t understand team mentality but often haven’t met their esports “friends” in person. “[Before joining the team], they acted all hard like they were keyboard warriors. But when they’re sitting in the same room as others, they have to learn what is acceptable and what is not because the kid is right next to you. That’s the team bonding aspect of it, and my job is all about the culture of the room and developing camaraderie.”
And the Phoenix esports team does feel and act like a traditional team. Bound says the players are doing, often for the first time in their lives, the sorts of things other teammates do — they eat together, hang out together, joke and banter, and are to all intents and purposes no different from any of the other teams on campus.
“I was like these kids when I was their age,” Pittenger said. “I wasn’t an outcast or anything, but I definitely ran with the nerdy crew. When I see what we’re doing here, I wish we had this when I was growing up.” He knows that things have changed a lot since his teen years. “No one’s really getting bullied or ostracized for playing video games, but it helps to have a cool, safe space where you can do what you want with other people like you. It’s huge. Everyone just made themselves right at home from day one, and I was blown away by it.”
Bound and Pittenger’s collaboration began at Chambersburg high school, where Bound teaches, and Pittenger is in the IT department. Students asked Bound if he could help them form a gaming club. He agreed but had to find another staff member because clubs at the school are required to have two staff advisers. Bound cornered Pittenger in the corridor one day and asked him to be the second adviser. And just like that, their partnership began. “Now I’m involved in the clubs at the school and at Wilson and running a nonprofit,” Pittenger says. “I sometimes wonder how I got so involved.”
Wilson’s road to adding an esports team began with Dean Williams asking undergraduate James Pasaribu, the vice president of the Wilson College Government Association, to research the costs and challenges of setting up an esports program. As an esports fan and player, he was an enthusiastic advocate and wrote a proposal that was accepted by the College leadership. The next challenge was finding coaches to run it.
Williams learned of Bound through a TED Talk he gave on gaming clubs and how they created safe spaces for all kids. His TED Talk drummed up a lot of interest in gaming clubs, and he was inundated with requests from like-minded people who wanted to set up clubs in their schools. This led him to found a nonprofit, Video Game Clubs of America (VGCUSA), to help make gaming clubs a reality in schools around the country. VGCUSA provides know-how and help in setting up high school gaming clubs and hopes to have affiliates in every state soon. It is a testament to the Phoenix coaches’ energy and dedication that both men continue to work at Chambersburg high school, run the gaming club there, run the national nonprofit, and now coach at Wilson most evenings during the semester.
Bound’s journey to esports coaching is a very personal one. His son, who is on the autism spectrum, struggled to communicate with his peers. Bound noticed that while he might struggle to communicate in the classroom, in the videogame sphere, he held his own. Bound created a gaming club where anyone interested could play. This was a safe place for his son to hang out and feel part of a community without the need for special interventions or help. And this has been one of Bound’s goals for his nonprofit, clubs, and now at Wilson — to foster a “culture” of acceptance and belonging. He doesn’t like labels and wants everyone to feel welcome.
And speaking of inclusion, the sport has a mixed reputation when it comes to the inclusion of women. Many girls and women play esports, but at the amateur and professional levels, it’s still dominated by males. Bound says this is changing, but not as fast as he would like. Currently, there are only three women involved with the Phoenix. Bound says a sort of screen machismo can put women off. His nine-year-old daughter experienced the toxic masculinity of gaming firsthand when a middle-schooler criticized her to the extent that she gave up playing for six months. Bound worked with her to convince her to return to playing and not let boys intimidate her. The Wilson Phoenix are clear in their messaging that toxicity in any form is not allowed, and women are welcome. Both coaches hope to recruit more over the coming semesters.
Pasaribu, a co-captain of the new team, described what Bound and Pittenger have done as amazing. “Our results speak for us: three out of our four contending teams made it to playoffs, and our program is close to doubling in size,” he said. “We owe a lot of this success to the hard work of our support and coaching staff. They’re the ones that take care of the things outside the game that help the players and the program to run smoothly, be it through administration, mediation, or just simple encouragement when the going gets tough.”
When Bound is recruiting new student-athletes, he doesn’t try to sell them on the equipment and facilities. Instead, he sells them on the camaraderie and spirit of the team — the culture of the room. With a number of new students already signed up and several of our incoming international students very interested in joining, the esports Phoenix are going from a solid foundation to building something lasting and meaningful as they go forward.