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A Winning Legacy for Competitive Esports

esports team competing in championship game.

Howard Community College esports coach Mark Winkel remembers how he felt after the esports program’s first-ever match in September 2020. The Dragons lost so badly to UCLA, Winkel honestly wondered if they would ever taste victory. But now a new question comes to mind: Can HCC continue to win multiple national championships each year?

The Dragons rebounded from their initial competition to eventually win a pair of titles in the National Esports Collegiate Conference (NECC) – which also made its debut in Fall 2020. Even more impressive, the winning has increased during the second year of the program, adding three more NECC championships in December 2021.

“When I think about everything that has happened in such a short amount of time, it’s shocking,” Winkel says. “When we started out, we just wanted to build a base, to have these teams and get them organized. There was no intention of going out and winning championships right away.”

No other school in the NECC (over 150 members) has won more than three titles overall. HCC has won two in League of Legends, two in Rocket League, and one in Overwatch. The Dragons’ esports program has expanded to compete in Super Smash Bros and the roster grown from roughly 25 players to more than 50 players since the inaugural year. And the facilities have been upgraded with equipment to help the team compete at the highest level.

“This fall we did a soft opening on the new esports competition room,” Winkel says. “It’s still a work in progress and being designed, but there are enough computers to be able to compete and practice in the room. For the most part, all of our matches are played in there.”

In the first year of the athletic program, players competed from home due to COVID-19 precautions. But now in year two, there is palpable energy and school spirit on campus. During the Dragons’ championship runs in the fall of 2021, the matches were livestreamed on campus while players competed from inside the esports room.

“We had other student-athletes were cheering the esports team on,” says athletic director and men’s basketball coach Mike Smelkinson. “It was a live sporting event. They have created a buzz and added to our athletic department. A lot of exciting things are happening at our school, and esports is one of them.”

HCC has recorded back-to-back national championships in League of Legends and Rocket League, which wasn’t beyond Winkel’s imagination last fall. But the Overwatch title capped an improbable journey that began with an 0-4 record to open the season; the Dragons went undefeated the rest of the way, earning the No. 5 seed and beating sweeping Marywood University in the championship match.

“Stories like that are amazing,” Winkel says. “The atmosphere and passion in the esports room was incredible when they won the championship. They were jumping up and down and carrying each other like Rudy, around the field. The excitement level was amazing.

“A lot of esports players didn’t play traditional sports before,” he says. “It warms my heart that HCC can give them the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics, in a team environment, and really enjoy that.”

Smelkinson says watching the program grow from scratch and become a national powerhouse in two years has been fun. “It’s something our administration had a vision to start and fund,” Smelkinson says. “Mark stepped in and started the program from nothing, worked really hard to recruit, and put in the time and effort.

And it’s paid off.”

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