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Howard Community College esports program debut ends in ‘Rocket League’ loss to UCLA

Howard Community College had its esports debut Thursday night in a 3-0 loss to UCLA in the video game "Rocket League." In a screen grab from HCC's broadcast Sept. 3, the two teams of three players each compete in cars over a soccer ball to score goals.
Howard Community College had its esports debut Thursday night in a 3-0 loss to UCLA in the video game "Rocket League." In a screen grab from HCC's broadcast Sept. 3, the two teams of three players each compete in cars over a soccer ball to score goals.

The fall athletics season at Howard Community College officially began Sept. 3.

Instead of the season kicking off with a cross country race or a soccer game, the Dragons opened their fall campaign with a virtual sporting event against a major Division I university.

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Howard CC’s new esports program had its debut against UCLA, competing in the video game “Rocket League.” The Bruins won the best-of-five match, 3-0.

“We really appreciate the support that the college has provided in order to make this happen,” said Erin Foley, Howard CC’s director of athletics. “Esports is the only Howard Community College team that will routinely compete against four-year colleges and universities, so we are excited about this season and are looking forward to watching the team make history.”

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The Dragons were overwhelmed by the experienced Bruins, losing the three “Rocket League” games 9-0, 7-0 and 10-0. The match was broadcast live on the Howard CC athletics website as the players each played from their own homes and communicated with their teammates through their headsets.

“Rocket League,” available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, is a unique sports game with both casual and competitive roots. Each team has three players who each operate vehicles, and the two squads battle over a large soccer ball to score goals on the other team.

Mark Winkel, Howard CC’s esports coordinator, said that while the result of the match wasn’t what the Dragons were hoping for, it was still a “great experience” to officially launch the program.

“After all the effort that went into getting this far, it was so nice to see a match,” said Winkel, who is also a sports information manager at Howard CC. “Going up against UCLA, we knew it would be a tough test for our first game. But our team appreciated going up against the great competition.”

Mark Winkel, Howard Community College's esports coordinator, announces during the Dragons' program opener in Rocket League against UCLA.
Mark Winkel, Howard Community College's esports coordinator, announces during the Dragons' program opener in Rocket League against UCLA.

The three starters on the “Rocket League” team are captain Jeremy Hotchkiss, Oscar Minota and Matthew Peck. Hotchkiss, a Columbia resident and a 2020 Long Reach graduate, said it was an “honor” to be able to compete on Howard CC’s first-ever esports team.

“It was awesome to have that opportunity,” Hotchkiss said. “Esports are rising, and to be a part of this is really cool. The outcome of the match was unexpected, but I thought we had good communication as a team and we learned a lot about what we have to work on.”

The hope of running an esports program is one that Winkel has had for a few years. Howard CC had decided before the pandemic that it would be starting an esports program, and the Dragons officially announced it in June. Immediately, Winkel said, questionnaire responses from prospective student-athletes started arriving in his email.

In its first year, the Howard CC esports program has 28 players, but Winkel expects that number to grow into the spring and in the coming years.

“The more they recognize that we have the team, the more people will want to join,” he said. “We’ll have an inclusive program. Anyone who wants to join can join.”

Esports programs aren’t common in college athletics, but with the popularity of gaming and esports on the rise, some institutions have started to see value in them. In 2019, the U.S. video game industry generated a record $35.4 billion in revenue, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Several content creators on Twitch, a live-streaming platform, play video games like “Call of Duty,” “Fortnite” and “Valorant” and make millions from subscribers, YouTube revenue and advertisers. In Maryland, a few colleges like Hood College, Stevenson University and Mount St. Mary’s have esports programs.

This fall, the Dragons are competing in three popular esports games — “Rocket League,” “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.” The Dragons have one “Rocket League” squad of three athletes, one Overwatch team of six players and two League of Legends teams of five players each. The Overwatch and League of Legends seasons begin next week in the New England Collegiate Conference. The NECC has an esports program with about 20 teams — ranging from Division I colleges to community colleges like Howard CC.

While the NECC’s “Rocket League” season is in the spring, the Dragons’ squad is competing in the “Fall Brawl” hosted by Hood College. The eight-team league — with teams from the University of Alabama, Central Methodist, New Mexico State, Davenport University and Hood College as well as Howard CC and UCLA — will conclude its regular season in late October and have a four-team championship in November.

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The fall esports season at Howard CC will continue to occur from each player’s own homes. Winkel hopes in the spring, or after the coronavirus pandemic ends, that the program can gather for events and practices.

The Dragons’ “Rocket League” team will play every Thursday night at 8:30, and the matches will be broadcast on HCC’s athletics website. Next week, Howard CC takes on Central Methodist University in Missouri and the University of Alabama the week after.

“The cool thing about esports is it is the only sport at Howard CC that we can compete against Division I schools like UCLA and Alabama,” Winkel said.

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