Sweeping through the 2019 season in a fashion worthy of its namesake, the Harrisburg University Storm's Overwatch team is undefeated heading into this weekend's ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship. Three wins are all that stand between the Storm and complete dominance during the team's first season in the varsity collegiate Overwatch scene.
A partnership between HU and the Philadelphia Fusion, who happened to be dropping an experienced player with a teaching background, created the perfect storm. Giuseppe "Joemeister" Gramano, HU Storm Overwatch coach and former OWL support player on the Fusion, has been instrumental in helping the team get to this point.
Joemeister got serious about video games in 2016 during his final year at York University in Toronto, Canada. Earlier in his life, he'd met two friends online while playing South Korean shooter games like "Sudden Attack" and "Soldier Front." These friends introduced him to Overwatch in its beta days, and the three saw an opportunity to get an early start on a game that had the potential to become the next big esport.
They found three more like-minded players through Overwatch's ranked games and began enrolling in every North American tournament they could find. With the roster they'd put together -- which initially included current Los Angeles Valiant player Scott "Custa" Kennedy and Boston Uprising head coach Jack "Shake" Kaplan -- Joemeister and the rest of the squad formed Code7, which was eventually acquired by Complexity Gaming.
After Complexity released the roster in May 2017, the teammates went their separate ways. Joemeister signed on with FaZe Clan in June 2017, where he and the organization's Overwatch team placed second in the Contenders 2017 North American season.
That success got Joemeister noticed. He recalls a meeting after his final FaZe Clan match in which FaZe administration gave the team the news that the Philadelphia Fusion, an Overwatch League team owned by Comcast Spectacor, was interested in picking up some of FaZe's players -- Joemeister included.
"Something like the Overwatch League, that early, was merely just a rumor," Joemeister said. "There was always that idea of uncertainty regarding the Overwatch League until these Overwatch League franchises were actively reaching out to players like myself and my teammates at the time on FaZe Clan. So, I mean, that was huge news for us. ... It was a huge sense of relief that all the work I had put in for the two years prior was finally starting to pay off."
After placing second with Team Canada in the 2017 Overwatch World Cup, Joemeister joined the Fusion. The transition to the Fusion, Joemeister said, was overwhelming. He suddenly lived in a house with other pro players, a private chef and a team manager who did everything he could to keep the players happy, all surrounded by the most professional and extensive esports team branding he'd seen.
"Everything was taken to the next level," Joemeister said. "This was like nothing I had ever experienced before in esports. I'm sure even nowadays there's probably other players in other esports who haven't even experienced the same thing I did on the Fusion, because ... I really, truly believe that the Fusion sets the bar in so many ways."
The Fusion secured second place in the OWL's first season and decided to drop Joemeister from the roster. The team, Joemeister explained, had another support player, Alberto "neptuNo" González, who performed better than he did throughout the season.
Dropped from the second-best team in all of Overwatch, Joemeister had two options: try to find another team to continue playing or find something else to do.
At York University, inspired by his mother's lifelong career as an educator, Joemeister had studied to become a teacher. Looking back at his three years in esports and noticing his age, 23, relative to other prominent players, Joemeister thought about putting a spin on that initial plan, using his Overwatch knowledge and teaching skills to become a coach.
"I really had to think, like, well, what do I think is best for me, going forward, if I do want to remain in esports long term?" Joemeister said. "I understand the importance of education -- maybe more so than some other people in the [esports] space. So the idea to be able to basically put the two together ... that was also very important to me."
When he made the decision to retire from competitive play, Joemeister began looking for lower-tier teams to coach for free in order to gain practical experience while he searched for more permanent coaching opportunities. After he worked with a student at Harrisburg, the staff there took notice.
"We looked into some other people, too," said Chad Smeltz, director of esports at Harrisburg. "But we reached out to Joe and talked to him and got to meet him in person, and I realized, 'No, this is actually gonna be a great fit.'"
Smeltz, a former high school history teacher who streamed League of Legends under the handle "History Teacher," found Joemeister's teaching background, Overwatch knowledge and calm demeanor to be well-aligned with HU's needs, and Joemeister soon joined the HU staff as coach of the Storm's Overwatch team.
Within the first two or three weeks that the team was under Joemeister's tutelage, HU flex support player Soames "Soames" Lovett-Darby said the team's play improved rapidly. Skill-based improvements such as better aim came gradually throughout the season, but the immediate influx of knowledge from Joemeister and from Soames' more experienced teammates -- communication, positioning, ultimate timing, hero selection, etc. -- made it easy for players like Soames to think about Overwatch in ways they never had before.
But "sponging up knowledge," as Soames put it, is not the ultimate goal of Joemeister's coaching. He emphasized a need for players to develop their own "mind for the game" -- to be able to think on their feet and approach in-game challenges with adaptability.
"There's a lot to do with the game that requires that the individual is thinking in a way that may be different from other people," Joemeister said. "There's a lot of creativity involved in strategy -- especially really good strategy."
Fittingly for a collegiate coach, Joemeister credits his own education with his ability to develop his "mind for the game" in his time as a player.
"If I wasn't playing well," Joemeister said, "I could take my mistakes ... and either keep those in mind or take a step back and review things that I was doing on my own terms. ... It basically allowed me to be a little more objective in my own learning, as well as my teaching now as a coach."
This objectivity and self-criticism, Joemeister said, became the core of what he tries to teach to his players.
Joemeister has also done his best to foster relationships among his players, though many of their friendships came about naturally as teammates.
"I think that's actually more important than some people think," Joemeister said. "Being able to build a strong team is not just being able to perform well as a team in-game, but to also have ... strong relationships with each other outside of the game, because that's going to influence how they communicate with each other [and] how they approach each other's ideas."
Joemeister has confidence in his players, but there's still one big challenge on the horizon: Maryville University. Maryville's Overwatch squad is also undefeated and the No.1-seeded team heading into the championship. If the Storm beats the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Maryville beats Carleton University, the two teams would face off in the semifinals.
"I think that we're a very momentum-based team," Joemeister said, "so that if we win our first match, I think people will be extremely confident going into the next and even the finals. I expect us to basically make it all the way to the end, and then win it all."