Esports' growth could mean state titles, scholarships for suburban gamers
Coach James Barnabee bounced around on a recent afternoon at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, checking on his players as they practiced, reviewed video of recent games and discussed strategy.
But none of his players had to run stairs, lift weights, shoot baskets or perform any other physical activity expected during a typical sports practice.
That's because Barnabee is head coach and sponsor of Stevenson's first esports club for competitive video game players. At least 60 students participate in the club, a number limited more by school resources than interested teenagers, he said.
"I need more computers," said Barnabee, an English teacher and a gamer himself. "And that's a struggle. I think I can have over 100 kids if I had enough space."
Though fairly new, esports at the high school level is growing fast. It's made it on to the Illinois High School Association's list of emerging sports or activities, joining boys rugby, marching band and girls field hockey as competitions that could join football, basketball and soccer as sanctioned events.
At the start of the school year, ISHA officials listed seven esports clubs or programs at high schools in Illinois. Today they know of 19 schools with competitive or casual esports teams.
ISHA spokesman Matt Troha said board members plan to review the esports numbers in the spring or summer and decide how they'll proceed with sanctioning and running tournaments.
For the best players, esports can be about more than fun and games. Like their schools' top athletes, they can earn college scholarships or even a shot at playing professionally. Pro events are broadcast on ESPN and TBS, and top players can earn well above $1 million in prize money.
Playing in high school creates more visibility for teens who excel at team video games, said Kurt Melcher, who in 2014 established the first varsity collegiate esports program in the country at Robert Morris University in Chicago.
"It just creates a natural path for recruiting, which exists in traditional sports, but for collegiate esports ... recruiting in some instances has been difficult," Melcher said.
Barnabee, who acknowledges teens should play video games in moderation, said two colleges contacted him in January about Stevenson esports players. In the case of Robert Morris, the school will provide 78 percent of a typical annual tuition of $27,000 for a varsity esports scholarship and 35 percent for varsity reserve, Melcher said.
Roughly 475 colleges and universities support esports at a club level, with about 50 schools offering scholarships, according to the NCAA. The NCAA hired Chicago-based marketing and consulting firm Intersport to provide a report in the spring for the organization's exploration of the collegiate esports landscape.
Stevenson is a member of the competitive, nationwide High School Esports League, playing the games "League of Legends," "Hearthstone," "Rocket League," "Counter-Strike: Global Offensive" and "Overwatch." Those games require several players with different skills who generally compete from their homes.
Jerry Zhou, a senior who founded Stevenson's esports club, said an average of 60 players attend weekly practice and strategy sessions and play the team games from home. Stevenson has varsity and junior varsity squads that compete in different games and even specialize in play on mobile devices, laptops and desktop computers.
"Before, maybe all these kids would play on their own time and maybe parents are upset at them for playing because they don't get anything out of it, but now we're giving them a reason to do what they love to do, which is to play games," Zhou said. "And now they can get all these scholarships, all these opportunities that opened, just because they're competing for the school instead of in their own homes."
At Wheaton North High School, it's more about fun in the Smash Club that typically attracts 60 or so students for play on Thursday afternoons. While Wheaton North's popular, 4-year-old club differs from Stevenson by playing noncompetitively, students at both schools say they enjoy the welcoming atmosphere of esports.
"I think the people behind (Smash Club) were very accepting people," Wheaton North senior David Schanz said. "All they wanted to do was to create an environment where people from different origins and, perhaps, outcast by the more popular kids could find a safe haven and bond over something they love -- a video game. I think that's awesome."
Wheaton North Smash Club sponsor Ellen Murphy said the students can have a better connection with their school through video game play. The High School Esports League says schools that sanction such clubs reach students typically uninterested in traditional extracurricular activities.
Stevenson esports club member Neal Patel, who also is a fencer, said he hopes those unfamiliar with team video games go beyond the stereotype of players who are "acne-ridden and physically unfit" and come to know the hand-eye coordination, sharp thinking and other skills needed to succeed.
"We're not only playing for scholarships, but we're building esports resumes," Patel said.