Overwatch at school: Esports 'moving fast' toward becoming IHSA-sanctioned event
Alex Egan's graphics classroom at Naperville North High School can hold 26 students. Plenty of space, he thought, for an introductory meeting about a new esports program he and co-director Andy Mendez hoped to get off the ground.
When the bell rang at the end of the school day, Egan was surprised by how quickly all the chairs were filled with interested video gamers. Students kept piling into the room, doubling the attendance within minutes -- and then doubling it again.
By the end of that first meeting last fall, more than 130 students had signed up. Nine months later, the program has added 50 more players, competed against other schools, secured an unofficial state title and created its own arena dedicated to gaming.
The explosion of esports as an organized, school-sanctioned activity extends far beyond Naperville and the suburbs. Already popular in other parts of the world, the concept has gained national traction the past few years, prompting dozens of Illinois high schools to create casual clubs, form competitive teams and pave a path for students to carry their skills into the collegiate and professional worlds.
"We want to enable them to move on after high school and turn this into something of a success in their life," Mendez said. "There are a lot of opportunities in esports now."
'It's really taken off'
Competing in an organized, multiplayer video game like League of Legends requires more intensity, focus and teamwork than most people expect, Mendez said. Each player has his or her role, and they have to communicate effectively to fulfill the game's objective.
In addition to teaching life skills, he said, offering esports at a high school level gives students a peek into what has become a billion-dollar global industry.
A growing number of colleges offer esports scholarships. The world's top professional players are earning millions. National tournaments routinely sell out major stadiums across the country, and the 2018 League of Legends World Championship had more viewers than this year's Super Bowl, according to CNBC.
"It's really amazing that it's in public, it's out there, people are watching it," Mendez said. "And they're accepting of it. It's entertaining. It's just like sports."
The Illinois High School Association has taken notice, having placed esports on its list of emerging sports or activities that could eventually become sanctioned events, Associate Executive Director Kurt Gibson said.
At the start of the 2017-18 school year, seven high schools in the state had video gaming programs. Earlier this academic year, that number was close to 30, he said.
Now, more than 60 high schools are on the list, and the organization knows there are others that have yet to be reported.
"It's really taken off," Gibson said. "This definitely feels like it's moving fast and trending in the right direction."
The IHSA can consider offering a state series in a certain sport or activity when 10 percent of the association's membership -- or about 80 schools -- is actively participating, Gibson said.
With esports' surge in popularity, an advisory committee was formed in December to develop recommendations for the rules, logistics and format of future competitions.
It's not unrealistic to believe video gaming could be officially recognized by the 2020-21 school year, Gibson said. That would allow the list to grow and give the committee time to finalize the details.
Tracer is one of the playable characters in Overwatch, one of two video games for which the Illinois High School Esports Association offers unofficial state tournaments.
- Blizzard Entertainment
'Now it's here'
One unofficial group already has done some of the legwork.
For the past two years, the Illinois High School Esports Association has been developing regulations and organizing tournaments to provide emerging teams with an opportunity to compete statewide, said co-founder Amy Whitlock, who also serves as the esports sponsor at Oswego East High School. She now sits on the IHSA advisory committee with her other co-founder, Todd McFarlin, who coaches esports at two Chicago high schools.
"Myself and my colleagues have been talking about this for years -- it's coming, it's coming, and now it's here, so we're trying to keep abreast of everything," Whitlock said. "We tried to get a framework set up."
The esports association first started holding playoff competitions for League of Legends and added a second game, Overwatch, this past year, Whitlock said. More games likely will be included in the coming season.
Naperville North's esports program has organized varsity and junior varsity teams for each game, while also offering opportunities to play casually with friends, Mendez said. Its Overwatch team placed first in a state tournament hosted by the esports association in May.
"The number one thing for me, I think, that esports has provided is a way to connect with people I never would've met otherwise," said Naperville North junior Chris Neumann, a member of the state championship team. "The team aspect of this has definitely helped for me at least to be able to talk to other people and communicate properly. You need teamwork, or else you can't win a single thing."
The esports club at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire has had success with a different affiliation, the High School Esports League, through which its Counter-Strike: Global Offense team just won a national competition, coach James Barnabee said.
The players largely practice and compete from home, though they do frequently come together to discuss strategies and participate in team-building activities, he said. If the IHSA does sanction esports, however, the program's structure could change.
Developing the club the past few years has been a learning experience for both the students and the sponsors, Barnabee said. While school officials analyze how best to implement the activity, many players have had to get used to being part of a competitive team sport.
"It's really exploding," he said. "It's fun to be ahead of it and involved in it and seeing where it goes."
In Naperville Unit District 203, the goal is to hold gaming to the standard of any other sport or organization, said Joe Jaruseski, director of IT infrastructure. That means installing the best equipment and technology to give players a competitive edge.
The district set aside about $25,000 to construct specialized esports "arenas" in both Naperville North and Naperville Central high schools. The 12 computers in each lab typically are reserved for practice and competitions among the competitive players, Mendez said, though Naperville North offers weekly community gaming events for other interested students.
"This captures the population of students that may not participate in other activities. Those that like and enjoy this type of activity now have the ability to be sponsored by their school, wear the school colors, compete against other teams," Jaruseski said. "We want them to be as successful as possible."