October 5, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

The Rise of Esports: Competitive gaming growing in popularity

The word “athlete” likely doesn’t conjure images of teenagers planted in front of a computer screen, vigorously clicking away at their keyboards and mice. But competitive gamers across Illinois are determined to change that.

The esports scene has exploded in recent years. National tournaments are regularly aired on ESPN, and gaming is expected to become a billion-dollar industry by 2020. The growth has now trickled down to high schools, where pockets of gamers hope they’ll soon be viewed in the same regard as other team sports.

“I don’t think it’s a long shot,” said Anthony Pape, who oversees the eSports team at Reavis High School in Chicago’s southwest suburbs. “Chess and bass fishing, they’re sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association. I don’t see where the line would be drawn. What would be the argument not to have it?”

The movement

Reavis was one of 16 teams from three states to participate in the second annual High School Esports Invitational this spring. The tournament, held at Robert Morris University in Chicago, pits teams against one another in League of Legends, a multiplayer fantasy game that’s a popular choice for competitive gamers.

Chicago Esports & Gaming, which organizes the invitational, expects teams from six states to compete at next year’s event. Executive Director Andre Whitehead said that kind of growth is typical of what he sees across the Midwest, and it’s his goal to see competitive gaming sanctioned by high school associations in all 50 states. First, his sights are set on Illinois.

“I would like to have high school eSports (sanctioned) in Illinois in the next two years,” Whitehead said.

That’s not overly ambitious, given the nationwide growth of eSports. Market researcher Newzoo estimates that eSports made $493 million in revenue last year, with its audience totaling 323 million fans. By 2020, Newzoo projects those numbers will balloon to $1.48 billion in revenue with 589 million fans.

An estimated 27 percent of eSports enthusiasts are between 10 and 20 years old, and high schools are taking notice. Whitehead believes there are roughly 100 competitive gaming groups or clubs in high schools throughout the state, and the Illinois High School Association only requires 80 schools to register eSports teams before its board would consider adding a state series.

“The IHSA exists to serve its member high schools, and while we haven’t heard much from them on expanding into eSports at this juncture, it’s hard to ignore the growth of eSports competitions and the fact that high school students are prominent participants in those events,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson.

“I see it as being similar to when the IHSA added bass fishing as an activity,” he continued. “If our schools are forming teams and their students have interest in competing, then we would want to be able to organize a tournament to crown a state champion.”

Making the case

Critics are out there, and Whitehead hears them all. At a time when childhood obesity is described as a public health crisis, it can be difficult to build support for an activity that’s linked so strongly to laziness.

“I do hear it, and it’s valid,” he said. Whitehead is an avid gamer, but he also played running back for Illinois State University’s football team. “That’s the (perception) we’re trying to change.”

In addition to leading Reavis’ competitive gaming team, Pape is a physical education teacher. While he understands the importance of physical activity, he’s quick to note that the purpose of education-based athletics is to teach kids lessons that will serve them beyond the walls of their high schools. A competitive gaming team, he said, does just that.

“It’s a good avenue for kids who are not into general sports, and you get all kinds of people,” he said. “It’s nice to give something to those students who don’t fit into the general puzzle that most people think of.”

Gaming is often perceived as a solitary activity, championed by antisocial boys and girls. That holds more truth for the casual gamer, but the competitive arena requires engagement. Teammates must communicate strategies and coordinate with fellow players to be successful. Pape and Whitehead draw parallels to other sports where teamwork, leadership and critical thinking are all necessary skills.

That’s at the heart of the argument for sanctioning competitive gaming as a high school sport. It may not require the physical abilities of football or the endurance of cross country, but if the purpose of high school sports is to instill valuable life skills in teenagers, Whitehead said it checks every box.

“Esports are a reflection of 21st century skills,” he said. “Critical thinking, team-based collaboration, this is where we are as a culture and where we’re going. That’s really why I advocate for eSports. We have kids that are honing in on the skills of the 21st century as our world is becoming more technology based.”

The next steps

At Reavis High School, only the first domino has fallen. There’s interest in competitive gaming and students are organized, but they haven’t yet been recognized as a “club” by the high school. Pape hopes to take that step during the upcoming school year.

The administration at Reavis has been supportive of Pape’s efforts, but other schools are not so lucky.

“I know the student interest is there, but some won’t let them play in the schools,” Pape said of other Chicagoland schools. “They can have clubs, but the kids have to play at home or they won’t let them download the videogame in the computer lab. There are a lot of hurdles some people run into that I didn’t have to jump over.”

What gives gamers greater hope that they’ll earn club recognition is the program’s low cost. Athletic budgets are already squeezed, making it difficult to justify new sports, but competitive gaming teams don’t require equipment or travel expenses.

For all the obstacles that may lie ahead, Whitehead sees nothing but promise. He believes college recruiting will become a bigger part of his annual invitational at Robert Morris (the university in 2013 became the first to offer gaming scholarships) and he expects the numbers of teams and participants to continue climbing.

As far as competitive gaming has come, Whitehead insists it’s still in the “peach basket phase,” a reference to the invention of basketball in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. He believes as more students show interest in eSports and organized competition, parents and schools and will get on board.

“As it evolves,” he said, “we’ll get a very clear picture of what eSports looks like.”

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