E-sports gain popularity among McLean County high school, college students

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BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — Competitive gaming or E-sports has gained growing popularity in the last decade nationwide.

Many high schools and colleges offer video gaming teams or clubs and are starting to treat them as they would a traditional sport such as football or soccer.

In the Twin Cities, esports has become popular with both Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University, with both programs having teams consistently placing in national tournaments and competing with students and gamers from across the globe.

“Our teams are some of those that actually lucky enough to be not just some of the top collegiate teams, but some of the top teams in all of North America,” ISU esports director David Kirk.

Kirk has been with ISU’s esports program since January 2020 and said the program has become larger in just under two years. Growing from around 60 students to now over 1,000.

Kirk said the university was the first in Illinois to offer scholarships for video gaming and one of the first public universities to do so in the U.S.

“You can play against some of the best players in the world from the comfort of your own home or space like this; so I think just the limited barriers E-sports has is why its grown in popularity,” Kirk said.

ISU’s Board of Trustees recently signed off on spending nearly $6 million on a new, state-of-the-art gaming facility that will give the Redbird’s 21 varsity players and 1000s of casual players more space to practice and unwind.

“We want to be able to provide those students an opportunity to compete and compete on the highest tier of equipment that is available,” Kirk said.

At Illinois Wesleyan, students can also earn scholarships and play competitively at their facility on Franklin Street. E-Sports director Cora Kennedy said esports can be any game, including NBA 2K, Super Smash Brothers, or League of Legends.

“It’s just an act of competing online in a matter that gets people against each other from all across the nation,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy said it’s more than just staring at a screen for several hours, and many games include mental and physical challenges.

“Our players will sit there and play super high intensity for 50 minutes the entire night and that’s very hard to maintain; it’s a lot of very mental stress on players,” Kennedy said.

This spring, the Illinois High School Association will hold its first-ever esports tournaments for the over 150 high school programs. Jarrod Rackauskas, coach of Unit 5 E-Sports, said it’s something that started in McLean County Unit 5 schools five years ago.

“We’ve been around for a while, we are one of the predominant favorites. We are like a powerhouse in Illinois,” Rackauskas said.

Rackauskas said the club is more than just potential scholarships or winning trophies for the students.

“That all happens, all those things occur; it’s more about having a group of friends that have common interests and when they come to school can hang out with,” Rackauskas said.

Nearly 200 U.S. colleges and universities have an esports team, with more than $16 million being awarded in scholarship money.

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