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This is the second in a two-part series about Bloomington-Normal’s gaming scene, which aired May 1-2, 2023, on WGLT’s newsmagazine Sound Ideas. Here’s part one.
Among flagship sports like football, basketball and volleyball, esports can get lost in the mix on a college campus. Part of that is due to its non-traditionally athletic design. But another is the sometimes unclear definition of esports.
Esports are “competitive video games,” according to Illinois Wesleyan University Esports Director Cora Kennedy. Kennedy, an Illinois State University alum, said much like traditional sports, esports have multiple layers of rosters. At IWU, rosters are divided between varsity and academy players. Academy players are equivalent to football’s junior varsity.
“Varsity is your big players, academy is your developmental roster,” said Kennedy.
The games played by the varsity rosters at IWU she calls the “big five” are:
- League of Legends
- Overwatch 2
- Rocket League
- Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Those video games consist of at least two parties of players, sometimes a one-versus-one duel like in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, competing online against each other to determine a victor — just as two basketball teams or two tennis players compete.
At Illinois State University, the Redbird Esports program offers three games for varsity competition:
- League of Legends
- Rocket League
ISU’s Overwatch team notably became the only collegiate program to qualify for the international Pro-Am West tournament in March. Overwatch is a first-person shooter in the style of capture the flag. Players can knock out other players from the game while defending a payload.
Redbird Esports Director David Kirk said the team is used to reaching new heights.
“We are also the only collegiate Overwatch team to achieve a variety of different professional and amateur milestones in the Overwatch community,” said Kirk. “Our Overwatch team is one of eight that won a spot out of over 200 semi-professional and amateur teams to be able to compete against the eight professional Overwatch league teams. This is equitable to the top collegiate football teams playing against NFL teams.”
ISU’s three varsity rosters consist of 21 players, while IWU has a varsity roster of about 50. 38% of IWU’s varsity program are considered minorities in race, gender or sexual orientation. That number is 35% for ISU’s varsity teams.
Those numbers are on par with the national average. According to a 2021 survey by the Entertainment Software Association, 55% of video gamers identify as male, and 73% as white.
Similar to IWU, Illinois State has a lower level of play available. Instead of IWU’s academy level, it’s called the club level at ISU. It’s run through Redbird Gaming, which offers 16 different games to play. Kirk said Redbird Gaming, which has a 39% underrepresented group makeup, serves an important role for gamers on campus.
“Gamers often are subjected to isolation and may not have an interest in other areas on campus. So having a program like this has allowed them to one, to get connected to a campus entity, but two, hopefully that pushes them to get more involved on campus, feel more comfortable, and will help in their retention here,” said Kirk.
Both programs at ISU and IWU compete in several national, online leagues. Occasionally, league play is attended in-person. The teams primarily compete against other collegiate squads, often in the Midwest. That’s done to reduce any issues with lag, or a delay in input-to-movement time.
ISU and IWU also offer esports scholarships. At Illinois Wesleyan, $25,000 scholarships are available to students. Cora Kennedy said that reduces the average cost of attendance by more than half. At ISU, student players and support staff can also apply for scholarships.
Both colleges recruit nationally and internationally. Kennedy noted she often uses Twitter as a recruitment tool.
Kennedy said there’s more to gain through esports than financial aid. She said it teaches players skills and traits that are taught through traditional sports, too.
“A lot of what’s taught through esports are soft skills. Because knowing how to click on a pixel really well isn’t going to help you in class, but it’s really focused on soft skills. And, ‘Hey, I can do this X-Y-Z thing well,’ like leadership, teamwork, helping your peers through their struggles,” said Kennedy. “A lot of people who do esports don’t have a traditional sports background. And something you don’t realize from traditional sports is how much it teaches you to be on a team. Traditional sports as a kid — you learn what a team means. You learn team above self, you learn all these things. And you learn how to be coachable, even.”
From the players’ perspective
Jonathan “Jono” Edmonson and Luke Sherman are two esports athletes at Heartland Community College. Sherman specializes in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, while Edmonson plays the NBA 2K and Madden NFL games. Both graduated from Normal West high school.
Both freshmen, the pair of players said they got into esports thanks to a previously established competitive edge. Sherman said it started for him when he would play video games with his older brother.
“I wanted to play games with him, but he always wanted to play competitive games so he was able to beat me. And that’s sort of how I got started playing video games and wanting to compete,” said Sherman.
For Edmonson, an athlete who played football and basketball in high school, the translation from physical to digital competition was easy. That successful transition led to him becoming Heartland’s first full-ride scholarship for esports.
Sherman also has a scholarship to play. For the two, the financial aid certainly influenced their decision to play at Heartland. But so did location, as well as familiar faces.
“It was the same coach from high school I had, where I won a state championship,” said Edmonson.
Edmonson said without Sherman, he would never have started playing Esports to begin with. Sherman approached Edmonson one day in the school cafeteria about playing. And it went from there.
“I started my senior year [of high school], and if it wasn’t for Luke I probably wouldn’t have started,” said Edmonson.
They said they are both enjoying their time with HCC so far. Sherman said one of his favorite aspects of being on the esports team is what goes down before they compete.
“I really like the atmosphere before the matches,” said Sherman. “I think it’s really nice. We all go into the Heartland esports arena … I get to hang out with my coaches, my teammates, my friends. We put on music, and we’re all kind of singing and dancing a little bit. We’ve got to make sure we have fun with it.”
Sherman said that helps the team relax and play better.
Meanwhile, Edmonson enjoys the competitiveness of the sport. He said the competitive atmosphere is intense, knowing there are, “real things at stake.”
Edmonson also said he appreciates the opportunities Esports give to those who want to represent their school who may not usually get the chance.
“I think it gives people, who maybe aren’t the most athletically gifted people, a place to compete for their schools when they probably wouldn’t be able to otherwise,” said Edmonson. “It’s a different kind of sport where you can use your brain and your different interests and put them to use in a different kind of way…it’s for everybody. As long as you stick with it and actually practice it, it’s something you can go really far with.”
Edmonson and Sherman both plan on seeking out four-year universities to continue their esports playing careers after their time at Heartland is over. They said that could also include esports coaching or broadcasting.
Edmonson and Sherman won the National Junior College Athletic Association Esports (NJCAAE) championship matches for NBA 2K and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate respectively last month. The NJCAAE is the sole national esports organization for two-year colleges.
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