The newest sports team at Orion High School is an instant hit.
In its first year, it has attracted nearly 10 percent of the school’s student body.
Some team members undoubtedly dream of competing at the college or professional level, possibly earning college scholarships or even standing atop a podium one day as an Olympic medal is draped around their neck.
The new sport doesn’t involve any kind of ball or field. To compete, students need only the small computer lab adjacent to an English teacher's classroom.
They’re playing something called esports.
And, as crazy as it may sound, all of those things — scholarships, pro careers, the Olympics — already are or soon will be possible for competitors around the globe.
Playing video games on an organized, competitive basis is being proclaimed the next big thing in the world of sports.
“It’s gotten huge … to say the least,’’ said Layne Shirley, the competition coordinator for the National Association of Collegiate Esports, or NACE.
Jacob Johnson, a senior at Orion who was a catalyst behind the school's esports program, isn’t at all surprised it has taken off so quickly.
“Video games are so ingrained in pop culture and just culture in general,’’ he said. “It was going to become a professional thing at some point. People began playing regular sports for fun when all that started, and now, as a professional, you can get paid millions of dollars to play football or basketball.’’
That's well on its way to happening in esports, too.
Professional esports competitor Tyler “Ninja’’ Blevins claims to earn $500,000 a month, and there are others in the fledgling sport who are playing their way into six-figure incomes.
A changing stereotype
Video games have been around since the 1970s, amounting mostly to people spending chunks of time playing games on their home computers.
People who spend the most time playing video games frequently are stereotyped as lazy and unmotivated: Their minds numbed, they wouldn’t amount to anything.
Science fiction author Ray Bradbury summed up a popular view many years ago when he said, “Video games are a waste of time for men with nothing else to do. Real brains don’t do that.’’
Generations of parents have tried, often in vain, to pull their kids away from computer screens.
“I think we’re breaking down that stereotype that gamers typically have where they’re lazy or something,’’ said Shirley, of NACE. “I think we’re definitely breaking that.’’
Johnson, the Orion senior, agrees the stereotype is inaccurate and soon to be extinct.
“You get that image in your head of a gamer in their parents’ basement who spend their whole lives playing video games and not doing anything,’’ he said. “But now that it’s a career for some people, it wasn’t such a waste of time, I guess. There’s still that stigma of real sports being better than esports. But I think this is really good. I think it’s beneficial in a lot of ways.’’
Experts now feel that video gaming enhances critical and analytical thinking. It helps develop concentration and multi-tasking skills. And the advent of esports prompts them to work together and develop team-building skills.
“I think teamwork and communication in general has been really a good thing for some of these students," said Andrew Lister, the English teacher who oversees the Orion program. “Most of these kids are just looking for something to do and having the opportunity to work together and just watching them talk strategy, just like a football team would before a big game … It’s kind of interesting to see that you can build those skills with video games.’’
The college game
The growth of esports has been especially rapid at the college level, and the Quad-Cities is no exception.
St. Ambrose University recently announced it will field an esports team this fall, offering as many as 15 scholarships at the outset.
Augustana College has a house on campus in which students are encouraged to compete in video games, although it’s more of a recreational and social pursuit at this time.
“Our organization is designed to be a place for people who enjoy that sense of competitive community in esports,’’ said sophomore Michael Salamone, the club’s president. “We really want them to get out of their dorms a little bit and socialize and have fun.’’
But St. Ambrose plans to compete against other schools across the country as part of NACE.
Robert Morris College in Chicago was the first to offer scholarships for esports competitors in 2014. In July of 2016, it became one of six schools to form NACE, which now has 72 members.
“We’re projecting that we will be at 120 schools by September,’’ said Shirley, who helped initiate one of the first college esports programs in the country a few years ago as a student at Kansas Wesleyan University.
“I think in five years, this traditionally will be the norm at all universities, more or less," he said. "I think D-I schools might still be lagging behind a little bit at that time. But I think at the majority of Division II, Division III, community colleges and NAIA schools, it’s going to be a normal thing on campus that there will be an esports program.’’
Actually, the large Division I schools are getting involved, too. The Big Ten Network created a League of Legends championship in which all 14 Big Ten schools participated. It held an end-of-season tournament last week that was available for viewing on BTN2GO.
Riding the wave
St. Ambrose chose to become involved in esports largely because, as Shirley noted, it has become “one of the biggest enrollment drivers right now and student engagement drivers.’’
It is especially attractive, because studies have shown that 70 to 75 percent of the students who compete in esports fall into the STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering, math.
“We were looking for things that would match what we offer academically,’’ St. Ambrose athletic director Ray Shovlain said.
He said the school wanted to jump in now, because it knows many colleges are looking to start esports programs in the near future.
“I think it was critical that we get into this early; before the real wave starts,’’ Shovlain said.
ESPN reported in October that the NCAA has at least discussed the idea of sanctioning esports.
Daemen College president Gary Olson, a member of the NCAA’s Board of Governors, said he and other board members were “intrigued’’ by the idea, although there are some obvious obstacles. Since a majority of esports competitors are male, there would be Title IX implications. And since some college esports participants already have earned some money in competitive gaming, the NCAA may need to alter its definition of amateurism.
But some esports supporters were encouraged that the NCAA even acknowledged their existence.
“For years — really, five years now — esports on the collegiate side has been screaming for attention and formalization — to be addressed and recognized as a true endeavor, a real sport,’’ said Kurt Melcher, the executive director of esports at Robert Morris. “So the NCAA actually administratively looking at it — that first step is a massive positive.’’
Forbes Magazine reported recently that revenue earned by esports was close to $700 million in 2017 and that esports competitions were viewed online by nearly 400 million people. The research firm Newzoo has predicted the dollar amount will more than double by next year.
Of course, most of that came from competitions in new professional leagues. The League of Legends Championship Series was founded in 2012 and now has several franchises that are backed by the owners of NBA teams. The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers all are involved.
The League of Legends world championships drew 43 million viewers in 2016. The NBA finals that year attracted 31 million.
Seventeen NBA teams also are involved with teams in a new NBA 2K League this year.
Also new this year is the Overwatch League, which includes 12 teams, each of which carried a $20 million franchise fee.
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, purchased the Boston Uprising team in the Overwatch League. Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams and the Arsenal soccer team, is funding the Los Angeles Gladiators. Other investors who have become involved in the Overwatch League include actress Jennifer Lopez and former professional athletes Shaquille O’Neal, Joe Montana and Alex Rodriquez.
Those competitions have attracted an increasing onslaught of media coverage. ESPN has a section of its website devoted to professional esports, and Twitch.tv (a subsidiary of Amazon) has become the go-to site for viewing esports competitions at all levels.
And then, of course, there is the possibility of esports becoming part of the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee has said it is willing to embrace esports if there is a governing body to oversee the sport worldwide. And the Committee has some concerns about the sometimes-violent nature of the games conforming to the values of the Olympic movement.
Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, has expressed concerns about violent content, but his organization also issued a statement, declaring that “competitive esports could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.’’
Orion gets involved
As esports become a national force, they also are taking off at the high school level.
Orion had a group of students who formed a social gaming club a few years ago, and student Jacob Johnson approached teacher Andrew Lister last fall with the idea of taking it to the next level by competing against other schools.
“I was talking to a friend about it in PE and mentioned that starting a club specifically for gaming could be useful for the people who don’t like doing sports, and they’re not necessarily musically talented," Johnson said. "I thought video games would be a really good way for people to come together and be friends.
“Now it’s definitely something better than what I thought it was going to be in the beginning."
When he called the first meeting for interested students, Lister said, there weren’t enough seats in his classroom to accommodate everybody.
In its first year, the team has 30 members — the school has an enrollment of about 320 — competing in esport games Overwatch and Counter Strike: Global Offensive. It had a Splatoon team during the winter season and may develop a Hearthstone team this spring.
“We spent that whole first semester just kind of fundraising, and we got some donations of some laptops, and we were able to raise some other money in other ways,’’ Lister said.
The Orion kids raised $1,200 through a GoFundMe page, sold T-shirts, held a bake sale. They asked Deere & Co. to donate six laptop computers, and the company sent over 18 obsolete engineering computers. The Orion team sold 12 of them for $150 apiece and is re-purposing the others.
They started by playing five matches during the winter season, competing against schools from Texas, Louisiana, Minnesota and Rockford, Illinois. They opened the spring Overwatch season on April 2 with a varsity match against Richardson (Texas) High School and a junior varsity match against Mayo High School from Rochester, Minnesota.
“It’s just been sort of a way for students who have not had an opportunity to find their niche of what they want to do to pass the time when they’re not doing their studies,’’ Lister said. “It’s been really great for them to build communication skills and those friendships. It’s been really cool to see.’’
Is this a sport?
Orion competes in the High School esports League, which has members in nearly every state. There's also the Illinois High School eSports Association, which formed a little more than a year ago.
Todd McFarlin, a teacher at Chicago Taft High School and a member of the ISHEA board of directors, said 23 schools will compete in the organization's League of Legends tournament, but he has a list of 53 other schools interested in starting programs.
"It makes perfect sense that all these schools that have been doing this for some time should start banding together,'' McFarlin said. "It was surprising how many schools already have programs of some kind where kids are getting together to play video games.’’
The activity also has caught the attention of the Illinois High School Association. IHSA executive director Craig Anderson told the Chicago Tribune last spring that it will consider sanctioning esports if more than 80 schools in the state show an interest.
McFarlin said esports would not be considered a sport by the IHSA, however. It would be listed as an "activity,'' like chess, debate and music.
“I see it much like when we added bass fishing,’’ Anderson said. “People were like, ‘What?’ But if our schools are forming teams, and their students have interest and it's developing, we’d want to organize in a way where we could crown a state champion.’’
But a state title does not settle the dispute over esports standing as an actual sport.
Although it does not necessarily require fitness or stamina, most of those involved in it think of it that way.
“NASCAR's a sport, right?" asked Tony Pape, who coaches the esports team at Reavis High School in Burbank, Illinois, in that 2017 story in the Chicago Tribune. "They're sitting in a chair, they're using controls, same as these kids here. (Gaming) is not as physically demanding but it's mentally demanding. It demands a lot of teamwork, coordination and practice. I consider it a sport, absolutely."