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Illinois State University student playing video games.

DIGGS is designed to be an incubator for digital transformation on campus.

Opportunities for video game recreation, research available at new high-tech lab

Illinois State is jumping into the video game space with the creation of the Digital Innovation, Graphics, and Gaming Studio (DIGGS). DIGGS is a high-tech computer lab designed to serve students interested in pursuing esports and act as a hub for technological transformations on campus.

“I think it is important to show that Illinois State University can do this,” Associate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Charles Edamala said. “We can do research in these high-tech areas, and a powerful computing space such as DIGGS is a perfect incubator.”

Edamala is quick to credit the creation of DIGGS to the drive, passion, and ideas of students such as Jack Blahnik.

“The story here is that it is important for us as administrators to listen to our students and work with them on finding solutions instead of a quick no,” Edamala said. “Our students have great ideas and know what is going on. Their voices will help us innovate.”

Redbird Esports President Jack Blahnik

The senior criminal justice major’s goal since becoming the leader of the registered student organization Redbird Esports in January 2018 has been to expand esports awareness and participation on campus. One of his first steps was asking Illinois State’s social media coordinator, Tyler Emken, to be the group’s advisor.

Emken asked Redbird Esports leadership how he could most effectively assist them. Over the course of the discussion, the need for a place for the club to regularly meet, practice, and build community emerged as the most critical. Redbird Esports’ primary game, League of Legends, pits two teams of five that battle against each other with the objective of destroying the other team’s base. In League of Legends, communication is often the difference between victory and defeat.

“We did not expect a whole new space to be created for us,” Blahnik said. “A big win would have been for Illinois State IT staff to locate a computer lab on campus with fast ethernet connections where we could bring our own stuff to a couple of times a week.”

Emken made a few calls to individuals he knew in the campus IT community and his request made its way to Director of Infrastructure Operations and Networking Craig Jackson. Jackson admits he knew little about esports, let alone the technical needs to support a team.

“I brought it up during a meeting, and there was such a big buzz in the room. There were a lot of people who wanted to get involved,” Jackson said.

Jackson set up a meeting where offices across campus who had an interest in esports were invited to talk about solutions. Blahnik gave a presentation explaining esports to the attendees and how it is quickly turning into an entertainment juggernaut with over 120 million unique users. The 2018 League of Legends World Championship match drew 99.6 million unique viewers. Super Bowl LIII, by comparison, drew 98.2 million. Universities across the nation have started to notice as well, with approximately 125 esports programs created since 2014.

Animated graphic of Illinois State student playing a video game in DIGGS.

DIGGS is home to 12 powerful gaming computers that help give players an edge in competition.

Edamala was fascinated by Blahnik’s presentation and recognized an opportunity for Illinois State University.

“When I first heard about this, I had images in my head of students carrying big gaming rigs across the Quad to be able to practice,” Edamala said. “That was unacceptable to me. We can do better for our students.”

It was also important to make powerful computers more accessible to all students, regardless of their socio-economic background.

“In order for esports competitors to be at their best, they require expensive computing equipment that many capable players simply can’t afford,” Emken said. “DIGGS is great because it helps break down barriers for low-income students who want to get into high-end PC gaming.”

Edamala started collaborating with stakeholders across campus to create an esports space. While a more permanent room was being decided upon, Director of Milner Library Information Technology Services Paul Unsbee offered Redbird Esports a lab the group could use during the spring 2018 semester.

“That was a really important step,” Jackson said. “It was great for everyone involved and more importantly the outstanding conduct of the students and their respect for the space in Milner made it easier to get people on board for a more permanent lab.”

Julian Hall 152 was unoccupied and slated to be turned into a high-tech emergency response location. Jackson said it made sense to turn the room into a technology hub on campus and in the process provide resources for esports. Equipment was ordered and DIGGS started coming together during the fall semester.

Illinois State University students playing video games together.

The technology in DIGGS was installed and serviced by Illinois State University student workers.

DIGGS contains two rows of six powerful gaming desktops, which allows two teams to be able to scrimmage at the same time. Another gaming machine allows a coach to spectate the games as they are going on so they can provide feedback to the players. There are also two 52-inch displays, six movable tables, and two whiteboards. Artwork designed by University Marketing and Communications was placed in spring 2019. Student Affairs also invested in the project and helped organize the first intramural gaming competition in the space this spring. More competitions are scheduled for the fall semester.

Jackson and Edamala both call DIGGS a space “for students, by students.” Administrative Technologies student workers installed the technology in DIGGS and are the ones responsible for ensuring the computers are kept up to date and serviced. They are also responsible for helping their peers in the esports teams if they have technology needs.

In addition to expanding Illinois State’s esports footprint, it was also important to Edamala to position DIGGS as a space for academics. The powerful computers within DIGGS can render 3D graphics quickly, which has practical applications such as graphic design, video production, and augmented and virtual reality research. Faculty in the Arts Technology Program used DIGGS for class projects this spring, and more faculty are scheduled to use the room in the fall.

Blahnik’s ultimate dream is for Illinois State to host a major esports competition at Redbird Arena, which is something he acknowledges is a lofty goal indeed. Still, his Illinois State experience has him optimistic for the future.

“The support of everyone at Illinois State who has helped my goals become a reality has been amazing and I can’t thank them enough for listening to me,” he said. “This is only the beginning, but we have built something special.”

Looking for information on how to use DIGGS for your own projects? Contact Craig Jackson at cejack2@ilstu.edu.

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