In October Illinois State University announced it will launch the first varsity esports program at a public university in the state in fall 2020. The news generated a lot of buzz and even more questions on social media about what esports at Illinois State will look like. We asked Executive Director of Campus Recreation Dawn Pote and Director of Student Affairs Information Technology Rob Bailey to answer some of your biggest questions.

Let’s start with the basics. What is esports?

Esports is the video game industry’s preferred term for competitive gaming. Like traditional sports, these events are often attended by live audiences and broadcast to fans at home. Most events are broadcast via online platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, but esports is also featured on cable television outlets such as ESPN and Turner.

How big of a deal is this?

The market for gaming is huge and only getting bigger. In 2018 gaming generated $138 billion in revenue and projects to be a $300 billion industry by 2025. Even if growth stagnates, reported revenues already dwarf the film industry, which reported $41 billion in 2018.

Esports viewership is rising, often eclipsing the viewership numbers of major sporting events. The 2018 League of Legends World Championship match drew 99.6 million unique viewers. Super Bowl LIII, by comparison, drew 98.2 million. Esports professionals are paid big money, with Danish Dota2 player Johan “N0tail” Sundstein at the top of the list with career earnings of more than $6.8 million.

What is Illinois State University’s esports program going to look like?

Redbird Esports will be a multitiered program run by the Division of Student Affairs and designed to support all students interested in gaming. The program will have three core components: Redbird Esports varsity teams, club teams, and spaces for casual gamers.

Spaces created for varsity competition will be open to casual players for use. Gaming computers are expensive, and competitive games require fast internet connections. Illinois State’s program looks to give students the opportunity to engage in competitive gaming even if they lack the means to do so.

The Redbird Esports registered student organization (RSO) will continue to exist and club level teams will be further supported by Student Affairs staff in the Department of Campus Recreation. Illinois State is in the process of hiring an esports program director to oversee all aspects of the program with an anticipated start of January 1, 2020.

Why is Illinois State getting involved in esports?

Illinois State students gaming

The creation of DIGGS was an important step in building the Redbird Esports program.

The seeds of the program were planted when the Redbird Esports RSO worked with Illinois State staff to create Julian Hall’s Digital Innovation, Gaming, and Graphics Studio (DIGGS) in fall 2018. The positive momentum from that initiative built a lot of interest in esports across campus.

Bailey said division staff is always looking to create opportunities for students to connect outside of the classroom.

“A student that is engaged is much more likely to be successful and graduate,” he said. “We also know esports is popular and we know gaming is popular, but up until now, it has been very insular. We see this as a perfect opportunity to get students out of their residence halls and into a community where they can participate in gaming together.”

“It is a myth that gamers want to sit in their rooms and not engage with others,” Pote added. “From the beginning, we saw the desire the RSO had to have a space to come together and share something they enjoyed with their peers.”

The esports program positions Illinois State to become a leader in a growing industry.

“The game industry is already bigger than the film industry,” Bailey said. “People wouldn’t think twice if we were to create such a program in film. It is a big opportunity for Illinois State to establish itself as a leader in the game industry in the state and nationwide.”

What games are going to be played by our varsity athletes and what schools will we compete against?

Pote said the slate of varsity level teams depends on which titles generate the most student interest. The Redbird Esports RSO currently has teams that compete in 6 games, including Overwatch, League of Legends, and Rocket League. Both the varsity and club teams will play in established collegiate leagues, based on game titles, and will compete in local, regional and national tournaments. The Redbird Esports RSO has already competed against the University of Central Florida, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Illinois Wesleyan University, among others.

Where are teams going to practice?

The Activity Room in the Bowling and Billiards Center (BBC) will be the home of esports at Illinois State. The construction timeline for the facility is expected by December 1. The Activity Room will be closed during construction. Plans for additional gaming facilities across campus are in the works and will be officially announced as details finalize.

Are academic opportunities related to the game industry available?

The Arts Technology Program in the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts–soon to be renamed Creative Technology–is finalizing the curriculum for a game design major and minor. Arts Technology Director Aaron Paolucci said students can sign up for game design courses in fall 2020. He adds that Redbird Esports will be an important partner for the academic program.

“The varsity esports program will generate a lot of interest in what we are doing in game design,” he said.

“When we were putting this together, we wanted to fuse the academic with the recreational,” Pote added. “I am very excited to work with our peers in the academic departments to create an exceptional program.”

Will scholarships be available?

Scholarships will be available to varsity esports athletes. Additionally, scholarships will be available to students who want to get into other aspects of the esports field, such as coaching, team management, and broadcasting.

“Many people do not realize how much more there is to competitive gaming than the gaming itself,” Pote said. “We see a lot of opportunities for students to engage and create opportunities for themselves in the gaming industry.”

How can I get involved?

Are you a current student interested in esports? Join the Redbird Esports Discord server! It is a great place to meet students who share your interests. If you are a parent or alum interested in seeing the esports teams in action, check out the Redbird Esports Twitch channel.

This is great, but I have a few more questions. Whom should I contact?

For more information about esports at Illinois State, contact Dawn Pote.