Redbird Esports Director David Kirk, M.S. ’16, made a simple comparison to help sports fans who may be new to esports understand how good Illinois State University is at competitive Overwatch.
“We are like the Alabama of Overwatch,” he said.
The University of Alabama football team has won five national titles in the last decade. The Redbirds have some work to do to match the Crimson Tide’s record, but in only its second year of existence, Kirk has built a juggernaut. Since July, Redbird Esports has been on a tear, winning major tournaments against not just the top collegiate teams, but some of the best talent on the continent. The team’s latest triumph came September 19 at the prestigious Harrisburg University Esports (HUE) Invitational.
A strong inaugural season laid the groundwork for this year’s success. Last year’s Overwatch team finished in the top 20 in the nation, a respectable result for a program in its first year. That success paired with a top five finish for the League of Legends squad gave Redbird Esports strong momentum when they started recruiting for the 2021–22 season.
Kirk aspired to build a team that could compete with last season’s Overwatch collegiate champion, Maryville University. He started scouting Overwatch Contenders, a semipro tournament series. Players who are good enough to compete and excel in Contenders are top prospects to play in the main professional organization, the Overwatch League. Kirk’s first major recruit was his student coach, Eric Perez, who replaced 2021 graduate Ashley Marku. Perez had coached the Contenders team American Tornado during its dominant spring 2021 season.
“I came to ISU because it is one of the best schools for teachers in the country, and I want to become a special education teacher after esports,” Perez said.
Getting Perez helped Kirk recruit fellow former American Tornado players Benjamin David, Isaiah Rodriguez, and Corey Scoda. Acquiring these talented players also made the Redbirds attractive to Samuel Santos, Zayne Ramirez, and Luke Fish, who joined from the Contenders squad DarkMode NA.
Patrick McGrath, Illinois State’s only returning varsity player, filled the seventh and final roster spot.
“This year’s team is really stacked—the most stacked collegiate Overwatch team that has ever been created,” McGrath said. “They all knew each other before they came to campus. They’re all familiar with each other and respect each other as players. I was a little nervous at first, but they are all really down to earth and really cool people.”
Redbird Esports knew they had a strong team but wanted to prove it in Contenders. Collegiate teams are allowed to compete if they can get a top two result in a grueling 128-team open tournament and win a six-team round-robin tournament. Redbird Esports dominated, going undefeated in both. They then took that momentum to win the Contenders tournament in September, becoming the first collegiate team to do so.
“Maryville had played in Contenders before, but they didn’t win a single game,” Kirk said. “Our team having won the whole thing means we are not just the best collegiate team in the country. We are the best team in North America not in the Overwatch League.”
Redbird Esports Overwatch followed that up a few weeks later by easily winning the HUE Invitational, an invite-only collegiate contest. Illinois State’s League of Legends team was also invited to the tournament and finished in the top eight, wrapping up a strong weekend for the program. In October, the team will participate in Overwatch Collegiate Homecoming, a preseason tournament that is usually a strong indicator of how teams will perform during the spring regular season. Based on its dominance so far this semester, Illinois State is the heavy favorite.
“There’s definitely pressure, but I feel like I can handle it,” McGrath said.