Illinois State’s nationally ranked Redbird Esports program continues to bring great excitement to campus. Under the direction of Campus Recreation, Redbird Esports officially launched in fall 2020 with three competitive varsity teams, supporting 21 students with scholarships.

Universities have offered gaming clubs for many years, with small, private institutions becoming the first to offer scholarships to talented players. Esports programs have been on the rise since 2018, with hundreds of universities creating collegiate-level programs. Illinois State’s program is not only the first varsity esports program in the state, but is one of only a handful of public state schools officially supporting esports at the collegiate level.

Because esports programs began at private universities, they tend to hold a higher level of prestige and most national championship titles, but Redbird Esports is quickly becoming a national leader. “Illinois State’s program isn’t just here to exist. We’re here to compete and to win,” said Redbird Esports Program Director David Kirk.

In their first year, each of the three varsity teams finished in the top 25 rankings out of more than 350 universities for their respective game. The League of Legends team finished in the top five collegiate teams nationally.

While Redbird Esports has already built a strong program, there is more to esports than competition. Students are able to get involved in Redbird Gaming regardless of skill level, which provides them the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop relationships with peers who have similar interests. More than 1,400 students were involved in Redbird Gaming through 15 unique clubs as of fall 2021.

Participating in esports also provides real-world experiential learning opportunities for students to develop skills in critical roles such as social media and marketing, broadcast and production, technology and digital development, and event management and outreach. These tangible ties to students’ career development continue to create opportunities for collaborations with academic programs such as kinesiology and recreation, creative technologies, and communication. “Strong academic partnerships further demonstrate our commitment to student success both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Campus Recreation Executive Director Dawn Pote.

In addition to academic collaborations, esports programs offer a tremendous opportunity to partner with admissions teams on recruitment efforts. “The notoriety of nationally successful and competitive esports teams expands Illinois State University’s reach for recruitment,” Kirk said. “Illinois State’s success in esports is providing a broader and more profound reach to the younger audience.”

Looking ahead, there are a number of focus areas to further enhance and strengthen the esports program. In addition to growing the varsity teams and the Redbird Gaming communities and providing them with increased support and engagement, Redbird Esports is also exploring innovative ways to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion among the gaming population. There are also efforts to further develop the broadcast and production team. This will increase streaming capabilities, allowing more members of the campus community to view matches and cheer for Redbird Esports.

As the program continues to grow, Campus Recreation will be working toward the expansion of esports facilities on campus. The Vault, a 25-PC gaming space, opened in the Student Fitness Center in fall 2020 with the launch of the Redbird Esports program. This facility has provided practice and competition space for teams and opened to students for causal gaming in fall 2021. While it has been exciting to see students enjoying this space, it is also evident that more space is needed to accommodate program needs and increasing student interest.

In fall 2021, the Board of Trustees approved the development of a larger gaming complex in the Bowling and Billiards Center. This 11,000-square-foot space will feature a dedicated varsity showcase for in-person competition; flexible space for spectator seating; 72 high-performance, fully equipped PCs; console and tabletop gaming space; team rooms; a broadcast and production room; and a large scoreboard to watch competitions and other major gaming events. The proposed completion date for the new gaming complex is fall 2022. The Division of Student Affairs continues to seek donors who are eager to get involved in the exciting world of Redbird Esports by helping to support this major project.

“The notoriety of nationally successful and competitive esports teams expands Illinois State University’s reach for recruitment. Illinois State’s success in esports is providing a broader and more profound reach to the younger audience.”

David Kirk, Redbird Esports program director