Charles Edamala, Illinois State University’s chief information officer, never set out to be a champion for Redbird Esports. He was simply assisting a student visionary in 2018. 

Jack Blahnik ’19, former president of Illinois State’s Redbird Esports, asked Craig Jackson, director of networking in the Office of Technology Solutions, for practice space for the Registered Student Organization (RSO). Jackson reached out to his manager, Edamala. When the organization ended up hauling gaming rigs into and out of Milner Library, Jackson and Edamala decided to expand their involvement.

They found space in Julian Hall and rebranded it as the Digital Innovation, Graphics, and Gaming Studio (DIGGS). Edamala equipped it with Alienware high-performance gaming machines from Dell Technologies so that ISU students would get a premier experience.

Edamala was mistaken thinking the task was done.

“On evenings I worked late, I would see students in the DIGGS, teams of five and Jack, who walked up and down behind them, coaching and encouraging them,” said Edamala. “It soon hit me. Esports is a thing. I was inspired.”

Edamala’s wife, Preethy, knew the moment his curiosity was sparked. “Charley is always 10 steps ahead. Once you catch up, you get excited too,” she said.

With a direction secured, Edamala wanted the University to move quickly to become the first state university in Illinois to have a varsity Esports program. He was pleased when David Kirk, M.S. ’16, was hired in January 2020 as ISU’s Esports program director. Soon after, the Redbird Esports varsity team was created. A new competition and practice space, The Vault, opened on the second floor of the Student Fitness Center in fall 2020. Redbird Esports is gearing up to move into a newly renovated space within the Bowling and Billiards Center in fall 2022.

Another milestone was reached in 2021 when the Blahnik-Jackson-Edamala team came together again. Blahnik had always dreamed of hosting a large Esports tournament at Redbird Arena, and an opportunity arose when the Bloomington-Normal Visitors Bureau sought space for the Sixty-Six Games Expo.

Blahnik’s dream was realized in October 2021 when ISU welcomed top collegiate League of Legends talent to Redbird Arena for the Expo. The event was broadcast via Twitch and attended by teams from Harrisburg University and Maryville University, both former national champions. Illinois State’s Esports Program entered the national stage and attracted a diverse group of students.

Gabriela Vo, M.S. ’21 came to ISU after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Superior to pursue a master’s in clinical counseling psychology. The move was isolating.

“I got depressed a lot. After I was done with work, there was just nothing. Whenever I wasn’t hanging out with my cohort, I just stayed in my room,” Vo said.

When she found Redbird Esports, everything changed. Vo had been an avid gamer in her home country, Vietnam, where she would often sneak out of her house to play League of Legends at internet cafes.

“When I first saw the DIGGS, I thought, ‘I’m at home,’” recalled Vo. She joined the Esports varsity team, whose members became like family. “We get along so well. I introduced the rest of the group to hot pot, something they’d never tried before,” said Vo. “They helped me feel at home here.”

Like many of her peers, Vo spent long hours training in the DIGGS because she didn’t have her own gaming computer. With students like Vo in mind, Charles and Preethy created the Sarah Ninan and Annamma John Mathew Scholarship, providing resources to underserved students who participate in Redbird Esports. Junior graphic design major, Mads Brendal, was selected to receive the inaugural scholarship, which pays tribute to Edamala’s mother, Annamma, and Preethy’s mother, Sarah. Both were trailblazers for whom education was transformational.

Born in Kerala, India to parents with limited resources, Mathew was the first of her family to attend college. After graduating, she and Edamala’s father pursued teaching roles in Tanzania, where Edamala was born.

Ninan was born in Kerala to a farmer at a time when educating girls was uncommon, yet her love of learning prevailed. She left home and went to Bombay to study nursing. There she met Preethy’s father, who eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics. They moved frequently, living in Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, Sudan, and Yemen before coming to the United States. Ninan continued learning, studying Braille, completing airline courses and UN secretarial classes, and earning a master’s degree at age 50.

Like their families, Charles and Preethy also value education. Preethy earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Nebraska. Charles earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and telecommunications from the University of Zambia, a master’s in computer science from Temple University and is completing a doctorate in higher education administration at Illinois State.

The Edamalas hope their scholarship will help students become trailblazers in the gaming world and other STEM fields. What has historically been perceived as a white, male-dominated space is continually evolving to include Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) of all genders. In 2021, 45% of all gamers identified as female. While user demographics are changing, industry leadership does not yet follow these trends.

“Being a woman of color in Esports can often feel lonely and ostracizing,” said Vo, who sometimes conceals her identity in Discord, the chat server used during gameplay. “If I spoke up they would say, ‘Well, you’re a girl.’ Or ask, ‘Where’s your boyfriend?’” said Vo. “When really, I play circles around them.”

Vo points to the late Maria “Remilia” Creveling for inspiring a new generation of women and queer and trans women gamers. Creveling made history in 2015 by becoming the first woman to qualify and compete in the League of Legends Championship Series with her team, the Renegades.

Despite facing sexist comments and transphobic harassment, Creveling “taught us we can break through into the game,” said Vo, who is encouraged by her experience with Redbird Esports. “They know I’m a woman,” she said of her teammate, “but they don’t treat me differently than any team member. If anything, they treat me differently because I am ruthless.”