WHY IT MATTERS: ESports is a $600 million industry, projected to nearly triple by 2020. High school teams are already playing, college scholarships are awarded, and top players are turning pro, as the IHSA, NCAA, NBA and even the Olympics try to figure out what role they can play in eSports' future. 

 

The era of parents barking at their children to shut off their electronic games might be coming to an end.

Turns out that these millennials are developing their hand-eye coordination and could be positioning themselves for college scholarships.

Competitive gaming, widely known as eSports, is one of the fastest-growing ventures in the world. The eSports economy is projected to grow to $696 million this year, according to Newzoo, which provides market intelligence on global games, eSports and mobile markets. About $257.5 million of that amount is coming from North America, the website claims. By 2020, eSports may be as big as a $1.5 billion industry.

“The (eSports) scene really started to develop toward the mainstream in the United States during the Halo franchise's growth and tenure on the Major League Gaming Circuit in 2004-2012,” said Illinois Wesleyan eSports coach Callum Fletcher. “Since then, developers have come out to support their titles with third-party tournament organizers, or taking matters into their own hands and running their competitive circuits themselves.

“As far as eSports goes, it was only a matter of time before it caught on. Humans inherently love competition. Create a game that pits you against another player or team, throw in a ranking system, and structured game types and settings, and people will start competing for that top spot.”

High school teams

The growth of eSports already has hit central Illinois. Metamora High School’s LAN Club has been gaming for eight years.

Newly opened eBash, an eSports arena at Landmark Recreation Center, has 33 PC stations, 16 Xbox Ones and 24 PlayStation 4’s for gamers to play. It also is home to the Peoria Steelcats, an eSports team that practices and competes at eBash.

There is a game-design program at Bradley University.

Metamora students play on computers in adviser Brian Stoecker's room. The club is self supporting, the teacher said, as students pay to play each week and can buy candy, drinks and pizza through a deal with Casey’s. With the money, the club has bought two PS4’s and four projectors.

“Most of these kids aren’t your (traditional) sports kids, but to them, this is their sport,” said Sheridan Ray, who coaches boys soccer and girls track and field head at the school.

Two Metamora alums are working for two popular companies in the gaming world. Ryan Metts is a graphics programmer for Rockstar Games, which makes the popular "Grand Theft Auto" series. Mike Newman is a software engineer at Microsoft and, according to Ray, is working on the ever-popular "Minecraft."

In Stoecker’s eight years in charge of the club, he has watched its membership overflow into two, sometimes three classrooms. A typical gaming night attracts about 40 students, he said, and one event drew close to 90.

ESports has become so popular that it has been added to the Illinois High School Association’s Emerging Sport/Activity List. Fourteen schools, including Metamora, are listed as schools that participate in eSports. Typically, the IHSA waits for 10 percent (60-80 schools) of its membership to participate before giving an activity full sanction, according to IHSA assistant executive director Matt Troha.

Last June, the independent Chicago High School eSports League completed its first season, with almost 40 schools competing. That suggests Illinois already might be close to the 10 percent needed for the IHSA to consider sanctioning an official state championship series for eSports.

The NCAA also is researching eSports. In November, the organization announced approximately 475 colleges participate and 50 offer scholarships to compete in the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

One hurdle for the NCAA and National Federation of State High School Associations is the question of amateurism in regard to regulating eSports. Similar to poker and chess, eSports tournaments often award cash prizes to winners.

College scholarships

“Why would we only identify and reward student-athletes who can put a ball through a hole or across a line?” said Kurt Melcher, who founded the first collegiate varsity eSports team, at Robert Morris University in Chicago. “We are empowering a new student-athlete and rewarding an innovative skill set by bringing that into an educational structure where their talent can be cultivated and rewarded.”

RMU built the first eSports arena, which can host 35 students and staff at one time, then added space for 25 more people. The eSports program offers 35-70 percent scholarships to attend school there. The different games students play include “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Dota 2,” “Hearthstone,” “Heroes of the Storm,” “Super Smash Brothers” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.”

Illinois College in Jacksonville has a relatively new program, and Illinois Wesleyan will start its varsity-level program in the fall of 2018.

Recruiting for eSports is a little easier than for football and basketball. Coaches don’t have to travel to scout players, thanks to popular streaming services such as Twitch.tv. They also can recruit through the High School Esports League.

“They seem to be the biggest organizer of high school eSports, with about 200 schools partnered with them across the country,” said Illinois College coach Justin Bragg, whose program offers scholarships worth $15,000-$20,000. “I can see weekly matchups that are streamed through twitch.tv, and they also have contact information for players on their website.”

A lot of recruiting is through word of mouth, Bragg said. He added that most students don’t know they can get college scholarships because they do not have a high school team and the sport is so new.

Beyond identifying players, though, Melcher believes the recruiting process is similar to traditional college sports in establishing a coach-player relationship.

“We offer for recruits to tour our campus, meet the staff in person and meet some of the existing team members,” he said. “While the identification process may all be digital, I still believe there is great value to having players tour a campus where they may plan on attending school, so they can be sure they are comfortable with all aspects of the school — program, location, coursework, etc.”

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; }

Melcher is also is the executive director of eSports for Intersport Esports Group, which is assisting the NCAA's research. He believes eSports has a bright future.

“In five to seven years, I believe that nearly every school with a competitive sports program will have an organized eSports program — either in athletics or through student services or through their technology/academic programs,” Melcher said. “I think there will be substantial academic programming provided supporting the burgeoning industry of eSports through a variety of different academic disciplines — business development, computer programming, performing arts, sports management, production and marketing. I see a national championship in various titles (of games), an international competition and a potential for an international draft into professional leagues.

“But first, let’s work on getting our existing universities to recognize and embrace what they already have on the majority of their campuses: thriving eSports clubs with talented players yearning for recognition and assistance.”

Going Pro

With all the money that is tied into eSports, it’s no surprise that players can earn a living while competing in video games.

Some of the best players have won more than $1 million in tournaments. Others make thousands of dollars by streaming their gameplay on sites such as Twitch.tv, which drew 50 million unique viewers in July, according to eBizmba.com.

The National Basketball Association and Take Two Interactive started a joint venture, the NBA 2K League. Seventeen NBA teams are sponsoring teams in the league’s inaugural season. Tryouts for NBA 2K18 begin in February after a qualifying stage in January. A draft will be held in March for 17 five-person teams.

Once selected, players must move to the city that selects them. According to the NBA 2k League’s Frequently Asked Questions, players will be paid a "competitive salary (with) benefits as well as housing."

Blizzard Entertainment created a new Overwatch League, which has 12 city-based teams. It’s an international league that has similarities to the NBA with a preseason, regular season, postseason and all-star weekend.

Players in the Overwatch League earn a minimum of $50,000 as a base salary plus healthcare and retirement savings plans, in-season housing. Plus there's a chance to win up to $3.5 million in performance bonuses in the inaugural season in 2018.

Aaron Ferguson can be reached at 686-3207 or aferguson@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.