Illinois College logs on for inaugural esports season

JACKSONVILLE — Five young men rapid-fire communicated during an intense intercollegiate match recently at Illinois College.

“Careful! Coming to you! Alright Zach, you good?”

“They’re getting up for a drive right now!”

“Keep the pressure up top. Come help me up top!”

“They’re coming, man! Throw everything at them!”

“Careful, careful, careful!”

“I see it, I see it!”

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! We need to go now!”

And just as quickly as the game had progressed, it was over — the word “DEFEAT” flashed across the screen.

Welcome to Illinois College’s first season of esports, the world of competitive gaming where both teams play at home but only one can win. The Jacksonville college is one of more than 50 colleges or universities with varsity esports programs, according to the National Association of Collegiate eSports.

And if you feel the online contests at these schools aren’t as hard-fought as traditional sports, think again.

“They both have competitive atmospheres and one may be physical, but you are just as upset if you lose here as you are on the field,” said Zach Heren, 19, of Auburn, a sophomore sports management major who also plays on the Illinois College football team. “I get the same amount of thrill that I get from winning in esports as I do on the field.”

“We don’t do hand gestures or high-fives. We just scream like ‘yeah, good job man!’ or ‘way to go, that was dope!’ We just hype each other vocally,” said Heren, whose parents support his competitive gaming.

“My parents think me doing something else during the off-football season, keeping myself proactive, is a good way for me to stay active and keep my grades up,” Heren said. “Because you have to get good grades in order to play.”

‘Like chess the entire time’

Black and white high-back gaming chairs line a long white table inside the Meraki Gaming Center in Illinois College’s Caine Student Center. The five players sit side by side, each with a screen, keyboard, mouse and headset with microphone. Posters depicting League of Legends, the game the team plays, adorn the black walls. Most of the players wear blue Illinois College shirts while competing, even though their opponents do not see them.

After what seems like a leisurely pregame period of selecting and outfitting on-screen players, the action suddenly begins. Staccato bursts of mouse and keyboard clicks, wildly changing screen images, and one- and two-word strategy communications fill the room. Several players’ nervous feet tap so forcefully that their chairs shake.

“When you’re in the game it’s non-stop thinking. It’s like chess the entire time,” said 20-year-old James Xu of Los Angeles, a sophomore psychology major. “So you have to constantly be thinking about yourself, what your teammates are doing, what your opponents are going to do, it’s a really fast-paced game.”

Xu said the League of Legends game that most collegiate teams play is perfect for the competition.

“Your team of five’s goal is to destroy the enemy’s base, so you have to gather across a really large map and you constantly have to make moves,” Xu said. “It’s a non-stop process for between 20 and 60 minutes.”

“Esports competition has taught me how to be mentally strong because it’s just non-stop thinking, and it has taught me how to think on my feet,” Xu said.

Keep calm and win

Illinois College lost the three-game match on Feb. 3 to the University of Missouri, a much larger school that they wouldn’t get to play in traditional sports.

“It is nice being able to play a Division I school, and in something other than football,” said Illinois College football and esports team member Lerendy Warren of Bethalto, a 21-year-old senior. And if you think it’s not a real sport, learn how to play the game and then you’ll see how stressful it can be.”

“Like in football, in esports we watch film, and we look at our opponents’ stats and how they like to play,” Warren said. “We go in with a game plan, we don’t go in blind.”

Besides a team strategy, each individual player has a mouse-driven mantra.

“Keeping calm, keeping your head level, not getting aggravated over anything that happens while you’re playing or anything your teammates are doing,” said Dylan Cawthon of Bluffs, a 25-year-old freshman who wants to go into the gaming business. “We use voice communication software while we are playing, and we talk to each other, let each other know what the players we are playing against are doing, where they’re at, things that we think we can do.”

Jakob Kording, 19, a sophomore mathematics and economics major from Jacksonville, had not thought about competing in esports until the previous coach talked to him about it at the end of the spring 2017 semester.

“I’m a math major. I do a lot of problem solving, and in the game there are a lot of problems,” Kording said. “You always try to think ahead. You always try to figure out if you’re in a problem. How do you get out of that? How do you capitalize on mistakes?”

“Winning feels good, kind of the same way you feel when you get a good grade on a test,” Kording said. “It’s like, I prepared for this, and it went the way I expected. It is just a satisfying feeling.”

Illinois College Esports Head Coach Justin Bragg, a former semi-professional and nationally-ranked gamer, also likes to win, something that eluded the Illinois College team against Missouri.

“The biggest problem is you waited too long,” Bragg said to the team following the game. “We really need to force something, pull the trigger faster.”

“There’s always more work to be done, more improvement that they can do, but as far as coming together for the first time this year I think they are doing a really good job,” Bragg said of his team. “We practice by playing solo two-games, five-on-five scrimmage matches with other schools, and we have game reviews to see what decisions we made that were correct and which ones we can improve on.”

“Esports puts us out there as having something different, something that people will want to come to the college to do,” Bragg said. “There aren’t many esports programs where they are giving out scholarships for students to come play. You might have only 45 to 50 schools that do that right now.”

Recruiting tool

Adam Lee, 17, from Hudsonville, Michigan, is being recruited to play on Illinois College’s esports team and has been offered a scholarship to do so. He came to campus on Feb. 3 to watch the match in person.

“I originally just started looking around for small liberal arts colleges, and I noticed that they had an esports team,” Lee said. “I started looking more into the school itself and found out I liked it, so now I’m here. As of now, I most likely will go to Illinois College.”

“I think from a lot of people it is kind of getting the respect it deserves. In the pro scene you might get 50 million people watching the world championship,” Lee said. “I think now that it’s starting to come down to people are realizing that this is a big thing. It’s not just a fad that comes and goes.”

Illinois College announced the formation of their esports team one year ago and hired Christian Matlock as coach. Matlock left to move closer to his family and Bragg was then hired in October 2017, according to Stephanie Chipman, the vice president of enrollment management and college marketing. She said the college also is standing behind the new program with significant privately funded esports scholarships ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 per year for all four years.

“Esports teach skills that align with Illinois College’s promise that all students graduate ready for personal and professional success,” Chipman said. “Our esports student-athletes learn skills like critical thinking, time management, working in diverse teams and resource efficiency, all of which align with IC’s mission and the learning outcomes our students can expect.”

“Esports is a rapidly growing sport and I expect IC’s team to grow as well,” Chipman said. “I look forward to seeing new titles added to the IC esports program in the near future.”

Competitive gaming is becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing recreations, with esports having gone from a fan base of 89 million in 2014 to more than 150 million in 2017 and projected to exceed $1 billion in revenue by 2019, according to Illinois College.

Contact David Blanchette through the metro desk, 788-1401.

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February 11, 2018 at 07:54PM

Illinois College logs on for inaugural esports season

NIU football attendance continues nosedive, impacts local economy

DeKALB – It’s no secret: Attendance for Northern Illinois athletics, specifically football, continues to dip. 

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January 12, 2018 at 03:33PM

NIU football attendance continues nosedive, impacts local economy

Broadcasting eSports is here to stay

Network television executives are tasked with forecasting what people want to watch, years ahead of time.

ESPN caught the eSports wave when it broadcasted “Madden Nation,” which featured the popular Madden (NFL) football franchise, from 2005-08.

In 2017, ESPN broadcasted the “FIFA Ultimate Team Championship Series.” The NFL Network and Univision plan to telecast the “Madden NFL” series with three major tournaments, including the Madden Bowl. NBC has been broadcasting “Rocket League,” a soccer video game where humans are replaced with rocket-powered cars.

Phil Hersh, who covered 18 Olympic Games for the Chicago Tribune, believes eSports could become an Olympic sport. Speaking at the Charley Steiner Symposium on Sports Communication last month at Bradley, Hersh talked about the International Olympic Committee’s need to modernize the Games and attract younger fans and TV viewers.

“The only reason to talk about eSports is based on the idea they can get more eyeballs to watch,” Hersh said. “They’ll ask, ‘Are people watching in the 15-25 age group? Or maybe it’s as young as 12, or even 8 years old. If 8- to 25-year-olds are watching eSports, that will determine whether it’s in the Olympics.

“Sadly, 50-and-up is the target Olympic audience right now. That needs to change. It’s all part of a much larger discussion, but eSports — I can see that happening.”

The fact that Disney has signed on to broadcast eSports is reason enough to project it’s growth. According to, Disney XD broadcasted a “Super Smash Bros.” tournament and a “Street Fighter” tournament in July. The same platform also presented a gaming-centric show called “D|XP,” which features video games in a block from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. over the summer.

At least globally, eSports is entertaining enough for 173,000 fans to show up to a stadium event and festival. That occurred at the Intel Extreme Masters championship in Katowice, Poland, according to Business Insider. The event also drew 46 million unique viewers online.

The Philadelphia 76ers became the first professional sports team in North America to own an eSports team. In September 2016, the organization bought Dignitas and Apex, as reported by ESPN. Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil had little expertise in competitive video games, so he brought on an executive, Paul Richardson, with consumer tech and video gaming experience to run the venture.

“The market created itself and became a product that a quarter-billion people are watching, and when they watch, they’re watching an hour-and-a-half a day,” Richardson told ESPN. “But at the same time, it’s an incredibly large, immature market that is somewhat of a Wild West.”

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


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December 24, 2017 at 02:18PM

Broadcasting eSports is here to stay

To infinity and beyond: Gaming growing with eSports

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 advisor 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,” “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 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, 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.”

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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, which drew 50 million unique viewers in July, according to

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 Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.

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December 24, 2017 at 02:18PM

To infinity and beyond: Gaming growing with eSports

Bradley’s game-design program reaching new heights

Bradley University was ahead of the eSports curve when its game-design program began in 2010. It was ranked 12th by the Princeton Review in March 2017.

The program gives students a hands-on approach by making board and video games over four years to build a portfolio.

Bradley students begin the program by making a board game as freshmen, to help develop the fundamentals of game design.

“We give them that experience so they can figure out if they want to continue pursuing it,” interim coordinator Ethan Ham said.

As students progress through the program, their senior-year capstone project is to create a virtual game. The 2017 class created Starcats, which placed top-five among 400 submissions at the E3 College Game Competition.

Starcats is a round-based game where the first player to 15 points wins. But it encourages players to work together because there can be multiple winners, according to Quentin Young, one of the project leads. (For more information on the game, visit

As one of the leaders of the project, Young is trying to commercialize the game and has started his own company, Symptomatic Productions, which he hopes to use to build more games after Starcats is produced.

“From my own experience, a lot of Bradley grads are unable to move to where game development is really happening — Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles and Montreal — so they take jobs that aren’t what they went to school for, because it’s easier for them to stay local instead of picking their lives up and moving elsewhere,” Young said. “Symptomatic was originally founded because I wanted my team of 17 to be able to take the game that they had poured their hearts into to market.”

Young’s Symptomatic Productions is the first of its kind in the area. While the Champaign-Urbana area boasts a handful of companies, Peoria does have companies that use game technology.

“It’s interesting that Peoria doesn’t have any game companies right now,” Ham said. “But there are a number of companies that use game technology, and our students tend to intern there and some get jobs there afterwards.”

Symptomatic Productions will move on to producing other games created by fellow Bradley graduates and classmates of Young: Gage Melton, Ryan Hughes and Brie Rodgers.

Additionally, current Bradley seniors Zach Abbott, Arwen Boyer and Josh Estill saw their board-game project come to life — Dark Is The Night went to market this past fall.

Ham believes a lot of students are interested in the game-design program because of their interest in playing games, whether board or video. He is beginning to dive more into eSports and thinks Bradley, which has a club team, has the resources to dive deeper into it.

“The Slane College (of Communications and Fine Arts) has a sports communication program, so it seems natural, given that we have a video-game program and a sports communication program, that we look into the eSports space,” he said. “But I’m actually trying to find some of our students who are already involved (in eSports) and pick their brain.”

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


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December 24, 2017 at 02:18PM

Bradley’s game-design program reaching new heights

Olsen Announces Retirement

A long career in coaching and teaching is about to end. Paul Olson, track and cross country coach at Augustana College, has announced he’ll retire next spring.

He started in 1966 as head coach of the men’s cross country team, and recently concluded his 52nd season. The upcoming track and field season will be his 50th.

Olson is also a professor of English at Augustana, teaching classes in African American Literature and the “Sacred and Profane.” And has been chosen by 15 senior classes to give what’s called the “Last Lecture” before graduation.  

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November 15, 2017 at 11:17AM

Olsen Announces Retirement

Illinois Wesleyan hires first esports coach

BLOOMINGTON — Callum Fletcher might be the only Illinois Wesleyan University coach who doesn’t care about wins and losses — yet.

“My biggest responsibility is recruiting the team for next year,” he said. “It’s recruiting, coaching, management of the esports community on campus… and maybe we’ll win a little, too.”

Fletcher is the school’s first leader in a sport ahead of its time: competitive video games played by teams in person or online, also called esports. He thinks IWU is the only private liberal arts college with such a program, though they’ve grown in popularity nationwide over the past several years.

In his first few weeks on the job, Fletcher has selected a team of intramural players, started scouting recruits for next year’s varsity team and spent hours planning to turn Room 200 at Hansen Student Center from a seldom-used conference room to a state-of-the-art gaming competition space.

Of 20 students who tried out, 14 make up Fletcher’s first roster, including at least two who don’t mind that they probably won’t make the squad in 2018 — when IWU will start entering major competitions in “League of Legends,” an online multiplayer battle game that’s become one of the first major esports.

“It’s a good way to make friends and spend time, talking about something you like to do with other people,” said freshman physics and secondary education student Caleb Hansen of the team. “Getting better goes faster if you’re in game with somebody.”

“It still has the friendly but competitive edge you don’t always get with other clubs,” added sophomore psychology and pre-med student Luke Sieving, who played high school football. “I don’t want to do poorly when I’m playing with these people on my team. It’s got that same edge to it.”

Fletcher hopes Hansen, Sieving and their teammates can help him pick the school’s first roster of competitive players. While he and IWU recruiters are scouting talent like any other college sports program, no scholarships are involved, and the most talented players are unlikely to come.

“The dream is for a player from Illinois Wesleyan to go pro, but if a player is collegiate, they probably won’t, just because pro players get into the scene at 17 and 18 (years old),” said Fletcher. “This is about creating new opportunities for students, to cater to an audience we weren’t accessing.”

Fletcher’s path to IWU was also unlikely. The 25-year-old got a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement and justice administration with a minor in homeland security from Western Illinois University in Macomb but went to work for Play Mechanix, the suburban Chicago company that makes the “Big Buck Hunter” arcade shooting game.

Fletcher became the company’s community manager and ran the game’s world championship tournament, which gives away $100,000 in prizes, showing him not only the spoils of esports but also what a tournament looks like up close and what participants need to succeed.

“This feels like what I’ve been gearing up for for the last 10 years,” he said. “I’m very into the start-up role, building something from the ground up.”

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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October 5, 2017 at 06:05AM

Illinois Wesleyan hires first esports coach