Students compete in the High School Esports Invitational 2017 at Robert Morris University on May 6, 2017, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune).and more »
If you think about what constitutes a sport, the contest that took place recently at Robert Morris University checked many of the boxes.
Did the competitors put in many hours of practice? Yes. Did they possess physical and mental gifts? Affirmative. Was teamwork a crucial ingredient for success? Absolutely.
The only thing missing, really, was perspiration — it's hard to break a sweat when you're sitting in a climate-controlled room, moving little more than your fingers.
This was the second High School Esports Invitational, a video game competition that serves as an unofficial regional championship for many Chicago-area schools. Sixteen teams flocked to the computer-packed gaming arena at Robert Morris' downtown Chicago campus to sort out who was best at the online fantasy game "League of Legends."
But for some, the event offered more than the chance to win a trophy and a $1,200 first-place prize: It was another step toward making video gaming a mainstream sport on par with baseball, football or auto racing.
"NASCAR's a sport, right?" said Tony Pape, who coaches the esports team at Burbank's Reavis High School. "They're sitting in a chair, they're using controls, same as these kids here. (Gaming) is not as physically demanding but it's mentally demanding. It demands a lot of teamwork, coordination and practice. I consider it a sport, absolutely."
The Illinois High School Association, which governs interscholastic sports in the state, is intrigued. Executive Director Craig Anderson said it takes about 80 schools to create a viable sport, and should the interest become evident, esports could join the roster of sanctioned sports and activities within a few years.
"I see it much like when we added bass fishing," he said. "People were like, 'What?' But if our schools are forming teams and their students have interest and it's developing, we'd want to organize in a way where we could crown a state champion."
While competitive gaming has been around since at least the early 1970s, the latest iteration, driven by wildly popular online titles, has reached unprecedented heights. Professional gamers sell out arenas and have their matches broadcast on ESPN, while a growing number of colleges — led by the pioneering program at Robert Morris — offer athletic scholarships to top players.
Still, the high school scene has remained quiet even though teens are a prime audience for video games: No state has sanctioned gaming as an official sport, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But the groundwork has begun as more schools create esports clubs, often backed by supportive administrators. Case in point is Oswego East High School.
Its club started in fall 2015 after the owner of a local video game emporium called around seeking participants for a high school tournament. The message made it to Oswego School District 308 administrator John Sparlin who, after consulting with his teenage son, gave a thumbs-up to esports, believing they would give opportunities to students whose interests weren't being met.
"For kids who maybe weren't into athletics, this gives them another avenue to be active in their school," he said.
Oswego East French teacher Amy Whitlock volunteered to form a team. Though she was a gamer, she didn't know much about "League of Legends," a complex game that demands quick reflexes, strategic thinking and team cohesiveness.
But some of her students knew plenty, and within two weeks she had a full roster ready to go. Oswego East won the local tournament in early 2016, then got invited to the first high school invitational at Robert Morris, put on by Chicago Esports and Gaming. The team lost its first match but made it to the finals, where it defeated Chicago's Jones College Prep and claimed a $700 prize for the school.
"A bunch of people at school, they think we're just playing games, that it's not that big a deal," said senior Parker Bosserman, 18, a member of the title-winning team. "When they see we won (money) and all this cool gear, they realize we are good at it."
Whitlock said the program has given students a reason to keep their grades up and develop a deeper connection with their school. It has also helped them hone their communication skills — "League of Legends" requires constant coordination — and manners.
"I try to work on that 'gamer fury' they sometimes have because they're coming to me with established habits," she said. "We work very hard on being a classy team."
The tournament at Robert Morris was a sportsmanlike affair, with dozens of boys in jeans and hoodies furiously clicking computer mice with one hand and rattling keyboards with the other. They were modest in victory and gracious in defeat, offering the gamer's benediction of "GG" — as in "good game" — during post-match handshakes.
The participants represented a diverse range of schools, from the city to the suburbs to Wisconsin and Indiana. Cameron Wilson, a senior at Chicago's ACE Technical Charter High School, has been a part of his school's program for three years, preferring esports to basketball and baseball.
"To me it's more fun," he said. "You really have a fun time bonding with your team out there. It's less physical but more mental. It's really strategy-based, and that's what I love about it."
Over six hours, the contenders were winnowed into two finalists —Jones College Prep vs. Oswego East, a rematch of 2016.
Jones was the clear favorite due to the presence of Jesus Mui, a 16-year-old sophomore who is ranked 50th among the hundreds of thousands of North American "League of Legends" players, and because Oswego East had brought a rookie team (all the seniors were at the prom).
Still, Oswego East leaped to an early advantage, killing off Jones' avatars faster than Jones could strike back. But in "League of Legends," kills can be a misleading metric: The real point is to destroy your rivals' base — or "nexus" — and about 40 minutes after the game started, Jones battled its way to Oswego East's nexus and smashed it to bits.
"It looks like Team JCP are the victors here at the RMU High School Esports Invitational!" shouted an announcer calling the game for online viewers. "GG and congratulations. Great game."
Jones coach Terrel Mahoney said a few students had hung out in the school's downtown campus to watch the live stream, a hopeful sign of the growing spectator appeal of scholastic esports. He said he'd like to see games other than "League of Legends" become part of the scene, and for competitive gaming to achieve parity with traditional high school sports.
"For people who are not athletically gifted, this is a way for them to form camaraderie doing things that they love," he said. "And it's just something fun to do. You're playing video games with your friends — and for your school."
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