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ISU approves $5.95 million esports arena, but not without some questions

Levester Johnson
Illinois State University
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Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson says esports are an important recruitment tool.

The Illinois State University Board of Trustees on Friday passed a raft of resolutions related to renovation and repair projects on campus. The total cost of the approved resolutions totals approximately $27 million.

While the majority of resolutions passed with minimal discussion, a proposed improvement project to develop part of the Bowling and Billiards Center (BBS) into an esports facility sparked debate.

According the resolution, ISU made a “strategic commitment to esports” in 2019 when it became the first public university in the state with a varsity esports program. Esports was initially granted a few hundred square feet of dedicated space on campus, housed in two spaces called “DIGGS” and “The Vault.” The proposed expansion would see 10,000 square feet in the southern end of the BBC converted into the ISU Esports Gaming Center and Arena. The estimated cost of the project is $5.95 million.

Trustee Rocky Donahue said it was the project’s price tag, not its intent, that drew his objection.

“While I’ll openly admit that I have a generational gap as it relates to esports, my questions are not about supporting esports. I’m struggling with $6 million dollars,” he said.

Trustee Kathryn Bohn asked whether esports was capable of bringing in money like its more traditional counterparts in sports.

“I mean, in athletics we generate revenue through ticket sales, et cetera,” she said.

Vice President of Student Affairs Levester Johnson said esports could generate revenue, explaining there were several opportunities for naming and sponsorship associated with the project. He went on to point out the expanding appeal and popularity of esports.

“This thing is fast moving,” Johnson said, pointing out that IHSA approved esports as a sanctioned high school activity and has established statewide competitions. Students develop an interest in esports well before high school, Johnson said, and it’s something they consider when applying to colleges. About 2,500 prospective students last year identified esports as one of the criteria they were considering while choosing a school, Johnson told the board.

“Over 1,500 of them came to this institution,” he said. “So, we see this as a recruitment tool as well.”

Defending the need for expanded esports facilities, Johnson said ISU has reached its limit in terms of capacity and what the current facilities can offer. He said students needed more to stay engaged.

“They’re demanding it,” he said. “This is where they’re at and this is what they’re involved in.”

Trustee Bob Dobski admitted that he, too, suffered from a generation gap in understanding esports, but said if that’s the direction things are headed, then the university needs to remain at the forefront.

“We definitely need to be in it and promote it if it’s going to attract more students down the road,” he said.

“It’s not a fad. This not something that’s just going to go away,” Johnson told the board. “We’ve got Illinois students who are selecting Illinois State University because of we’ve built here.”

Time, Johnson cautioned, is a factor. “If we don’t stay competitive, if we don’t stay on the front end of this? Yeah, these students are going to go someplace else, possibly,” he said.

The resolution passed 5 -2. Donahue and fellow trustee Robert Navarro voted against it.

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