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U-High Joins Esports Craze As Tourney Comes to Bloomington

League of Legends
Eric Stock
U-High senior Caleb Gonzalez practices a "League of Legends" game with teammates at the school's computer lab.

Zack Gilbert has been a video game fanatic as long as he can remember. 
“I played some video games, including Super Mario Bros.,” Gilbert recalled of his days growing up in Springfield. “I didn’t play it on a console, I played it in a bowling alley and played it on the arcade.

“That’s where I spent a lot of my quarters and time.”

Gilbert grew up to become a teacher. After 21 years in Unit 5, Gilbert now teaches 5th and 6th grade social students at Thomas Metcalf School in Normal. But he still is an avid video game player. But now, these games are much more than a pastime.

For some schools, like University High in Normal, it’s become an afterschool activity and a competitive sport.

Gilbert helped organize the program at U-High which has grown to nearly 30 students. Some play competitively, some for recreation.

A group of competitive gamers will be representing the Pioneers in the first esports tournament that’s coming to Bloomington’s Grossinger Motors Arena on Saturday and Sunday.

The tournament is called the Sixty-Six Games, a nod to historic Route 66. It will include 16 college teams, including Illinois State’s Redbird Esports, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Heartland Community College. U-High will be among eight high schools competing.

There will be team and individual winners in this multi-player online game.

The game of choice at this tournament is "League of Legends," which the students were practicing when GLT dropped in for an afterschool visit.

Gilbert explains the concept behind "League of Legends."

“You have two teams, five-on-five, and you are trying to capture the enemy’s territory and there are over 100 different characters in the game and they all have different skill sets,” Gilbert explained. “You think five-on-five basketball, you have many different players and playing styles, skill levels and you are trying to score points against the other team.”

The major difference: Instead of a ball, players use magical powers to take down their enemies.

Caleb Gonzalez is a "League of Legends" gamer at U-High. He plays football and baseball too but says he has a passion for video games and he saw "League of Legends" as a growing industry that likely offered a more realistic—and safer—potential for gaining a college scholarship than by playing traditional sports.

“There’s a lot of Big Ten schools that have been setting up complexes for video games, and I certainly think it’s a step toward the future,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a way to acknowledge another side of the population that doesn’t necessarily play sports as much as others do and are talented at other things.”

While esports don’t present the physical challenges that most sports do, the games challenge your motor skills and sharpen your mind.

“What people don’t understand about video games is it’s a lot of patterns and numbers,” Gonzalez said. “It’s really understanding the game.

Student plays Rocket League
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
U-High senior Boston Cooper practices a game of "Rocket League" during a recent afterschool session at the school.

“Just like you play a sport, there comes practice with sports and there comes practice with video games and understanding how the game works in an out and understanding the numbers you have to crunch to make the play or move your character.”  

For several U-High gamers, their game of choice is the "Rocket League." It’s three-on-three soccer with cars.

Senior Boston Cooper plays this game among his many extracurricular activities, which also includes marching band, speech and track and field. He’s also president of U-High’s Black Student Union.

Cooper said he likes competitive gaming, in part, because he can go at his own pace.

“This is a lot more laid back than the other (activities),” Cooper conceded. “With the other ones, the coaches are pushing you to always do your best.

“Mr. Gilbert knows we are just here to have fun and he knows our skill. He’s just here to facilitate and make sure we have fun. He’s more of a supervisor than your stereotypical coach.”

Gilbert says "Rocket League" is easy to learn, hard to master, but it features the team components that all the other sports provide, while the hand-eye coordination helps him with rec league baseball he plays in the summer.

Cooper says he plans to attend a four-year college, possibly medical school, and while he’d like to play esports in college, it’s not something he’s pursuing.

These esports games are not just a boy’s club. U-High supervisor Zach Gilbert said more than a half dozen students who play the video game Smash Brothers at school are female.

“Having two daughters of my own, that’s something I’d like to see more of,” Gilbert acknowledged. “My youngest, a freshman here at U-High, if we were playing 'Fortnite,' she’d be all about it.”

Gilbert joked as a lifelong gamer, he suffers from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) but he bristles at the idea playing these games might contribute to a shortened attention span. In his students, he sees an ability to hyper-focus when they are doing what they enjoy.

“These kids are really, really smart, but for them, they are able to have that attention just like anybody that’s playing in any type of sports of athletic competition and keep that focus of what’s going on in the game but they also have to communicate,” Gilbert said.

Esports can also be spectator sport, at least that’s what Grossinger Motors Arena managers are counting on. League of Legends tournaments have filled some of the biggest arenas in the United States.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why colleges and universities and the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) are interested in this,” Gilbert said. “Not only can we get kids that might not be involved in any other way, get them involved and bring them in – I would have been one of them if this was around when I was a kid – and you are going to be filling up some stadiums.”

The arena floor will include 100 PCs on the arena floor for game competitors while the tournament will be streamed live online and on social media.

Tickets cost $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. They can be purchased at the Grossinger Motors Arena box office at (309) 434-2679.

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Eric Stock is a reporter at WGLT.