Attention all gamers: Northern Illinois University’s Esports Club welcomes players of all stripes, casual or competitive, to join the ranks and have some fun.
Esports – organized, competitive video gaming events with championships at the regional, national and international level – have become a multi-million dollar industry in recent years and are growing in popularity on college campuses. More than 70 varsity and 200 club teams exist on American college campuses as of March 2018.
NIU Club members aren’t surprised that esports have become so popular. The NIU Esports Club has been in existence since 2012 and is a recognized NIU Sport Club overseen by NIU Recreation and Wellness. With more than 150 members, NIU Esports is the largest sport club on campus, having more than twice as many members as the next largest sport club.
When asked why club members love the Esports Club at NIU, one member explained, “I love seeing the energy of all the players! It’s great to play with other people and practice your skills. That’s why I love the NIU Esports Club … finding more people to play the games you enjoy.”
Drop in at one of their bi-weekly meetings and you’ll see why the club has grown in the last six years. A typical meeting is a laid-back LAN party, which are gatherings where people join their computers or game terminals together using a Local Area Network (LAN) to play multiplayer video games. Free pizza and prize giveaways encourage non-members to join the festivities. “We welcome everybody here,” says NIU junior Mark Ellingson. Recent NIU graduate Ayla Davis-Yanca encourages fellow women to try out the club. “The community is welcoming and doesn’t judge based on gender,” she says. “Games aren’t just a guys’ thing! Girls can be part of it too.”
Students’ increased interest in competitive gaming culture has also provided an opportunity for the club to grow into something more ambitious. The incumbent president, senior Conner Vagle, says, “Our teams are starting to find solid competitive footing, and I think as esports continues to grow, our competitive teams can only get stronger. My long-term goal is to see our competitive teams on the national stage, and I think this is a real possibility.”
And what would these enthusiasts say to those who might be scratching their heads at the thought that competitive video gaming is becoming a major sport? NIU Vice President of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development Anne Kaplan says when she first heard about esports, “I was surprised by the size of the esports movement nationally and around the world but pleased to find that NIU already had a large, active club comprised of a diverse group of academically successful and highly motivated students.”
NIU alumnus and gamer Andrew Board says, “Scanning a major tournament on YouTube or Twitch may [blow] skeptics’ minds. The excitement is comparable to any conventional athletic championship. To even get to such a major event requires deep knowledge of the game, many hours of practice from each player, and team-wide strategy and discipline.”
Vice President Kaplan adds, “Several studies in the last decade have shown that there are cognitive, social and emotional learning benefits from playing video games. Esports improves players’ resourcefulness, communication and adaptability skills – traits that employers look for in college graduates.”
In April, the club threw one last event for the end of the semester, “Café and Conquer,” which featured a line-up of tournaments of the most popular esports games, including Hearthstone, League of Legends, Rocket League, Overwatch and Super Smash Brothers. The atmosphere was unique, focused yet loose and playful. Yes, they do compete and yes, there are prizes, but there was always the sense that everyone knows, first and foremost, they’re playing a game and games are fun. This reporter admits he wished he could sit in on a game himself. He also admits he would likely be handily thrashed by those who know the ins and outs of combos and strategies. But losing wouldn’t detract from the fun.
NIU students are invited stop in at an NIU Esports Club meeting, held during the school year every other week. Meetings and events are announced on the club’s Facebook page. At a typical meeting, participants bring their own computers and consoles to play Rocket League, Super Smash Bros. 4, Overwatch and League of Legends. Attendees are welcome to hop into a pickup game, but those who want to compete must pay a small entrance fee of $5.