On Saturday, May 4, NIU Esports hosted the first Illinois high school Overwatch state finals championship, organized by the Illinois High School Esports Association (IHSEA). NIU Esports Club members volunteered as student ambassadors, and the new NIU Naperville Esports Café shone as a venue for esports events. The players competed in the Esports Café space while spectators watched both from the NIU Naperville auditorium and online through the IHSEA twitch channel. Thanks to the hard work of IHSEA organizers and NIU Naperville staff members, the event was a resounding success.
“NIU was so incredibly accommodating and provided opportunities that I couldn’t have dreamed were possible,” says Ed Cann, esports coach for Oswego High School. “We were able to provide individual cameras for interviews, [shout]casters and fans, and it made it so much more immersive for everyone involved.”
The Oswego High School team was among the four finalists, along with Naperville North High School, Lyons High School and Glenbrook High School. Naperville North was thrilled to take away the championship win, but all the teams appreciated the camaraderie and the excitement of playing before an audience.
“I’m proud of the students’ spirit of competition and of their exceptional behavior and sportsmanship,” says Amy Whitlock, esports coach at Oswego East High School and co-founder of IHSEA. “Having an esports program is important for high school students for so many reasons,” she continues. “Esports athletes are very diverse: racially, socio-economically, and by gender and ability. Students who may not be interested or able to play a traditional school sport are frequently gamers and are excited to be able to represent their school in an area where they excel.”
Naperville North Esports Director Andy Mendez has experienced firsthand how esports can help students develop leadership and career skills. Mendez was an esports competitor when he attended Metea Valley High School not so long ago. He says, “I learned to be a leader, a marketer, a social media manager, a coach and a proper representative of my high school. In fact, because of the program’s success, I earned my first job after graduation, returning to Metea as the program’s head coach. I have seen what esports can do for students, and I’d like to provide others with the same opportunities.”
Todd McFarlin, esports coach at both Taft and Steinmetz High Schools and co-founder of IHSEA, agrees. “I care about esports because this is an activity that truly can give back,” he says. “Students have made so many friendships though esports clubs. The students also have exhibited all the traits that go along with competitive activities, such as communication, leadership, determination and perseverance.”
Cann agrees. He says that, through esports, “Students are exposed to new opportunities for higher education and career paths that can align with their passions. I saw students who were quiet and reserved become peer leaders within the program. Students can find a multitude of avenues to participate from competing to coaching/analytics, production and media. Students gain communication skills and problem-solving skills while being immersed in an activity that they love.”
For the approximately 40 students, eight coaches, 30 live spectators and 60 online viewers, the May 4 tournament represented an important turning point in high school esports.
According to Cann, an important moment happened during the final round of competition. “Naperville North had a big play and the crowd (of primarily Naperville North supporters) roared in excitement. On May 4, we saw esports take the next true step as a legitimate competition for high schools in Illinois as we saw a school community rally behind their team in the finals.”
Cann also praises the friendships formed between the schools and competitors. “After the tournament, Naperville North and Oswego went out to dinner to celebrate a great tournament and truly were rooting for each other, even though the two teams had to face each other in the semi-finals!” he says. “In the days since, the students from all four schools have been complimenting each other and how well people played. The players from Naperville North and Oswego are actually planning on doing Friday friendly tournaments at Naperville North’s new esports lab. Seeing kids build relationships, not only with their own teammates but with other competitors, means we are doing something right.”
Alex Kramer, one of the NIU Esports Club members who volunteered at the tournament, appreciated the high level of play he saw from the high school teams. “The highlight of the event was definitely the championship match between Lyons Township and Naperville North,” he says. “It was great to see the best two schools in the state face each other on a big stage like the IHSEA Championship.”
Jeannine East, Esports Project Manager at NIU, hopes the high school competitors continue playing Overwatch at the collegiate level by participating in college esports clubs and competition teams. “Esports offer another way for students to develop their leadership and teamwork and to give back to their university community,” she says. “We’re so proud to be able to support high school esports in Illinois and to offer a strong esports program at NIU.”