Illini esports competitors seek recognition as Division I sport


(WCIA) — The countdown is on for Charles Yuram. The U of I junior from Rockford and his Illini teammates are gearing up for the national collegiate esports championships next month in Los Angeles. Even during finals week, the squad is getting in practice time to make sure it’s ready.

Illinois is coming off its highest League of Legends finish in history. They took down defending national champ Maryville in the quarterfinals, propelling them to the Final 4.

“We were very happy with that last year,” says Yuram. “So we’re trying to at least repeat that this year and hopefully go a little farther.”    

But even more than that, Illini esports is doing its best to try and move from a registered student organization or RSO, to a fully recognized Division I sport.

“If we’re able to put up results consistently and show without their support we’re a top team,” says Yurham. “If they support us, just how much farther can we go?”

It’s the same question Illinois Associate Athletic Director for Sports Technology Nick Rogers is asking. He led an esports summit on campus last month to open up a conversation about the billion dollar industry.
“We’ve been talking for awhile in athletics about what esports might look like,” says Rodgers. “Whether it’s something that we feel fits within athletics. Whether it’s something that could be beneficial for the university and as part of that discussion we’ve broadened it out to a lot of other groups on campus.”

Rogers recognizes just how big gaming has become. It’s estimated 300 million people watch esports on Twitch or YouTube every year and a large part of that population is college students. As a result, Ohio State is building a state-of-the-art arena and developing curriculum for esports. Marquette is taking it one step further as the first D1 school in the country with its esports team run by the athletic department.

“I think that would be a fantanstic outcome if we could figure that out somehow at the University of Illinois,” says Rodgers. “I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for both the university as well for our students.”

And that’s what Tyler Schrodt hopes to see as well. The CEO and Founder of the Electronic Gaming Federation, a leading espots governing body, was a featured speaker at the conference.

“We don’t debate so much sports versus esports. We think of esports as esports and they have their unique personality and their unique opportunities,” says Schrodt. “The compenents you find in athletics or any other part of campus for that matter, are like a blueprint for us to make something more incredible and more unique. So we use the 100+ years of history of college athletics to create that experience for a student that someone has come to expect this century.”

Schrodt is hopeful bigger schools like Illinois jump on board as varsity programs soon.
“At the professional level they already sell out stadiums like Madison Square Garden,” says Schrodt. “The Staples Center and that happens in five minutes. So I expect you’ll see the same type of development on the collegaite scene. Certianly our job is to help foster that culture and make something that’s worth going to see in the first place.”

Until then, Yuram and his teammates will continue to compete as a club with the hope of one day being recognized as an Illini athlete.

Illinois won the League of Legends Big Ten Championship in April. The Illinois esports varsity starters and one sub receive a $5,000 scholarship every year, and over 130 programs nationwide offer esports scholarships, some out of student life, some out of athletic departments.

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