BLOOMINGTON — Like any intercollegiate coach, Callum Fletcher of Illinois Wesleyan University has his eye on his team becoming number one. His pride and determination were obvious Thursday as he showed off the newly opened practice facility and arena where his team will compete.
But this isn't your ordinary college sports team.
The arena looks more like Mission Control in Houston than Tucci Stadium or Horenberger Field, with 17 Alienware computers and monitors and custom Vertagear chairs. Just outside is a 55-inch screen where the campus community can watch live streaming of the game competition on IWU's Twitch channel.
ValueGamers ranked IWU fifth in the country in its rankings of “Best Colleges for Esports and Gaming.” But Fletcher said, “My goal, the goal for the program, is to be number one. … We're not content at number five.”
IWU is among 86 programs that are part of the National Association of Esports.
The Esports Arena is located in former conference room space on the second floor of the Hansen Student Center. The practice area, with 12 computer stations, is open to all IWU students when not used for practice. The competition area, with five computer stations, is called the Coliseum and is exclusively for team members.
In the future, the university might host events for high school students or other community members, said Fletcher.
With the popularity of of computer gaming, it made sense to “look at how technology and the liberal arts can come together,” Karla Carney-Hall, IWU vice president of students affairs, said at Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.
It has forced her to learn a whole new language, she said, such as “digital athletics.”
“It's the steepest learning curve in my career,” said Carney-Hall.
President Eric Jensen said, “Esports is a new concept for a lot of people,” but adding esports was a good fit at a school that celebrates students who are involved in many different activities.
“It's a technology-driven program,” said Jensen. “Even the furniture is cool.”
Unlike most intercollegiate teams, this one is co-ed, with two women on the 12-member team. Six players are on varsity.
Competition involves five players and one alternate, each playing a specific position or role in the game “League of Legends,” in a multiplayer online battle arena. Each team is trying to demolish their opponent's base in the fantasy world, explained Fletcher.
Team member CJ Savino, a freshman in psychology from New Jersey, said good communication is crucial during the fast-paced competition so team members know what each other is going to do.
“If you don't do it as a team, you're not going to win,” he said.
Another team member, freshman Justin Fairchild of North Carolina, said when you win, “you get the same endorphins as in a traditional sport,” and when you lose, you want to work to improve.
Fairchild, a computer science major, said team members have “all been growing as players” since they arrived several days before classes began and started playing 9 to 10 hours a day.
“I'm really excited for this year,” he said.
Jensen noted that athletes in traditional sports at IWU have better grade-point averages than non-athletes and he expects the same from the new esports team.
The esports program was launched as a registered student organization in spring 2017 under interim coach Andrew Reddington, associate director of financial aid. This is its inaugural varsity season.
“We're building something historic here,” said Fletcher, who has 15 years of esports experience and formerly worked at Play Mechanix, creator of the arcade game Big Buck Hunter.