BLOOMINGTON — For Zack Gilbert, esports are more about growth than games.
"We learn best through play. It's innate in all of us across the animal kingdom," said Gilbert. "I think every school should have a game club."
That's why Gilbert, a Thomas Metcalf School social studies teacher, started University High School's game club last year, and why he can't wait to show it off at Bloomington-Normal's biggest esports event ever.
That's SixtySix Games, a tournament of 24 five-person teams taking over Bloomington's Grossinger Motors Arena this Saturday and Sunday. Eight high school teams and 16 other college and adult teams will compete in "League of Legends" matches.
Spectators are welcome to watch the action, with tickets $10 per day for adults and $5 for children 12 years old and younger, available at the arena box office at 309-434-2679, sixtysixgames.com or at the door.
"Our pods of 10 computers will be sectioned off, but we'll allow spectators in between. We'll also have on the end of each... video monitors facing out toward the seats, so a parent could sit in the stands and watch their son or daughter play," said Matt Hawkins, sports marketing manager for the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
The event was hatched by the CVB and Bloomington-Normal Sports Commission, then developed with Central Illinois Regional Broadband Network, District 87 schools, Gilbert, the arena, Illinois Wesleyan University, PlayNormal Esports and Red Raccoon Games.
"We're always looking for new events that would match our mission in generating tourism and additional tax dollars through visitor spending," said Hawkins. "A hundred million people play League of Legends per month, so we thought that was our best chance at getting attention."
Hawkins said the event, named for Route 66, is intended to break even but expected to generate nearly $30,000 in economic impact. District 87 is loaning computers for the event, and State Farm is the event's title sponsor.
"We'll have 10 pods, 100 machines going at the same time. ... Without the machines being lent to us, this event probably wouldn't happen from the sheer cost of those," said Hawkins. "It is ultimately a CVB and sports commission-owned event, so we're responsible for the bottom line, but we're not looking to make money. We want to bring a new event for our locals to consume and bring visitors."
The high school division includes U High, Massac County in Metropolis, Sandoval, Shelbyville and four Chicago-area schools. Hawkins noted Bloomington High expressed interest but ended up on the waiting list.
"Hopefully this is going to be a model that can be used for the (Illinois High School Association)," said Gilbert, as the Bloomington-based organization considers delving further into sanctioning and organizing esports events.
The other division, for college and adult teams, includes IWU, Illinois State University's Redbird Esports, Heartland Community College, Chicago-area teams and others from Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Sunday will also feature a one-on-one League of Legends bracket with 64 slots that's still open. Hawkins said organizers hope the five-on-five teams eliminated Saturday will sign up for one-on-one competition on Sunday.
Hawkins said he'd like to expand future SixtySix Games events to include not only more teams — "it depends on the machines we can get our hands on," he said — but also an attached gaming expo. This weekend's event includes some vendor booths and walk-up spaces for gaming.
"You'd have not only a League of Legends tournament but possibly industry vendors, drone racing, industry speakers, maybe a seminar on game creation," said Hawkins. "It may be a lofty goal, but hopefully we can grow this into a three-, four- or five-day event."