BLOOMINGTON — They practice. They compete against other schools. They watch game films. They scout opponents. They strategize. They have spectators.
But the new intercollegiate team coming to Illinois Wesleyan University isn't your typical varsity sport.
IWU will be adding eSports — competitive online video gaming — to its lineup in fall 2018.
Karla Carney-Hall, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, said, “It's a growing sport and there's an affinity for it among today's college students.”
It's been called the fastest-growing collegiate team activity, but nearly all of the more than 600 schools who are competing are doing so on a club level. That's starting to change, however.
Illinois College in Jacksonville will begin its eSports program this fall. Robert Morris University in Chicago and Maryville University in Missouri already have varsity teams. Illinois College and Robert Morris both offer scholarships, but Carney-Hall said no decision has been made on whether to do so at IWU.
Although varsity competition is more than a year away, IWU and its volunteer coach, Drew Reddington, already have put together a team to show the possibilities.
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Online video games are “a huge passion of mine,” said Reddington, associate director of financial aid.
At first he looked into putting together an intramural program but then suggested IWU develop an intercollegiate program.
The current team is helping to build a community on campus and online as details are worked out for the varsity sport.
“Part of what attracts students to institutions like ours is a connection to their passions,” said Carney-Hall. “This is a recruitment activity.”
And that recruiting will extend beyond U.S. borders.
With such games being quite popular internationally, Carney-Hall said, “It's an opportunity to attract international students to Illinois Wesleyan, continuing to diversify the campus.”
Of the five students on the current IWU team, one is from China and another is from South Korea.
Team captain Tao “Paul” Jin from China, a sophomore with a double major in math and physics, said the game trains his senses and his critical-thinking skills. “And it's fun,” he added, in between games at a competition Wednesday night.
In a second-floor computer lab at Buck Memorial Library, the five-person team competed against Missouri Baptist University in "League of Legends" as part of the National Association of Collegiate eSports inaugural National Invitational. Meanwhile, a group of “fans” watched the match as it was streamed to a room in the Memorial Center, where a faculty member provided explanations and commentary.
In addition to being a recruitment tool, eSports promote critical thinking, problem solving and working as a team — all part of a liberal arts education, noted Carney-Hall.
Freshman Kyle Fahsl of Edwards, majoring in international studies and Hispanic studies, said being part of a team is much better than playing alone.
“When you have a team like this, there's someone to pat you on the shoulder and say, 'It's OK,' if you have a bad game or 'Good job,'” when it goes well, he said.
As the lone woman on the team, sophomore physics major Aeijn Kim of South Korea wants to “promote that girls can also be good at the game.”
Overall, only one in 10 gamers is female, said Kim, so “I'm raising up the statistics” as a woman on a five-person team.
As the game progressed, players shouted “Get back!” and “Get him!” and team captain Jin shouted instructions. “Don't fight,” he said. “Our team is not there yet.”
Although IWU didn't win, playing a good opponent is still fun, said Jin.
Playing the game has helped them meet people they might not otherwise have met, players said.
Andrew Chien, a theater technology majors from Golden Valley, Minn., said it helps students “connect with more people. … I've met people you wouldn't think are gamers.”
Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota