Video gaming: the next high school sport? Competitive esports gain traction

If you think about what constitutes a sport, the contest that took place recently at Robert Morris University checked many of the boxes.

Did the competitors put in many hours of practice? Yes. Did they possess physical and mental gifts? Affirmative. Was teamwork a crucial ingredient for success? Absolutely.

The only thing missing, really, was perspiration — it’s hard to break a sweat when you’re sitting in a climate-controlled room, moving little more than your fingers.

This was the second High School Esports Invitational, a video game competition that serves as an unofficial regional championship for many Chicago-area schools. Sixteen teams flocked to the computer-packed gaming arena at Robert Morris’ downtown Chicago campus to sort out who was best at the online fantasy game “League of Legends.”

But for some, the event offered more than the chance to win a trophy and a $1,200 first-place prize: It was another step toward making video gaming a mainstream sport on par with baseball, football or auto racing.

“NASCAR’s a sport, right?” said Tony Pape, who coaches the esports team at Burbank’s Reavis High School. “They’re sitting in a chair, they’re using controls, same as these kids here. (Gaming) is not as physically demanding but it’s mentally demanding. It demands a lot of teamwork, coordination and practice. I consider it a sport, absolutely.”

The Illinois High School Association, which governs interscholastic sports in the state, is intrigued. Executive Director Craig Anderson said it takes about 80 schools to create a viable sport, and should the interest become evident, esports could join the roster of sanctioned sports and activities within a few years.

“I see it much like when we added bass fishing,” he said. “People were like, ‘What?’ But if our schools are forming teams and their students have interest and it’s developing, we’d want to organize in a way where we could crown a state champion.”


While competitive gaming has been around since at least the early 1970s, the latest iteration, driven by wildly popular online titles, has reached unprecedented heights. Professional gamers sell out arenas and have their matches broadcast on ESPN, while a growing number of colleges — led by the pioneering program at Robert Morris — offer athletic scholarships to top players.

Still, the high school scene has remained quiet even though teens are a prime audience for video games: No state has sanctioned gaming as an official sport, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

But the groundwork has begun as more schools create esports clubs, often backed by supportive administrators. Case in point is Oswego East High School.


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