Esports offers youths new way to connect virtually


NORMAL, Ill. (AP) – On a typical Tuesday night Seanan AlYasiri and his family crowd around the TV in their living room.

At first glance it may appear they are watching a soccer game – one played with virtual cars instead of people – but in reality they are cheering on Alexi AlYasiri, 10, in a competitive video game called Rocket League.

Alexi, a fourth-grader at North Point Elementary School, is one of dozens of area youths joining Normal’s new esports league that launched in January.

The program, a partnership with Decatur and Champaign parks and recreation departments, seeks to provide a safe environment for kids to compete through video games.

“Because of COVID, things have been a little unique for everybody,” said Seanan. “He (Alexi) doesn’t have access to his friends right now. We thought this would be a great opportunity to increase his social outlets.”

Esports, or electronic sports, is a fast-growing form of organized competition centered around video gaming with amateur and professional leagues around the globe.

As interest in competitive video gaming grows, parks and recreation districts are starting to offer leagues of their own, said Matt Frahm, youth sports and team program supervisor with the Normal Parks and Recreation Department.

Normal teamed up with Decatur and Champaign to launch Central Illinois Esports in January. Through the league, local gamers ages 10 to 18 can compete through two titles: Rocket League and Fortnite.

“I know that there is always going to be the school of thought that kids should be outdoors,” said Frahm. “But I honestly think there’s a space for both, and I think there’s a ton of benefits for people to enjoy both outdoor recreation and esports.”

Registration for the winter season has closed with a total 56 gamers participating, said Frahm. After three weeks of competition, he said the town is already planning a spring season and to eventually grow large enough to host tournaments with prize money.

The league offers two divisions: Silver, which is open to kids ages 10 through 14; and Gold, open to teens ages 14 through 18. Matches are held once per week over the course of a six-week season, and gamers have the chance to play against kids from Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana and Decatur in a round-robin competition.

League entry fees are $15 per gamer, and both games are free to download. Competition is cross-platform, meaning gamers can play on any of their personal consoles, including Nintendo Switch, xBox, PlayStation or computer.

The program uses Discord, a free text and voice chat app, to communicate with players and provide IT support on a private, invitation-only server. Chats are monitored by town staff and volunteers to ensure a safe environment.

Hughes, a junior at ISU studying recreation administration, volunteers with Normal to offer IT support to parents and their gamers.

“Normal is making this push, and doing this (league) is really cool because there is a big opportunity and they’re really taking advantage of it,” said Hughes, who hopes to develop and work in professional esports league administration. “I’m very excited to be a part of it and lead the way for these other park districts and other recreation programs.”

ISU isn’t the only college offering esports competition in the Bloomington-Normal area. Heartland Community College, Lincoln College and Illinois Wesleyan University have developed their own varsity sports leagues.

As esports grows, universities, including ISU, are now offering scholarship for varsity teams. Heartland is also offering tuition waivers.

“It’s more accepted and a bigger part of culture,” Hughes said about the growth of RedBird Gaming. “We’ve definitely seen a big boom in the past two years, and we honestly expect those number to keep growing as this becomes more and more mainstream.”

Alexi AlYasiri has participated in a number of Normal’s parks and recreation programs, most recently learning fencing. But when his father, Seanan AlYasir, asked if he wanted to try esports, Alexi jumped at the chance to play video games.

“It’s one of the stars of my life,” said Alexi, adding that he just thinks videos games are fun. “I don’t know how to explain it; I just like playing them a lot.”

Since joining the town’s Rocket League division, Alexi has found something he enjoys competing in, and he is even starting to make new friends. Though the competition was tough at first, he is committed to improving his game.

“We’re sort of proud that he’s sticking with it and continuing to improve,” said Seanan. “Alexi is not athletically motivated, so when we participated in the traditional sports I grew up with, it didn’t seem to resonate with him. But esports is completely different. It’s something that he really looks forward to; it’s something he’s motivated to practice on and improve.”

As a way to support his son, Seanan and his family will gather around the TV to support Alexi during his games. The family will even include other relatives on a Zoom call to cheer him on.

“I’m trying to create an environment where he feels it’s his time and we’re here to support him, kind of like what we used to do for our son Leo when we would go see his basketball games,” said Seanan. “Alexi didn’t really have those sports where we could show and up cheer for him in the stands, and that’s what I’m trying to build for him.”

“I want the best for the kid, and I want him to remember that we were all there for him.”


Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph,

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