Eureka High Esports Instructors: IHSA Addition Brings Credibility
For years, esports have become more and more mainstream – with college programs offering scholarships and marquee tournaments broadcast nationally on TV.
That’s now trickling down to high schools. Last week, the Illinois High School Association announced its first esports state series will be held next April – formally recognizing an increasingly popular competitive sport.
“It is exciting any time that we can expand the IHSA mission by offering another opportunity for students to represent their schools in competition,” IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said in a media release.
The announcement was welcome news at Eureka High School, where technology instructors Tyler Breitbarth and Ally Ferguson oversee an esports program that started out last year as a club activity with 32 students participating.
“Pretty much as soon as that came out, our athletic director said, ‘OK, we need to get this worked out and establish it as an official program,’” said Breitbarth. “Last year was a pilot year, but it was kind of seen as an outsider – it wasn't really school-affiliated. It was just us starting it and getting it together. Now this year, the school wants to get it up and made an official activity.”
Ferguson believes the IHSA recognition will encourage more students to participate.
“I think it opens up a lot of opportunities,” she said. “It opens more options for us to receive funding. It kind of gives us credibility for other schools, teachers, parents who questioned esports. And I think it's going to motivate students to participate more, which is great because of the scholarship opportunities we see out there.”
The Eureka esports team competed in five different video games last year: Rocket League, Super Smash Bros., Fortnite, Overrwatch, and Valorant. The IHSA tournament will use Rocket League and Super Smash Bros., as well as NBA 2K.
Breitbarth said all the games provide educational opportunities.
“I think the big thing if they're learning is troubleshooting – when things don't go as planned, how to go through that process,” said Breitbarth, who noted students and coaches alike were picking up games like Overwatch and Valorant on the fly.
“It was a learning experience for us. The kids saw that firsthand about, ‘you're going to have this plan, but you need to have something – you know, where do you go when you when this doesn't work? Where do you go, and that doesn't work?’ I think that's the biggest thing: critical thinking skills and problem solving is a huge thing that was apparent from the first match.”
Ferguson said that while NBA 2K will be new for the Eureka program, she believes sports games will draw a “whole different set of kids” with some players expressing interest in Madden and MLB The Show. No matter which title the kids are playing, the bottom line is teamwork.
“Even the games that are a little bit more individual, the kids are really still working as teams and teaching and learning from each other,” said Ferguson. “So we see that, along with the tech skills, building strategy, resilience, and persistence. Being our pilot year, we had a lot of kids that came out that maybe hadn't even played the game before, so they didn’t do awesome, but they stuck with it and it really taught them to learn and grow.”
Ferguson said coaching players who compete on computer screens is not all that different from guiding athletes on the sports fields and courts.
“The big thing that we can really help with is communication,” she said. “Some games – well, most of the games – require a lot of communication and strategy among the students, where they really have to have roles and they really have to fulfill their roles. So it’s coaching them to really be able to communicate with each other and being positive. It can be really easy to get frustrated with the game, so teaching them how to make a mistake and then move on is a big thing that we tried to focus on.”
Esports becomes the 10th competitive activity with an IHSA state tournament, bringing the total number of annual state series to 41.
“Not unlike when the IHSA added bass fishing, some may question how esports fits into the IHSA’s offerings, but we never wavered in our belief that we want to align the Association with the interests of our high school students,” Anderson said in the statement. “Research shows that there are educational, mental, and social benefits to having students compete for their high school in any activity or sport, so we look forward to Illinois high school students who are passionate about esports being able to enjoy those benefits.”
According to an initial IHSA list, other central Illinois high schools expected to compete in the state esports tournament include Normal Community, Normal West, Morton, Metamora, Normal University High, Brimfield, Delavan, and Farmington. Breitbarth also noted Bloomington has a “well-established” program.