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Competitive Gaming Taking Colleges and High Schools By Storm

Tim Shelley / WCBU
IWU's Callum Fletcher, Robert Morris University's Matthew Wisnios, and ROWVA High School's Christopher Johnson

Competitive video games are poised to overtake traditional athletics in the next 10 to 20 years. 

That’s according to Callum Fletcher. He coaches the e-sports program at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. 

“The traditional student and the traditional youth these days aren’t going out and playing football. They aren’t going out and playing soccer. A lot of them are going home and playing video games," he said.  

He said in the past 10 years, e-sports tournaments have gone from filling hotel conference centers to filling the 21,000 seat Staples Center in Los Angeles. 

IWU now offers scholarships to draw in gamers both nationally and internationally to play competitively on their team. Illinois State University also launched an e-sports program this year. 

Christopher Johnson, the e-sports coach for rural Knox County''s ROWVA High School, said they offer an opportunity for students not involved in traditional athletics or school activities to gain a sense of belonging. 

“By opening this option up, you’re opening the door for students who maybe have felt a little out of place and a little bit lacking in purpose to get involved," Johnson said. 

Competitive video gaming may not involve heavy lifting or moving quickly, but it still poses risks of physical injury.

Michael Wisnios coaches the e-sports team at Robert Morris University. 

“Similar to a football player or a basketball player constantly keep doing something, they’re going to run into injury. Being at a computer, you’re going to run into a different sort of injury," he said. 

He said he suffers from carpal tunnel and tendonitis at age 27 after years of gaming competitively for 12 hours a day. 

Wisnios said its important for players to take regular breaks every hour or so to avoid those health effects. 

The world of competitive gaming is described as an unregulated “Wild West” by e-sports coaches at the high school and college levels. But Illinois Wesleyan University’s Fletcher said it’s only a matter of time before the NCAA takes more interest. 

“Because it’s so accessible at the pro level, what’s the reason to watch at the collegiate level? So the NCAA can’t monetize it yet. Once they figure out how to monetize it, I think there’s a no-brainer they’ll get involved," he said. 

Professional tournaments are often live-streamed on the Internet for free. 

Wisnios said more younger people are already watching competitive gaming more often than professional hockey or baseball. He said he expects e-sports to surpass the NFL in total viewership among younger demographics in the next few years, as well. 

Fletcher, Wisnios and Johnson spoke Tuesday during a panel discussion on e-sports at Bradley University's Charley Steiner Sports Symposium in Peoria. 

Editor's note: Wisnios' first name is Michael, not Matthew. We apologize for the error.