High School Sports

Is playing video games a sport? The IHSA is thinking about making it one in Illinois

The IHSA was the first state high school association to offer bass fishing for interscholastic competition.

Its board of directors is reaching outside the box once again, this time by establishing an advisory committee to develop a state series and championship format for esports — video gaming.

“We are excited any time we can entertain the possibility of offering Illinois high school students more opportunities to represent their schools in competition,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “We know that students benefit in the short- and long-term when they are involved in a high school sport or activity.”

The new advisory committee is scheduled to meet for the first time in the spring of next year.

Esports have grown in popularity among professionals and amateurs who may compete individually or in teams both at tournaments or across the internet.

Video game competition is not new in some high schools. PlayVs, which will advise the IHSA’s esports advisory committee, already helps the National Federation of State High School Association operate esports leagues for more than 19,500 schools nationwide.

Some Illinois high schools already sponsor gaming clubs that have organized their own competitions with other schools, Anderson said. Competitive gamers from Bloomington-area high schools have made presentations to the IHSA board, which influenced its decision to establish the advisory committee.

“There are teams out there in Illinois, we know, that already are competing at a club level. Some of them have leagues and even conference structures,” Anderson said. “This may be a way to bring those students to us and provide them with a state series experience.”

”League of Legends” is among the games being played in competitions, according to the PlayVs website. Players in the medieval battle game use swords, bows and arrows and other weapons to eliminate their competitor’s characters in order to capture “snowdown” and “nexus” tokens for points.

Rocket League, a game that blends auto racing and soccer, and SMITE, a combat game, are among other games offered through PlayVs competitions.

Anderson said, in addition to devising a state tournament format, that the new advisory committee will review games and decide which are appropriate for high school students.

“The way I understand League of Legends is that it’s more of a capture the flag kind of thing, but I have no personal experience,” Anderson said. “We’re going to go with the recommendation of the advisory committee who can work with experts to get games that are less violent and without a lot of shooting. I’m confident our board would not sign off on games that are violent.”

Introducing esports to interscholastic competition isn’t necessarily popular with athletic directors at some metro-east high schools.

“(I have) mixed feelings on that from a non-millennial,” Ron Schadegg, athletic director at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese said in an email. “I was used to playing outside from dawn to dusk so the concept of sitting down playing video games is something I’m not a huge fan of. I know it stimulates the brain somewhat but interacting and socializing face to face is an important concept of human success.”

By its definition, Belleville East AD Mark Larsen doesn’t see video gaming as a true “sport,” but adds that he’s generally in favor of programs that connects students to their school and peers.

“The idea of ‘sports’ seems like the physical part truly matters ...” he said. “I like the idea of trying to find other avenues for kids to participate in things. Those kids that aren’t physical may gravitate to it and therefore feel more connected to their school or other kids.”

IHSA Board President Tim McConnell, the principal at Erie High School in the northwest part of the state, says meeting the interests of students is an important part of the IHSA mission.

“Esports has tremendous participation among high school students that only continues to grow, so it’s important that we continue to look at ways to connect with high school students and their interests,” he said.

Nearly 200 colleges in the U.S. and Canada actively recruit and offer scholarships for esports, according to the NFHS. The University of Missouri announced this week that it will launch its own program.

The International Olympic Committee also has discussed including esports for medal competition, but confirmed Monday that they will not be part of the 2024 Paris games.

BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.