Game Not Over: Kaplan Institute Connects to Community Through Gaming


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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cliff Rome, who runs Parkway Ballroom in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, knew he needed a new hook for the legendary event space. 

By connecting with the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Rome not only found a partner who could help him achieve that goal, but he also saw a way to engage a potential audience—Illinois Institute of Technology students.

Rome worked with Bo Rodda, a senior lecturer in the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program, and Illinois Tech students through an IPRO Labs program, GameLab, to help reimagine Parkway Ballroom as Parkway Social.

The idea behind Parkway Social is to utilize the historic facility as a space for the community to interact and build relationships and, as Rome said during an event hosted by the Kaplan Institute on April 22, “having this in the heart of our community is beyond important, and part of the collaboration was to make sure that we were very thoughtful in creating this space where [Illinois Tech] students can be a part of it, what we affectionately call [Illinois Tech] South. Having a [space] where folks really can get away from the academics and get into the social and then the gaming part of it.”

It is no coincidence that GameLab was picked to be in the initial IPRO Labs run, particularly as esports and gaming are experiencing an explosion in popularity, and as organizations are gaining a better understanding of the possibilities that esports provides in both educational and business environments. Figures from Juniper Research amplify this potential: it reports the gaming industry was valued at more than $155 billion in 2020, and it expects the industry to exceed $200 billion by 2023. Locally, the Illinois Tech Esports organization, with more than 100 student members who compete in esports competitions against other colleges and universities, is one of the community partners in the upcoming Surge esports arena/facility, which the City of Chicago granted initial approval in late March and will be located a mile from Illinois Tech’s Mies Campus in Bronzeville.

“The real reason why I’ve been wanting to do gaming and a GameLab is that I see that as a critical component for the university moving forward,” Rodda says. “When I say gaming, I think of gaming as an entry point into a much broader discussion of developing immersive technologies, interactive technologies, and technologies that engage the physical space of the physical environment.”

The Kaplan Institute is collaborating with Illinois Tech Esports, led by April Welch, associate vice president for strategic initiatives at the university, to take advantage of this momentum and push gaming forward at Illinois Tech.

Beyond GameLab, the Kaplan Institute is looking to pursue partnership opportunities with industry partners who are investing in gaming, like Comcast. In addition, it is eager to play a role in helping increase academic opportunities along with other Illinois Tech colleges and institutes—specifically with the university’s expertise in computer science and artificial intelligence, among other areas. The Kaplan Institute is also hoping to connect the university with other local colleges and universities that offer programs that mesh well with those at Illinois Tech, to create new programs surrounding gaming—partners like Columbia College in Chicago, which has a program in game design. To convene all of these stakeholders, the Kaplan Institute is hosting a forum of civic, academic, and entrepreneurial leaders in the gaming sector on Friday, August 20. 

These initiatives both offer vast opportunities to connect the university to community and industry partners, and speak to students, many of whom are gamers. 

Illinois Tech students are also showcasing that they recognize the entrepreneurial pursuits that gaming offers. Through the Kaplan Institute’s startup accelerator, multiple teams are already building gaming and immersion technology businesses. 

One, Phyesta, is “developing a virtual environment where you can set up physics experiments and run virtual experiments that you would normally do in a high school physics lab in this environment,” Rodda says. 

Another, Kolosseum, is creating a platform for esports and gaming fans to create “fantasy teams” composed of their favorite streamers with which they can compete in virtual competitions.

“Their idea is creating the opportunity to bet on esports in the same way that you bet on football if you’re in a fantasy league,” says Welch, who is also a mentor for Kolosseum. “Instead of picking players as you would in fantasy football, you would pick esports guys who are on Twitch. You would pick streamers; you would pick people who were playing. Then you get to set up your team, and you see how they perform against other people’s teams.”

Phyesta and Kolosseum have been selected to compete in Pitch@IllinoisTech on June 11 for a chance to win up to $30,000. The Kaplan Institute will also look to help the university as it aims to build off its already successful ventures into gaming and esports, both by continuing to look for industry and community partners to work with through IPRO Labs and other entrepreneurial-focused programming, as well as by uniting with other university partners to create new academic opportunities built around gaming.

Photo: A rendering of the recently approved Surge esports facility/arena that will be built in Chicago (provided)