Growing Illinois Tech Esports a Partner on Chicago’s First Esports-Specific Facility

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It turns out that a pivotal moment for altering the esports landscape at Illinois Institute of Technology may have come about, in part, because of a volunteer opportunity.

When the Intel Extreme Masters professional gaming series came to Chicago in 2018, April Welch, along with Elvin Moy (ME, M.Eng. MAE ’18) and a handful of other students from Illinois Tech Esports, volunteered to help. The group designed and organized a collegiate gaming event at Wintrust Arena as a prelude to the pro competition. 

Welch says that experience led to a meeting with Scott Greenberg, the president and chief executive officer for Chicago-area developer SMASHotel, who had an idea for an esports-specific facility in the city.

“He actually reached out to our esports students,” says Welch, associate vice president for strategic initiatives at the university and director of the Illinois Tech Esports and Digital Arts Center, Illinois Tech Esports’ home on campus, adding: “He told us his vision. He was just so passionate. And you could really tell that this is a man who’s going to do what he says.”

A growing part of the Illinois Tech community, Illinois Tech Esports now boasts more than 100 students who actively participate on teams that partake in gaming competitions against other college and university teams across games that include League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and many others. Working with undergraduate admission, Illinois Tech recently began giving out esports scholarships as it continues to foster growth in that pursuit.

Now the program is going to take on an even bigger project—growing esports in Chicago, specifically in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Through their venture Smash Interactive, Greenberg and partner Chris Lai have developed Surge, a $30 million, 108,000-square-foot gaming facility that has received approval from the City of Chicago’s zoning committee. Welch has been active throughout the process, allowing Illinois Tech Esports to be one of the community and educational partners in a facility that will be located on Wabash Avenue just across Interstate 55 from McCormick Place—less than a mile from Illinois Tech’s Mies Campus.

“We are like the glue that is going to connect higher ed, private partnerships, and our Bronzeville community together,” Welch says of the project.

Illinois Tech Esports will have branding featured in a training room it will be able to utilize in the Surge facility, which will also include an immersive gaming experience for more than 1,000 participants and spectators, food and drink options, and virtual reality capabilities. Illinois Tech Esports will also be able to organize collegiate gaming events at Surge. Other university community members will also be able to utilize the Surge facility, particularly by maximizing its VR capabilities for research and training purposes.

Most importantly, Illinois Tech Esports will create the Bronzeville Esports League, which will connect Illinois Tech Esports students and alumni with three Bronzeville schools: the National Teachers Academy, John B. Drake Elementary School, and Wendell Phillips Academy High School.

The training opportunities that the Bronzeville Esports League will present to younger students in the neighborhood will allow the Illinois Tech program to grow outside of the campus community, building bridges to students and their parents while introducing them to the ever-growing esports ecosystem through the lessons it teaches to students at the three schools.

“We’re going to be [teaching] things like how to create a successful YouTube channel, how to create a successful Twitch channel,” Welch says, touching on a few of the topics that will be covered during the course of the Bronzeville Esports League, adding other topics likely to be on the docket include, “What is Discord? What is Patreon? What is Unity? What is Unreal Engine? How do you start to publish your games? If you are a designer, what are the jobs you can get in the esports ecosystem? How do you respond to toxic situations? We’re going to pull in our faculty from psychology. We’re going to pull in industry speakers from Twitch.

“These are very exciting times. We have been working with Chicago Public Schools, and I am looking forward to what we will build together.”

Photo: A rendering of the forthcoming Surge facility (provided)

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