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Video Game Scholarships? High School eSports Hit The Big Leagues in Chicago

 eSports athletes honing their gaming skills at Robert Morris University in the Loop.
eSports athletes honing their gaming skills at Robert Morris University in the Loop.
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Facebook/Robert Morris University IL Esports

THE LOOP — Playing video games is looking more like an interscholastic sport in Illinois, a shift that could potentially open up college to more young people in Chicago.

The independent Chicago High School eSports League will cap its inaugural season this week with a League of Legends tournament at Robert Morris University, 401 S. State St. 

Teams from Whitney Young and suburban Palatine High School have already advanced to this weekend's semifinals, while Wednesday matchups between Walter Payton College Prep, Taft High School and suburban Adlai Stevenson and Oak Park River Forest high schools will determine the rest of the tournament's final four.

The tournament, which is down to its final week after seven weeks of play between nearly 40 Illinois high schools, underscores the momentum in a growing "eSports" industry that's drawing big-money corporate sponsorships and even scholarships from a growing number of colleges seeking gamers. 

"Some of them are kids who aren’t in clubs," said Todd McFarlin, founder of the eSports League. Even players who might not excel in the classroom can "show great talent in this game" and possibly go to college, he added.

RELATED: Online Athletes? Robert Morris University to Offer 'eSports' Scholarships

McFarlin, 34, set up the eSports league after three years running a gaming program out of Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., where he used to teach. 

The Illinois High School Association, which governs the state's interscholastic sports such as softball and basketball, has yet to set up a framework for competitive gaming, so McFarlin set up his own.

The round-robin tournament revolves around League of Legends, a widely popular online game that's played between two teams of five. Like basketball, the players are divided into specific roles, but the players work to destroy their opponent's home base instead of scoring points.

McFarlin said the game helps students with their communication, "mental fortitude" and making split-second decisions in high-pressure situations. All are skills applicable to both the virtual or real worlds.

"Any game, at any moment, it could be your last," McFarlin said.

Robert Morris was one the first university in the country to offer competitive gaming scholarships, which can cover up to 70 percent of a student's tuition, said Jose Espin, the program's manager. 

The program is now up to 90 scholarship gamer athletes, more than double the 35 that started Robert Morris' eSports team in 2014, Espin said. 

The program doesn't just train video game players, but also ingratiates them to related, alternative careers such as web design or gamer journalism, Espin said. Unlike the amateur National Collegiate Athletic Association, which prohibits athletes from getting paid, eSports gamers aren't governed by anyone and can split cash prizes at tournaments run by video game publishers.

Nearly 40 universities now offer scholarships for competitive gaming, McFarlin said.

The high school tournament, similar to a state championship, will be played at Robert Morris' iBUYPOWER Arena, the first such venue for college competitive gaming.

"For collegiate to grow at our level we need high school to grow at their level," Espin said.

A spokesman for the Bloomington-based Illinois High School Association said it is warming up to the idea of sanctioned eSports. Craig Anderson, the association's executive director, told the Tribune last month it takes about 80 schools to organize a new sport.