Illini Esports in the pandemic

By Angelle Cortes

When sports were put on pause back in March, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Illini Esports team kept going. While the team is mainly based online, they were still affected by the pandemic. 

At the time of the lockdown starting, the competitive season for the different teams had started to wrap up or were in playoffs. One of the tournaments, the Starleague League of Legends tournament, was postponed back in March and restarted in April

“The Collegiate StarLeague tournament did actually resume. We did become champions of that tournament which was really amazing,” President of Illini Esports AJ Taylor said. 

The esports team faced off against University of Texas at Austin in the final. After being a part of CSL for the past three years and getting second place in 2018 and unable to compete in 2019, the team secured a win in the championship. 

Although the esports season was wrapping up, it doesn’t mean members were going to stop gaming. However, after the announcement during spring break from the University advising students to stay home, the esports team lost an important space. Their innovation studio in The Armory.

Their studio is packed with monitors, PCs, headsets, keyboards, mice, and much more. While gaming is primarily online, the different teams usually use the studio as the gear is better than what most people have.   

“Some of our players really relied on the machines there because they didn’t bring their rigs to campus or their dorm didn’t have internet up to par,” Director of Operations Lis Chapa said.

With the campus closed and members at home, it posed to be a problem for the team. 

“A lot of them have internet issues, computer issues, monitors, things crashing, things going different for them necessarily. It’s really hard. Everything is up in the air, nothing is concrete, nothing is for sure,” Taylor said. 

While gear is an issue, so are the locations of students. Not all the members are based in the United States. Some are international students staying in their home country. 

“We have a lot of international students in our group that are still at home. So we have a lot of people that are in different time zones,” Taylor said. “Our Valorent coordinator (Angela Yang), when she wakes up watching over our team it’s like 5 A.M. for her and like 7 P.M. for us. So it’s really hard to be able to balance that life necessarily because you know she also has classes that she has to deal with and other opportunities and things she needs to work on.” 

Illini Esports has both a competitive and community aspect to their registered student organization. 

The community aspect is a lot of social events like Local Area Network parties or open gaming hours, which has been heavily affected by the pandemic.  

“Our community side was hit just as hard (as the competitive side). We remained, for the most part, active digitally, we do events through our discord. 10 mens for Rainbow Six Siege and League of Legends, 12 mans for Overwatch, so those were regular events.” 

LAN parties and open gaming hours had to be put on hold to figure out ways to do it digitally. 

“We had to quickly figure out ‘how do we do this digitally’, it was a bit tricky because it’s like those were pretty big events, the top 30 up to 60 people,” Chapa said. “So translating that digitally was a bit tricky, but we’re managing it through viewing parties and stuff like that.”  

RGB LAN party on October 19, 2019. Photo courtesy of Illini Esports

One of the biggest events that the esports team host is the League of Legends Worlds watch party that takes place on Oct. 31. Hundreds of people get together and watch the championship game throughout the night. 

“We’ve had nearly upwards 500, 600 people that are attending at 3 A.M. in the morning to watch these games,” Taylor said. 

To accommodate the large crowd, they usually rent out Foellinger Auditorium, State Farm Center, and Club 77 in Memorial Stadium. 

League of Legends Viewing Party at Club 77 in November 14, 2019. Photo courtesy of Illini Esports

With Worlds being held in China, that means games are going to be played well throughout the night in the U.S. Unable to host large in-person gatherings, there has yet to be a confirmed plan on how they are going to host this huge event. 

“We’re stuck for what we’re supposed to do because if we host it online you don’t get that interactive experience, you don’t get to be surrounded by other people,” Taylor said. 

Having 400 people in a voice call can be chaotic, but Taylor said they still want to incorporate the huge group of people together. Whether it be through trivia, raffles, or giveaways per game. 

Usually for these big events they would be sponsored so there would be products to giveaway, give them money, or food. Now with everything online, sponsors are not willing to work with them. 

While the esports team has faced some harsh challenges throughout the pandemic, their practice studio will soon be put into use again. 

Currently two teams will be allowed access to the studio as they are the only teams that have all their members on campus. 

“Those teams have specifically requested the space because they happen to have instrumental issues with either their computer or relative play they happen to have and feel like being in-person they might be able to coordinate better together as a team,” Taylor said.  

Photo courtesy of Illini Esports