Talk about sports and many people think of baseball, soccer or football. But esports are growing in popularity.
On a cold March afternoon, two students feverishly hit buttons on Nintendo controllers in the basement of the Neptune Residence Hall. They're playing Super Smash Bros. Think of it as the Mortal Kombat of Mario.
NIU is just one of the many colleges across the country joining the growing esports movement. First, let's break down the "e" part.
Jeannine East is Content and Project Manager for esports at NIU.
"It's basically video gaming in a competitive way," East explained. "Usually it's team-based. A typical team might be six players playing against another team of six players."
Faculty Advisor Aline Click has witnessed how fast it's growing.
"Almost every college is starting to look at clubs or teams," Click said. "It's just happening so quickly that as I’m doing research for my course every day there is another article out of another school looking at creating teams or creating arenas."
She says esports clubs and teams bring many benefits to college campuses. East says it was not only her and the students who saw these benefits, but faculty members all the way up to President Lisa Freeman.
"[She] understood the value that esports brings to the university and to its students," East said. "And so we have had a club on campus for the last four to five years."
East says players benefit in ways that inform their future careers.
"When you're playing you're working as a team, which builds communication and leadership," East said. "There's collaboration, there's time management, and there's all these different skills."
The esports club at NIU offers both competitive and non-competitive teams. Click says there are even more members than just the ones who formally sign up through the university's student club portal.
"Official members right now is about 90 to 100, but there are a lot of regulars who don't normally sign up on Huskie Link but follow on Facebook," she said.
East says the esports club used to meet in a temporary location in the basement of the Stevenson Tower residential hall. Members used to haul equipment to every meeting. But thanks to a donation by Dell computers, they recently opened an improved, permanent esports arena in DeKalb. Two more locations are opening at NIU's campuses in Naperville and Hoffman Estates.
"Dell donated 25 computer PC gaming stations, and also all of the peripherals -- so keyboard, mouse, camera, and headsets," East said.
Along with club members, the esports arena is also available for any registered student to use for gaming or studying. Nathaniel Abbott is a student and member of the esports club at NIU's DeKalb campus. He says it has grown a lot in just the few years he has been here.
"It's cool to go from a little startup where you didn't really have anything," Abbott said. "We had like 15 members per meeting. Now we have this whole big private space."
As the esports community continues to rise, many people like student and club member Riley Deboer believe that traditional sports and esports will one day become one conversation.
"I think it's possible within the next 50 years, the term esports may not even exist," Deboer said. "It will just be sports.”
The NIU Esports Café in Naperville opened late last month. The Hoffman Estates location will open next month.