On Saturday, January 19, the Chicago Wolves brought together a deep bench of esports insiders from various Chicago-area organizations to give families an overview of opportunities for teens in the booming world of competitive gaming.

Mike Gordon, president of the Chicago Wolves, a professional team playing in the American Hockey League, says the motivation behind launching Esports Night was to explore “how we can use our brand to develop meaningful partnerships and draw people to our hockey games who don’t normally attend.” Pairing esports with hockey proved to be a winning combination for the club, as the pre-game VIP panel drew a standing-room-only crowd despite winter weather that prevented several local high school esports teams from attending.

In addition to the panel, moderated by Gordon, the inaugural Chicago Wolves Esports Night at Allstate Arena offered attendees a chance to win prizes playing Fortnite, Rocket League, NHL19 and Super Smash Bros. Topping off the evening’s activities was an indoor fireworks show and an exciting OT game between the Chicago Wolves and rivals Rockford Ice Hogs.

The panel of experts at the pre-game event covered everything from the benefits of introducing esports in school settings to college scholarships to careers in esports. Starting with the basics, they explained what makes a video game an esport is the community of players.

Schools are increasingly becoming the place where gamers find their community. Currently, 92 Illinois high schools have esports in different stages of development from the club to team level. At colleges nationwide, there are more than 1,000 formal esports clubs or teams, and the number is growing dramatically from year to year.

School teachers and administrators find that esports succeed in attracting students that typically aren’t involved in extracurricular activities and pave the way for these students to engage with the wider student body.

According to panel members, all the benefits and life lessons derived from participation in traditional athletic programs cross over to esports programs. Kids who participate in esports at school learn what it means to work together as a team, set goals and achieve their dreams. They are coached not only to improve their game skills, but also to keep their grades up and focus on health and well-being.

The speakers stressed that good grades are important for would-be college and professional esports athletes. Esports scholarships may not cover the full cost of tuition, so high school students may need competitive academic records as well as top gaming skills to receive multiple scholarships. The fast-pace growth of the esports industry has sparked career opportunities across a wide range of fields including business, communication, education and healthcare.

Panelists included four members of the Robert Morris University (RMU) Eagles esports team management — Kurt Melcher, executive director; Mike Wisnios, director; Jose Espin, assistant director; and Alex Cintado, League of Legends coach. As the first U.S. university to establish a varsity esports team, RMU  has become a model for many other college esports programs.

RMU delegates were joined by panelists Todd McFarlin, a Taft High School (Chicago Public Schools) teacher and esports coach and the director of operations and co-founder of the Illinois High School Esports Association (IHSEA); and Andy Mendez, from the Naperville High School District and IHSEA head streamer. The high school educators see a bright future for esports within Illinois schools and encourage students at schools that don’t yet have clubs or teams to start their own. Most schools will support a new club that meets a minimum number of members.

To purchase tickets for Chicago Wolves games in February, click here.