Blake Wood
Publish Date

The University of Illinois Springfield held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 6 for a new cutting-edge esports gaming arena that will allow students to virtually compete against other collegiate teams in the United States. 

“The addition of esports at UIS will give our students valuable skills they can use inside and outside of the classroom,” said UIS Chancellor Janet L. Gooch. ”Esports and STEM disciplines are natural partners and students who are drawn to gaming are often interested in the broader technology ecosystem. Students involved in esports develop STEM-related strategic thinking, planning and time management skills while also learning how to work well as a team.”

“Esports is a rapidly growing sport that is extremely popular for collegiate and high school-aged students,” said James Koeppe, director of UIS Campus Recreation. “Because of this, universities are investing resources to allow students to play on campus with top-of-the-line equipment.”

Located in a newly renovated space in Founders Residence Hall, the UIS Esports Arena features 13 computers that were built to meet the needs of competitive gaming. The arena also features a PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Nintendo Switch. These tools will be used for both competitive gaming and recreational play.

“Any student is allowed to use the space, even if they are not interested in joining the team or even being part of the recreational club,” Koeppe said. “This was a major reason we purchased the consoles along with the PCs, as we want the space to be inviting to every student.”

The competitive team, led by Coach William Rios, will be comprised of 15-25 students who will play in the National Esports Collegiate Conference (NECC). While currently focused on games like “Rocket League” and “Valorant,” the UIS esports team aims to expand its offerings based on student preferences, potentially including titles like “Super Smash Bros,” “League of Legends” and “Overwatch.”

“I’m very excited for the new esports arena and for the potential it brings,” Rios said. “I’m looking forward to starting competitive play, growing our team this season and expanding our game coverage.”

The arena was made possible thanks to the generous financial support of the Springfield-based M.G. Nelson Family Foundation. The foundation’s support was pivotal in ensuring that UIS was able to outfit the arena with the latest technology and provide for future upgrades and needs.

“As a lifelong gamer and firm believer in the transformative power of gaming and esports, I couldn’t be more thrilled about the opening of the esports program and arena at UIS,” said Mark Nelson, a member of the family foundation. “Gaming has been a significant part of my life, honing invaluable skills like teamwork/communication, strategic thinking and perseverance. Now, with this initiative, students will have the chance to embrace their gaming passions while also gaining essential skills and relationships for life in and outside of college.”

The idea to build the esports arena was first conceived by Jay Swenson, UIS assistant director of campus recreation, when he attended a National Esports Conference in March 2019. Now that the facility is open, Koeppe expects student interest to peak.

“We know offering this opportunity will both help recruit and retain students,” Koeppe said. “It’s a way for students to get involved and more connected to UIS. It is also a co-curricular activity that reaches a wide range of students coming from various backgrounds.”

Nelson said he plans to stay involved as esports grows at UIS and hopes to witness the same positive impact that gaming had on his life. 

“The esports program will foster a sense of community, provide opportunities for personal growth and open doors to potential careers in the ever-expanding world of esports,” Nelson said. “I am genuinely excited to see how this venture positively impacts the lives of countless students, just as gaming has done for me.”