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A Publication of WTVP

Not your grandpa’s game

by Steve Stein | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Arena_Esports_Morton_3095

Grab a seat and buckle up, as esports are central Illinois’ newest competitive ride

Arena Esports is happily jumping on the esports bandwagon.

Esports, short for electronic sports and best described as organized, competitive video gaming, is a worldwide phenomenon.

Professional esports gamers can earn millions of dollars and college students can earn scholarships to compete in esports for their school. In Illinois, high school students can win IHSA esports state championships.

Arena Esports, located in downtown Morton, 121 S. Main St., in a former bridal store, opened Nov. 25 and has games for personal computers, Playstation V, XBox Series X, Nintendo Switch and Virtual Reality.

“A lot of esports gamers play at home. We’re aware of that. We emphasize the social aspects of esports gaming,” said Travis Langenbach, who owns Arena Esports with his wife Lynn.

‘Age doesn’t matter in esports’

Spencer McDaniel has brought weekly Super Smash Brothers Ultimate tournaments to Arena Esports, attracting entrants from as far away as Galesburg and Danville.

An app creator and website designer for OSF HealthCare., McDaniel organizes Super Smash Brothers Ultimate tournaments in the Great River Valley region, an area that encompasses Peoria, Springfield, Bloomington, Champaign and Davenport (Iowa).

There are about 10 in-person Super Smash Brothers Ultimate tournaments weekly throughout the region during the busiest times in the esports gaming world: August through May.

About 10 players now compete in the Arena Esports’ Super Smash Brothers Ultimate tournaments, but the number is slowly growing, McDaniel said.

Most of the players are high school age. At age 23, McDaniel is the “elder statesman” of the group.

“Age doesn’t matter in esports,” McDaniel said. “If you have good skills, you can win. I’ve been beaten by my share of 12-year-olds who are really good players.

“Esports weren’t a thing when I was growing up. Now they’re a way to meet friends who have a common interest, and be competitive if you can’t be competitive in other sports.

“I’ve seen parents be very supportive. Esports teaches kids how to cope in an anxious, competitive environment and learn social skills.”

Big gamers on campus

Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington has a robust collegiate esports program with varsity and club teams playing League of Legends, Valorant, Rocket League, Overwatch and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate.

players can earn college scholarships worth up to $25,000

“Esports players can find a home here and turn their hobby into a career. There’s big money out there for esports professionals,” said Cory Kennedy, the university’s esports director.

A recent list of the top 100 esports money winners put together by Esports Earnings, a community-driven competitive gaming resource, showed the top six gamers in the world earning seven figures over the past 12 months. Many more had earnings in the six figures.

Illinois Wesleyan varsity esports coaches recruit players, just like any other sport at the school. Those players can earn scholarships worth up to $25,000.

Travis Langenbach is manager of Arena Esports in Morton, while wife Lynn is owner of the game arcade
Travis Langenbach is manager of Arena Esports in Morton, while wife Lynn is owner of the game arcade

There were 45 varsity esports players at Illinois Wesleyan last school year. It was a diverse group from across the globe. Varsity and club esports players came from 30 states (including Alaska and Hawaii) and four countries (Brazil, Chile, China and South Korea) and had 30 different majors. The university reported that 38% of its varsity esports players came from racial, gender or sexual orientation minorities.

They competed against 145 schools and played 286 matches during fall and spring seasons. Varsity esports players traveled to 13 in-person events in the Midwest, and competed in several online leagues including the National Esports Collegiate Conference.

‘They’re accessible for everyone. Many of our players are not athletic’ — Cory Kennedy

Launched in 2020, the conference sponsors regular-season and post-season competition in several games for more than 300 schools. Conference officials boast that it serves the esports gaming community with respect and provides a “safe and inclusive environment” for gamers.

Esports is a recruiting tool for Wesleyan, said Kennedy. It attracts students who otherwise wouldn’t consider the school among their college choices.

“One of the great things about esports is they’re accessible for everyone. Many of our players are not athletic,” she said.

The focal point of Illinois Wesleyan’s esports program is the state-of-the-art, two-floor Esports Arena that features the Coliseum competition space, akin to a college football stadium.

Games both old school and new school

Back in Morton, Arena Esports originally opened in late 2020 with different ownership and was located across the street at 318 S. Main.

The original Arena Esports owner sold the business to Travis and Lynn Lagenbach, owners of The Confectionary, a popular Morton bakery, after closing Arena Esports in early 2022 because of a dispute with the landlord.

The new Arena Esports opened late last year in the former Dejure Formal Wear & Bridal, which had occupied the space for more than 30 years.

Arena Esports is not just for esports players. The company bills itself on its website as a “modern spin on the classic arcade with a coffee shop experience.”

Children above age 9 can be dropped off and stay as long as they’re well-behaved.

Birthday parties and other social events can be held there.

There’s a variety of pricing plans, ranging from $10 per hour for a PC, console or virtual reality set to an all-day pass for $30 for all activities, with a half-hour of virtual reality included. Time loaded into an account can be used anytime.

Downstairs are old school games: air hockey, foosball, ske-ball, shuffleboard, darts, arcade games and a nearly 100-year-old pool table, complete with a new cloth, from Lynn Langenbach’s grandfather’s tavern. Snacks and refreshments are available.

Hours at Arena Esports are noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with Sunday available for events. Arena Sports’ website is 309arena.com.

Steve Stein

Steve Stein

is a longtime Peoria area print journalist

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