Inside Hawthorn Mall in suburban Vernon Hills, teenagers and young adults play video games at the BHOP Esports Gaming Community Center. The atmosphere appears friendly, sociable and vibrant, but the stakes are high.
The gaming facility about 30 miles away from downtown Chicago is a training ground for a group of internet athletes who are dominating electronic sports, a form of multiplayer video gaming that originated in the 1970s. They are vying for laurels such as college scholarships, prize money into the millions and even professional careers.
Jake Younan, 29, is among them. One day at the age of 14, Younan watched his uncle play Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter video game series. This inspirational moment would lead him to pick up a controller and turn this fervor into a career. So did a recent Vernon Hills High School graduate, Pablo Kinderman, 18, who began playing Call of Duty Black Ops 1 at age 9.
“Their mix of experience and talent makes them stand out from other players,” said gaming center owner Joseph Ho, who chose to name his business “BHOP” because it is short for bunny-hopping, a technique gamers use to move faster in a game.
Younan and Kinderman, who started gaming as a hobby and have transitioned into professional-level play, are among the next generation of players who aim to dominate electronic sports – and along the way, earn more respect for the field. This could be their year: Kinderman’s team will compete in a Toronto Valorant tournament on Sept. 23 for a chance to win $10,000. Younan’s team is currently ranked 9th in America and 42nd in the world.
“It’s really hard to view these players as athletes when they’re sitting in a chair,” said Sam Oanta, the owner of Ignite Gaming Lounge in Skokie. “There’s still a stigma with playing video games; definitely so in America. Less so in Southeast Asia where gaming culture is much more mainstream.”
“It’s not really like your traditional sport, I guess you can say, where it’s more dependent on skill like physical ability,” Kinderman said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that esports highly depends on your mental ability. If you get frustrated, that’s going to really hold you back.”
Kinderman, who in high school played for an esports team that went on to rank among the top four in the nation, said he found it challenging to maintain a healthy balance between school and esports. Now, he wants to sustain a professional gaming career while pursuing a job with the Vernon Hills Police Department.
“As long as I can have a good balance of both, that’s pretty much my main concern,” he said. But, even while working, “I’ll for sure be playing video games all the time.”
Kinderman tries to maintain a consistent sleep routine but, as a prolific gamer, must adjust to accommodate a packed schedule of matches and tournaments. Most days, he practices with his team. “The game is always changing; you have to always adapt to the game,” he said.
Younan started his professional career in his early 20s with a Canadian esports organization called eRa Eternity, earning $800 monthly on a contract. He earned an esports scholarship to Robert Morris University in Chicago (now part of Roosevelt University) and retired from professional play for two-and-a-half years to focus on computer science studies but has come back to the game.
“I hadn’t taken anything seriously in terms of schooling,” he said. “I kind of just focused only on playing, and that was a big downfall on my end. But luckily enough, [Robert Morris] was able to give me a scholarship for what I was doing. That kind of helped put me back on track.”
The Maine East High School graduate starts his day with a 90-minute gym workout and spends hours a day practicing his aim on his first-person shooter game. He practices with his team for up to five hours a day, making a point to spend time afterward talking about mistakes and what the team can fix.
“There’s always going to be somebody who’s better than you,” he said. “So, what you can do is take notes from what they know and add it to your repertoire and become better.”
Like Kinderman, Younan has had to develop a regimen. The key to his routine is healthy eating.
“When I would eat unhealthy, I felt like I would play 10 times worse,” he said. “So, I ended up switching my diet and how I maintain my body, which I felt like it helped me a lot.”
Diet and sleep regimens, the players said, are critical to staying mentally sharp. Esports professionals, said Ho, are not measured by physical ability as in traditional sports, but by “mental prowess, reaction time, and other fine-tuned skills.”
The esports industry is valued at $1 billion, with significant growth since 2020.
Professional athletes on traditional sports teams generate earnings through salaries and lucrative add-ons such as sponsorships and lending their name to well-established brands. Because esports can be live-streamed on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, players can also take on brand sponsorships from companies like Xfinity who want the exposure. That helps supplement contract revenue and prize money.
But there’s a lack of structure in the industry and that makes it difficult to be a seasoned esports athlete, said Ho.
“There are esports athletes who do receive the credit they deserve and others that do not,” Ho said. “Many don’t receive more credit than they should because esports do not have an overarching organization like the NCAA, NFL, MLB or NBA.” The industry also changes quickly, with new competitive games released each year, he added.
And while some critics have been hard-pressed to recognize competitive video gaming as a sport, Younan said that is starting to change. “It’s been getting more and more respect and recognition which is good. I just want to continue to see it grow.”
Isi Frank Ativie is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who mostly writes about sports.