This gaming hub is a training ground for internet athletes who are now dominating esports from a suburb of Chicago | Panda Anku

The stakes are high at Hawthorn Mall in the suburb of Vernon Hills as teens and young adults play video games at the BHOP Esports Gaming Community Center.

The gaming facility is a training ground for a group of Internet athletes who dominate electronic sports, a form of multiplayer video gaming that originated in the 1970s. They vie for laurels such as study grants, prize money in the millions and even careers in professional life.

Jake Younan, 29, is one of them. When Younan was 14, he watched his uncle play Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter video game series, which later led him to grab a controller and turn that passion into a career. So did a Vernon Hills High School graduate, Pablo Kinderman, 18, who started playing Call of Duty Black Ops 1 at the age of 9.

“Their mix of experience and talent sets them apart from other players,” said the gaming center’s owner Joseph Ho, who named his company “BHOP” because it’s short for bunny hopping, a technique that allows players to move faster move game.

Younan and Kinderman, who started gaming as a hobby and have now transitioned to gaming professionally, belong to the next generation of gamers aiming to dominate electronic sports — and earn more respect for the field in the process. This could be their year: Kinderman’s team will compete in a Toronto Valorant tournament on September 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 see these players as athletes when they’re sitting in a chair,” said Sam Oanta, owner of the Ignite Gaming Lounge in Skokie. “Playing video games is still stigmatized; definitely like that in America. Less so in Southeast Asia, where gaming culture is much more mainstream.”

Kinderman, who played for an esports team in high school that later ranked in the top four in the country, said he finds it difficult to maintain a healthy balance between school and esports. Now he wants to further his professional gaming career while pursuing a job with the Vernon Hills Police Department.

“As long as I have a good balance of both, that’s pretty much my main concern,” he said.

Kinderman tries to maintain a consistent sleep routine but has to adjust to a busy schedule of games and tournaments to be a productive player. Most days he trains with his team. “The game is always changing; you always have to adapt to the game,” he said.

Younan began his professional career in his early 20s at a Canadian esports organization called eRa Eternity, earning $800 a month from a contract. He received an esports scholarship to Robert Morris University in Chicago (now part of Roosevelt University) and retired from professional sports for two and a half years to focus on studying computer science, but has returned to esports.

“I hadn’t taken anything seriously in terms of schooling,” he said. “I kind of just focused on playing and that was a big downfall for me. But fortunately [Robert Morris] could give me a scholarship for what i was doing. It kind of helped me get back on track.”

The Maine East High School graduate starts his day with a 90-minute workout at the gym and spends hours a day practicing his aim in his first-person shooter game. He practices with his team for up to five hours a day and makes a point of spending time afterwards to talk about mistakes and what the team can fix.

Like Kinderman, Younan had to develop a regime. The key to his routine? To eat healthy food.

“If I ate unhealthily, I felt like I was playing ten times worse,” he said. “So I changed my diet and how I take care of my body, which I think has helped me a lot.”

The BHOP Esports Gaming Community Center is operated out of the Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills.

The esports industry is valued at $1 billion and has seen significant growth since 2020.

Professional athletes on traditional sports teams earn revenue through salaries and lucrative perks like sponsorships and lending their names to established brands. Since esports can be live streamed on platforms like YouTube and Twitch, players can also take on brand sponsorships from companies like Xfinity who want the attention. This helps to supplement contract income and prize money.

But there’s a lack of structure in the industry, and that makes it difficult to be a seasoned esports player, Ho said.

“There are esports players who get the recognition they deserve and others who don’t,” Ho said. “Many don’t get more recognition than they should because esports doesn’t have a parent organization like the NCAA, NFL, MLB or NBA has.”

Overall, Younan said the sport’s image is beginning to change.

“It’s getting more and more respect and recognition, which is good,” he said. “I just want to see it keep growing.”

Isi Frank Ativie is a freelance journalist for WBEZ.

Jacob Younan, a professional eSportsman, trains in Vernon Hills.

Jacob Younan, a professional esports player, trains in Vernon Hills.

Leave a Comment