PEORIA – If I were to tell you epsorts is the next big thing in the wide world of sports, I probably would be wrong.

“I don’t believe esports is on its way,” Andrew Billings said Tuesday afternoon at the Charley Steiner Symposium on Sports Communication. “I believe it’s here.”

Billings, executive director of the University of Alabama Program in Sports Communication, is considered an international scholar in sports media. Tuesday, he participated in a panel discussion about Olympic perspectives as part of the third annual Steiner Symposium at Bradley, where the esports question was raised.

“We can debate on whether it’s actually sports or not,” Billings said, “but that will end soon.”

He pointed out that one of the biggest and fastest-growing video platforms on the internet is Twitch, which features competitive video gaming. According to the website eBizmba.com, Twitch drew 50 million unique viewers in July.

Colleges are forming esports teams and offering scholarships to gamers. The NCAA is studying how competition between schools might be governed. Esports advocates have begun pushing their case to be considered in future Olympics.

Fellow panelist Phil Hersh, who recently retired from the Chicago Tribune and has covered 18 Olympic Games, agreed with Billings.

“The IOC is trying to modernize Olympic sports to attract new viewers,” Hersh said. “The only reason to talk about esports is based on the idea they can get more eyeballs to watch. They’ll ask, ‘Are people watching in the 15-25age group, or maybe it’s as young as 12, or even 8 years old. If 8- to 25-year-olds are watching esports, that will determine whether it’s in the Olympics.

“Sadly, 50-and-up is the target Olympic audience right now. That needs to change. It’s all part of a much larger discussion, but esports – I can see that happening.”

 Kirk Wessler is Journal Star sports editor. Contact him at kwessler@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @KirkWessler.