Ashley Griffin squeals as a sword-wielding opponent takes a jab at her avatar on her laptop screen.
“I need to run away,” yells Ashley, reaching quickly for her keypad.
The girls are partaking in a push by some in the video game industry to rebrand electronic sports, or eSports, as a legitimate after-school childhood activity, not unlike baseball, soccer, clubs or music lessons.
On Saturday mornings, Cinemark at Seven Bridges theater in Woodridge hosts Super League Gaming's “Minecraft” competition for kids like Ashley and Virginia, who collaborate together on a team instead of playing at home alone.
For the past month, area kids have been trying to qualify for the Chicago Force team, which will compete against city teams in Boston, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix and San Francisco. Besides bragging rights, winning team members receive college scholarships.
The City Champs season, which begins April 29, costs $60 and includes an official club jersey, admission to three events and the chance to qualify for the Grand Final. Registration is available at superleague.com.
Ann Hand, CEO of Super League Gaming in Santa Monica, Calif., said the “Minecraft” competition is meant to complement, not replace, other children's activities.
“In the end, we award a scholarship to the best team in North America. We have a 5-year-old in L.A. who last year got a $2,500 scholarship to college,” Hand said. “That's the beautiful thing. ‘Minecraft,' too, is the ultimate equalizer. The best players don't have to be the oldest and strongest.”
Getting parents on board with the concept has been fairly easy since launching a year and a half ago, Hand said. With Super League's Minecraft competitions geared for ages 17 and younger, the majority of the participants can't drive, so parental involvement is critical.
Hand said much of the parental buy-in is because “Minecraft” increasingly is used by school districts to promote STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Parents are starting to realize this is a positive game that they want to make time for their son or daughter to play because they appreciate how much their computer literacy increases,” she said.
In addition, parents appreciate the collaborative team aspects kids typically learn playing traditional sports, Hand said.
“They say if we're going to put time into this game because it has all of these positive attributes, I would rather they do it in an environment with other kids than having him or her be alone in their room,” she said.
The competitive league is spreading into schools, too.
Teachers who coach after-school “Minecraft” clubs are starting to work with students to strategize and plan building tasks in order to compete better as a team on the weekends, Hand said.
“The educators, as well, see the positive aspects of it, and that helps parents get on board,” she said.
As enticing as it sounds, medical experts warn too much of one thing can lead to long-term physical and mental consequences.
Dr. Julie Jones, a family medicine physician in the Edward Medical Group, said children who experience too much screen time have a higher rate of obesity, which can lead to more serious heart and diabetes issues.
In fact, research published last month in the British Medical Journal shows children who spend more than three hours a day in front a television, computer, tablet or other hand-held devices are at greater risk of developing diabetes.
In addition, Jones said the American Academy of Pediatricians warns too much video use can alter a child's sleep behavior pattern.
“Children who do not get quality sleep will have difficulty concentrating,” she said.
Repetitive motion can cause long-term damage to tendons and nerves, even in children, according to an occupational therapist.
Just as a child shouldn't practice basketball for more than a few hours per day, kids shouldn't play video games for hours on end, said Amy Kiesler, who works for Athletico in Naperville.
Not only can sitting for extended periods of time in a slumped position strain the back and neck, Kiesler said, constant wrist motion by gamers causes problems with carpel tunnel.
Kiesler said problems arise when gamers fail to give their wrists a break, thinking that a good night's sleep will ease any symptoms. People generally sleep in fetal position, which curls the hands and exacerbates the tension on the wrists, she said.
Ways to counteract carpel tunnel involve stretching exercises and the use of wrist braces or other custom-made orthotics, Kiesler said.
“Protocol is to catch it early, before it gets worse. If someone is experiencing numbness or tingling, seek help immediately,” she said.
Injuries were the last thing on Ashley's mind when she was playing “Minecraft” during a recent qualifying round.
“Who doesn't like ‘Minecraft'? It's fun for everyone because you get to play with your friends,” she said.
Her father, Ken Griffin, of Woodridge, said because they both like to play video games, “Minecraft” allows them to have a common interest. “It's a good bonding thing. This ‘Minecraft' thing — she can talk about it for hours,” Griffin said.
Virginia's dad, Michael Warot, of Muenster, Ind., couldn't agree more.
While he often spends some of the 90-minute sessions reading, he also enjoys observing what's going on in some of the challenges. As a result, Warot has a deeper understanding of why his daughter likes “Minecraft” and can hold conversations with her on the way home.
Warot said he's learned Virginia wants to become a video game artist when she gets older.
“Minecraft,” however, doesn't dominate her life. Warot said Virginia plays “Minecraft” in her spare time, when she's not attending after-school activities, such as Brownies and a running program.
“It's nice and safe, and it's fun to find people with the same interest,” Michael Warot said. “It's her free time. Why not let her do that?”
While the girls are taking a more casual approach to the Super League competition, Dominic Bruno, 11, of Lemont, is out to be No. 1 on the Chicago Force team.
“He would play all day if he could,” said his mother, Jackie Bruno. “He told me, ‘I have to go to all four (qualifying rounds) so I can have a chance to get the best score.”
Despite his “Minecraft” devotion, it isn't the only activity in Dominic's life, she said. He plays soccer, collects superhero comic books and writes his own comic books.