Forget the image of a sulky video gamer alone in his bedroom with a computer and three days' worth of pizza boxes. Now that esports — live video game competitions — are a high school sport, young game enthusiasts might be moving into the spotlight. These kids aren’t just taking over high school computer labs across the country; they’re changing what it means to be a student athlete. And while you may not relish the idea of your kid spending even more time playing video games, pro gamers can make big bucks — and top student esports players can even win college scholarships.
Esports have been around for a while — and kids can still play on leagues unaffiliated with their schools. But the effort to recognize them, organize them and reward them in the same way as traditional teams provides a structure for high school-age players. And a new partnership between the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the online gaming network PlayVS legitimizes gaming as a “real” sport. With the first season starting this month, high schools can organize teams, train and compete against one another.
What are esports?
Simply put, esports are the competitive wing of multiplayer gaming. But there’s a wide range of ways, places and games to play.
Large-scale esports tournaments are happening all the time on the Internet with players competing from home. Platforms such as Faceit, Battlefy and World Gaming Network allow users to join matchups as independent players or go in as teams. Although many gamers play just for the thrill, online tournaments frequently award cash prizes.
If teens are part of an esports team at school, the games are played using the school’s Internet link, and there is no traveling — except for, possibly, playoff games and state championships. A growing number of colleges also offer esports as varsity-level sports. Then there’s the live, professional circuit, where players compete in venues that accommodate hundreds — if not thousands — of fans. Pro games are broadcast on video channels, including YouTube Gaming and Twitch, and are televised on channels including ESPN and DisneyXD.
Professional esports players are typically sponsored by companies affiliated with video games, including game developers and game-controller manufacturers, and the players compete for multimillion-dollar prizes. Conservative estimates project that the global esports market will be a $1.5 billion industry by 2020 (billions less than other national pro sports).
Certain types of games, including first-person shooters, arena battles and fighting games, lend themselves more to competition than, say, role-playing games, which don’t have a lot of combat. Some of the biggest titles in esports are Counter-Strike, League of Legends and StarCraft. Sports games such as Madden NFL, FIFA, and NBA 2K are also popular. Fortnite is starting to gain steam in the esports world, too.
Schools will have the choice to determine which games are acceptable for their respective leagues. Games deemed too violent or age-inappropriate won’t be allowed — or may be allowed in some areas but not others.
Are esports bad for kids?
Putting in the hours required to get good at anything takes a toll. Esports carry risks for the body — and, possibly, the developing brain. The eight to 12 hours that many top esports players say they train per day has led to an increase in computer-related injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury and back pain. And after several competitors suffered collapsed lungs, players are being warned not to hold their breath during intense moments. Though esports don’t have the same physical risks as contact sports such as football, pro players and ex-pros complain of burnout.
How a high volume of video-game playing affects the human brain is the subject of ongoing research. Some studies indicate playing video games could be beneficial. But it could have negative effects on a person’s thinking, understanding of the world and other brain processes, including creating addiction. Also potentially problematic are the games themselves, which can be violent; research shows that overexposure to such violent media can lead to aggressive thoughts and behavior.
The relative newness of esports means the jury is still out on the impact on children. Violence against competitors and among fans has occurred — as it could in any open setting. If your child wants to watch a live competition, find out what you can about the level of security at the venue, and take the normal precautions you would with your kid attending any large event.
What kind of equipment do you need to play esports?
If your kid is into esports, don’t worry about them using your laptop or tablet. Some esports are console-based, so if you have a PS4 or an Xbox One, your kid already has the gear needed to play seriously. Otherwise, they will need a powerful (and expensive) PC, a big monitor, a headset and various “peripherals,” including (usually) special keyboards, mice and game-specific controllers. Obviously, your kid will need the games, and you’ll need Internet service (preferably the fastest available) at home. All told, a kitted-out gaming machine plus accessories could run anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000. But your kid will pay you back when they turn pro, right?
Could my kid make a living playing esports?
Some esports athletes are raking it in. Really good players can get sponsored, get paid to produce YouTube promotional videos or even sign with teams. Fortnite phenom Tyler “Ninja” Blevins reportedly makes $500,000 per month and the Dota 2 player Saahil “Universe” Arora can pull down six figures per tournament (not counting league salaries). But it’s the very rare player who qualifies at that level. And the life span of a professional gamer is even shorter than that of a pro football or baseball player — usually from age 19 to 25.
Should I encourage my young gamer to pursue esports?
If your kid really loves it and it seems to be a positive in their life, the biggest downsides are the time it requires to become good — which takes away from other activities — and the exposure to game violence. But esports are a sedentary activity — so you’ll need to make sure that all that time spent gaming is balanced with exercise (as well as other important stuff). On the plus side, esports supporters, including the NFHS, believe that playing competitive video games requires some of the same skills as traditional sports, such as thinking strategically, learning to work as a team and putting forth strong individual effort. Being a part of a team can be beneficial in a kid’s life, so long as the coach and other team members help create a supportive environment.
Can you really get a college scholarship by playing video games?
Yes, kids can get college scholarships for esports. The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), the main governing body for varsity esports, has awarded $9 million in esports scholarships and aid since 2016. More than 80 colleges participate in scholarship programs. As with all scholarships, colleges are looking for well-rounded kids (i.e., not esports zombies). Incidentally, there’s talk of adding esports as a “demonstration sport” in the 2024 Olympics. So if your kid doesn’t get a scholarship, they could still compete on a world stage.
What are esports communities like?
At their best, esports can be described as “vibrant” and, at their worst, opinionated, aggressive and hostile. Such bad behavior violates the esports code of conduct and most platforms' community rules. But online gaming communities are notoriously filled with trash talk, especially toward women.
But things are changing. The more mainstream esports become, the less this behavior is tolerated. And the esports community, including game developers, platform providers and event promoters, is actively working to clean it up. High school teams will have written codes of conduct, such as this one created by Swedish esports athletes, which is becoming more widely adopted.
Do both girls and boys play esports?
Unlike professional sports, esports has no physical requirements other than fast reflexes. Still, it’s a male-dominated world. There are, however, a growing number of professional female esports players, such as the top-earning female StarCraft player, Sasha Hostyn from Canada. Esports run all-female tournaments, and there are all-female Internet squads. Unfortunately, the payouts for female pros are much less than those for male players.
Should I be concerned about screen time if my kid wants to pursue esports?
Absolutely. The amount of screen time esports require is one of their biggest downsides. To become proficient, players have to put in upward of eight hours a day. Even pro players say the training regimen is harsh. If your kid wants to do esports, you’ll need to be more serious about rules for how much they can play during the week and on weekends. Make sure their screen time is balanced with other important activities: chores, homework and speaking to humans face to face.
Caroline Knorr is Common Sense Media’s parenting editor. A version of this piece first ran at CommonSensemedia.org.