Video games have come a long way since the days of Atari and Sega. Instead of pulling up a beanbag chair up to the tube TV in your parents’ basement, now there are worldwide competitions among top-ranked gamers and players streaming their games to millions of subscribers on YouTube. But beyond serious gamers playing the latest edition of Call of Duty, how many people are actually involved in the world of competitive gaming?
A ton, in fact, including legion of teen and young adult gamers, according to a Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll released Friday.
Almost three-quarters of Americans ages 14-to-21 either played or watched multiplayer online games or competitions in the previous year. Half of adults under 30 have played or watched online games, as have a quarter of adults overall.
In order to learn more about these online competitive gamers, The Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell conducted a survey asking random samples of 1,000 adults and an additional 522 14-21 year-olds whether they had either played an online video game with multiple players, participated in a video game competition, or watched live or recorded video of people playing video games in the previous 12 months.
Strikingly, watching other people play video games is just as popular as playing games themselves. A 58 percent majority of teens and young adults (ages 14-21) have watched people play video games on websites like Twitch and YouTube, while 59 percent report playing online multiplayer games. Almost half of teen and young adults, 45 percent, both play and watch video games. Among U.S. adults overall, 18 percent play, 16 percent watch and 9 percent do both.
The gender gap among adults is very similar to teen and young adult competitive gamers — 61 percent are male while 39 percent are female. But with the much smaller share overall of adults who are competitive gamers, smaller shares of both genders say they play or watch online multiplayer video games — 3 in 10 men and 2 in 10 women. That figure increases among younger adults, 18 to 39 years old with 56 percent of men and 29 percent of women who are gamers.
Even with many female gamers, there’s a common perception that women aren’t treated with respect in the gaming community. A 42 percent plurality of adult competitive gamers say women are treated with less respect than men in the online video gaming community, along with almost half, 49 percent of teen and young adult gamers. That rises to 58 percent of teenage girl and young women gamers who say women are treated with less respect.
The Post-UMass Lowell poll finds gaming is popular among teens and young adults of nearly all income levels and family backgrounds. Roughly 7 in 10 teens and young adults whose parents have incomes above and below $50,000 are gamers, as are similar percentages of those regardless of their parents are college graduates or married.
Teen and young adult competitive gamers are similar ethnically to those who are non-gamers — over half of both groups are white, 23 percent of each are Hispanic and a slightly higher proportion of African Americans are gamers than non-gamers (15 percent vs. 9 percent). Asians make up a similar 2 percent of gamers and 3 percent of non-gamers.
Among adults, there’s a higher proportion of non-gamers who are white (65 percent) than competitive gamers (55 percent). Competitive gamers are slightly more likely to be Hispanic (20 percent) or African American (16 percent) than non-gamers (13 and 10 percent, respectively).
Teen and young adult competitive video game players tend to play frequently and for long periods of time. Almost half, 47 percent, play almost every day or every day, rising to two-thirds (66 percent) who play at least a few times a week. Among adults, just about 3 in 10 of those who play do so almost every day or every day, though a majority (55 percent) plays at least a few times a week. And among competitive gamers under 21 who play almost every day or more, 6 in 10 play for three or more hours on a typical day.
Game popularity varies by age, too. Call of Duty or its latest iteration, Black Ops, is the most popular game among both adults and young adults, but twice the share of gamers ages 14-21 say they play that game most than adults (24 percent vs. 12 percent). Grand Theft Auto comes in as the second-most-played game among teens and young adults with 17 percent. A fewer 6 percent of adult gamers say the same. Other oft-played games among teens and young adults include Overwatch (7 percent) and Battlefield One (7 percent). Among adult gamers, League of Legends (7 percent) ranks high. All other games were mentioned by 5 percent or fewer of gamers and include FIFA, Super Smash Bros, NBA 2K and Rainbow Six.
Why people play and watch competitive online video games
The Post-UMass-Lowell poll asked gamers whether nine different factors were a reason they play and/or watch online video games, and found fun and friendship topping the list. Among gamers ages 14-21, 80 percent said “entertainment and fun” was a major reason they play and watch, the highest of any reason, followed by 54 percent saying “enjoying time with friends.” About 4 in 10 said “taking a break from everyday life” was a major factor, with just under 4 in 10 apiece saying the challenge of the game, improving their gaming skills, appreciating games’ visual arts and enjoying the competition were major factors.
The reasons were roughly similar among adult gamers, though a larger share cited enjoying competition and the challenge of the game as factors.
Few gamers say they are motivated by the chance to win money or championships — 17 percent of adult gamers and 14 percent of gamers ages 14-21 said this was a “major reason” for playing. A sizable 41 percent of teens and young adults, though, said this was a “minor reason.”
Many gamers are building friendships through games. Over half of teen and young adult gamers, 52 percent, say they play and watch games with friends they know outside of gaming and 45 percent have become friends with people they’ve met playing or watching online video games. About a third of adult gamers say they have made friends playing games or play with friends they made outside of gaming.
Which online competitive video game do you play the most? (Open-ended, among game players) Teens/Young Adults adults Call of Duty/Black Ops 12% 24% Grand Theft Auto 6 17 Overwatch 5 7 Battlefield One 5 7 Minecraft 1 5 League of Legends 7 4 FIFA 5 4 Super Smash Bros 2 4 Battlegrounds 2 3 World of Warcraft 2 3 Counter Strike 1 2 Destiny 2 1 NBA 2K 2 1 Hearthstone 1 1 Rainbow Six 1 1 Rocket League 1 1 MLB: The Show * 1 Paladins 0 1 Halo 2 * Madden NFL 2 * Mario Kart 2 * Dota 1 * Street Fighter 1 * Gears of War 2 0 Mortal Kombat 1 0 Other* 25 12 No opinion 6 1 *Other included any game that didn't total at least 1 percent of either adult or teen/young adult respondents.
Despite the broad popularity of watching competitive gaming among teens and young adults, the Post-UMass Lowell poll offers mixed evidence that this fandom could erode the popularity of watching live “traditional” sporting events, including America’s most popular sport of football.
On the one hand, nearly as many Americans ages 14-21 are fans of esports or competitive gaming, 38 percent, as are fans of professional football, 40 percent. But teen and young adult gamers are significantly more likely to be fans of football than non-gamers. Almost half, 45 percent of teen and young adult gamers say they’re professional football fans compared with 26 percent of non-gamers, perhaps an indication they are sporting omnivores.
And when given the option between watching a live esports competition or a live sporting event like football or the Olympics, a 65 percent majority of teen and young adult competitive gamers opted for the more traditional pro sports games. An even larger share of adult gamers, 78 percent, opted for watching the live sporting event.
This Washington Post-UMass Lowell poll was conducted Aug. 22-Sept. 8, 2017 among a sample of 522 teens and young adults on a probability-design online panel with a margin of sampling error of +/- six percentage points. The adult sample was based on a telephone survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults conducted Aug. 14-21, 2017 with an error margin of +/- 3.7 points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.