“It’s still surreal to us,” Christine said. “You hear about people becoming professional esports players and to us, it was one of those far-off dreams, like your kid being a pro soccer player or pro football player. It feels like that.”
Ethan, now 18, is publicly known by his gamertag “Stratus," a name he chose to honor his dead cat. It’s a name Christine said she has grown used to, although hearing it applied to her son and not their deceased pet was “really odd” at first. Stratus is now among a handful of elite gamers who have gone pro in Overwatch, a six-on-six, sci-fi, first-person-shooter (FPS) game. He signed last winter with the Washington Justice, one of the 20 teams in the professional Overwatch League (OWL).
Christine said she used to receive confused responses from other parents when she told them about her son’s career. “Professional gamer? What does that mean?” she recalled them saying. But recently, she has noticed a shifting attitude toward the profession, and the gaming industry in general.
“Two years ago, when [Ethan] first started playing, there was more of a negative connotation to [esports],” Christine said. “Now, people are so positive because it's such a growing industry and they are really recognizing the big names that are behind a lot of the teams.”
These big names include franchise owners of professional sports teams, such as Robert Kraft (New England Patriots) and Stan Kroenke (Los Angeles Rams, among others), who have contributed to the reported $4.5 billion invested in the industry last year. Additionally, major companies like Intel, Toyota, T-Mobile and Spotify have launched sponsorship deals with the league, while ESPN, Disney XD and ABC are broadcast partners for OWL events, propelling the public image of esports higher over the past several years.
In addition to growth at the pro level, esports are trickling into the world of academia. During the last school year, $16 million in esports scholarships were offered nationwide, according to the nearly 200-members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).
Esports will also become a varsity-sanctioned high school activity in at least 17 states this year through a pilot program launched by the National Federation of State High School Associations in partnership with PlayVS.
“More people are becoming exposed to [video games] as a sport,” said Dr. Rachel Kowert, a researcher of online gaming and author of the book A Parent’s Guide to Video Games. “But the perception of video games as being frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, that's a slow moving engine.”
Kowert said parents’ greatest concerns with gaming are fearing two overhyped outcomes: addiction and violence. Kowert has studied the relationship between gaming and addiction and aggression for over 20 years, and said those claims have largely been debunked.
“If you look at the thousands of studies that have been done about the effects of video games on anything, positive or negative, the results are generally neutral,” Kowert said. “They're doing nothing, or they’re doing something slightly positive.”
For parents, navigating a space they often don’t understand, especially at the highest level, comes with its own set of challenges. Christine said that attending Stratus’s first live tournament event in Montreal was the moment that opened her eyes to the scope of the professional gaming industry and his career potential.
“Once we saw the fans there, we saw the setup, we saw the professionals that were behind the team, it became a lot more real for us,” Christine said. “Shortly after, he had gotten a contract to be a part of a team. Lawyers were involved. All of that became a real job very quickly.”
From that point, the biggest challenge became grappling with her son leaving home early to work. Ethan joined a minor league team when he was just 17. He signed a contract in the OWL, which has an 18-year-old minimum age requirement, the following year.
“Being a parent and having your child working away from home, that’s obviously difficult,” Christine said. “To make that choice and make sure he was going to be taken care of, that was one thing we didn’t really expect when all of this came about.”
Christine sought advice from lawyers, industry experts and other parents who had already navigated the process. Unfamiliar with Overwatch, she also had to learn from her son how the game actually worked.
“It’s like trying to speak a different language to somebody,” Ethan said. “Because there’s a lot of lingo that’s commonly tossed around for people who play a lot of video games that just doesn’t make any sense normally.”
Christine said she kept watching the matches and asking her son to pause them and explain plays. Now, she gets it.
“At first it’s hard to see who’s playing well and who died,” Christine said. “It took a while, but I think we’re there now.”
Even at the amateur and casual levels, parents understanding their children’s gaming habits is beneficial to reduce misconceptions, Kowert said. She recommends parents learn about the games their children are playing to combat what she calls “media sensationalism” or a fear of the unknown.
“If you don't know anything about the technology or what your kids are doing, then of course that's going to stir up fear,” she said. “That's understandable. But the more you're exposed to it and the more you're familiar with it, the less scary it becomes.”
Christine said gaming was part of her family’s culture, so she had some understanding of its benefits. Christine plays Clash Royale and mobile games, Ethan’s grandmother, Kay Yankel, plays Candy Crush and Ethan and his brothers were into Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) before switching to Overwatch. The entire Yankel clan also plays board games together.
This is what Kowert recommends: trust and time.
“Parents will sit and watch their young children play tee-ball for three hours on a Saturday afternoon, and it is not enjoyable,” Kowert said. “But they won’t sit down for an hour and watch their child play Fortnite. The more familiar they are with what their kids are interacting with, the less panic there is from the parents.”
Ethan and Christine understand gaming is part of their family’s fabric, but both know his time in the OWL won’t last forever. Most esports players retire by their late 20s or early 30s, according to CNBC.
With more colleges offering esports programs and scholarships, Ethan said he would consider going back to school after he retires from professional esports, and perhaps even attend the same college as his older brother.
“My brother told me that Carnegie Mellon University started an Overwatch program,” Ethan said. “If I could get into that school with a scholarship, I’d be totally down for that. It kind of depends on what opportunities exist.”
Regardless of his next step, Christine said she would "support anything that [her] kids work hard at,” just as she has done with gaming.
“Not just their dreams, but that they have a solid action plan to reach their goals," she said. "And when they do that, we’ll support them in anything.”