Esports is not gaming
What parents need to know about the opportunities that exist
Picture this: a group of teenagers wearing the same uniform are gathered together, discussing the best plays to defeat their opponent. They talk about lessons learned from previous competitions and decide what role each player will fill. The competition begins.
But instead of a field or court, these players assemble in a computer lab, and instead of a ball, racket, stick or puck, these athletes use keyboards, joysticks and a mouse.
Welcome to the world of esports.
How esports are like traditional sports
Video games are not new, but the world of competitive, organized video games known as esports has been steadily growing in popularity for the past several years and has become a $243 million industry in the United States, second only to China, according to PocketGamer.biz.
Yet this growing sport is not that well known to many people, considering 80% of Americans had no interest in or had never heard of esports according to a 2021 Morning Consult National Tracking poll.
In the Fargo-Moorhead area, esports are becoming a sport of choice for many teenagers, and parents of these athletes have been delighted to discover the benefits of participation mirror or exceed those of participation in traditional sports.
Anna Hanson’s 15-year-old son Logan is looking forward to becoming an esports athlete at Davies High School this year as a new freshman, but her exposure to the sport started at work when her employer ByteSpeed began offering an esports line focused on education.
“I understood the potential for gamification of learning, but I didn’t see the link between gaming, esports and school,” she explained. “I agreed to go to a conference in Georgia about eSports for work 4 years ago and it really opened my eyes to the fact that esports is not just about being competitive, but rather about helping kids be the best version of themselves.”
With a gamer of her own at home, Hanson returned and started talking with her son about what he was playing. She admits to thinking her son was wasting time playing video games and only supporting him in sports that he could play physically in person, believing they could only offer the advantages she wanted for her son.
As she learned more about esports, she realized she’d been given a gift. “Esports is different from gaming; esports is about teaching young people good habits about their schoolwork and screen time, it focuses on healthy eating and getting good grades, and communicating well with one another,” Hanson shared. “I could have missed out on an opportunity to connect with my son because he was doing something I didn’t understand.”
And she’s not alone.
Allison Eaton has two gamer sons, one of whom is attending the University of Jamestown this fall on an esports scholarship while the other will compete on the Fargo South High esports team as a senior. She shared many of the same thoughts about video games that Hanson did as well as significant revelations. “They are still getting together (to play esports) and talking and learning things and working as a team,” Eaton shared. “They’re getting all the same soft skills they would from a traditional sport.”
A growing sport and professional field
While parents have a unique perspective on esports, coaches and others involved in the program also watch as their players grow and learn in so many different areas of their lives while setting themselves up for future success.
Josh Knutson first got involved in 2016 when colleges around the country began forming teams through the National Association of Collegiate esports. He helped the University of Jamestown establish its esports program and became a coach until 2019 when he took his experience to ByteSpeed as its esports and virtual reality solutions director.
“The number one reason why high schools start programs is because of opportunities; it’s a way to better engage students and help them develop critical thinking and conflict resolution skills,” Knutson said. “If you’re playing an online game with strangers, there are no stakes to being a good teammate, but when the person is sitting next to you and is someone you will see on a regular basis, you are more interested in being a good teammate and learning those valuable soft skills.”
For high school esports coach Ullrich Reichenbach II, his role involves scheduling practices, tracking player eligibility and student attendance as well as staying on top of technical needs for the computers the athletes use. He’s been the Fargo Public Schools esports coach since January 2020. He wants parents to understand the ultimate goal. “It is all about teamwork, just like football or baseball,” Reichenbach said. “All the titles we play (Rocket League, League of Legends, and SMITE) are team-based.”
Not only is participation increasing, but so is the expansion of esports into a profession. Colleges around the country, including the University of North Dakota, have developed esports programs for students to earn a bachelor’s degree in. The 120-credit hour program at UND requires courses such as wellness, coaching, biomechanics, healthy gaming, sport sociology, exercise physiology, computer science and exercise psychology.
“We live in a world where gaming and screen time is not a waste of time because of the amount of doors that can open academically and professionally,” Knutson said. “My job didn’t exist 4 years ago. There are places for those with a passion for gaming. esports are different than sitting down at an xBox for hours; esports give structure and a point and a purpose to playing.”
Hanson also pointed out the bright future for kids with a natural interest in gaming and technology. “I hope it gets people interested in the technology field, because the same tools they use to be successful in esports are the same tools they need to be successful in their career,” she said. “As a hiring manager, I know that when a person has been an athlete that they know how to be on a team, contribute to something larger than their own success and work well with others.”
Why esports participation is important
Esports are structured just like a traditional sport: they are played during a season, tryouts are required to assess players’ abilities and skills, and academic excellence is a mainstay of being part of the team. Once the season is underway, the team typically reviews recordings of their competitions to analyze what happened and how players performed to determine how to overcome weaknesses or redesign plays.
What Hanson has seen as her son has become more involved in esports is that the community he’s ingrained in is one of the most inclusive, connected social circles. “Esports is a great equalizer,” she said. “The community is so inclusive because esports players everywhere really just want everyone in esports to succeed…these kids develop friendships with people from different backgrounds, friend groups, and geographies. Physical disabilities that prevent students from competing in more traditional sports are not a barrier to esports. Esports gives kids confidence – a feeling of belonging and a real sense of community is so prevalent in esports.”
Eaton echoed that thought. “The social connections they’ve made with kids from other schools is something I didn’t think was possible,” she shared. “They support each other and encourage each other.”
She highlighted the importance of healthy boundaries – like setting rules for how much time can be spent practicing and when electronic devices should be turned off – but Eaton hopes other parents will see their child’s gaming interest as an opportunity and not a bad habit to be squashed. “Growing up, we didn’t have electronics, but I know my kids are different,” she explained. “Gaming is something my son has always enjoyed and I want to support him in that activity…accepting him for who he is and not who I want him to be has made me a better mom.”
Knutson recognized that educating others about esports has a long way to go, but he’s hopeful as well. “There’s an entire generation of people who never had access to this sport,” he said. “It can be hard to wrap your mind around it, but we just need to change the perception of what is a sport and expose people to a new opportunity.”