Parents' Ultimate Guide to Esports

Now that esports is in high schools across the country, your teen gamer can justify gaming as “training” -- and maybe even win a college scholarship. By Caroline Knorr
Parents' Ultimate Guide to Esports

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 -- is an officially sanctioned 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 a scholarship to college.

Esports has been around for a while -- and kids can still play on leagues unaffiliated with their schools. But the effort to recognize it, organize it, and reward it 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 in October 2018, high schools can organize teams, train, and compete against each other. NFHS provides the ground rules, framework, and support. PlayVS provides the network over which the games are played. Students just need to bring a laptop (or use one from their school) and -- as with any extracurricular activity -- enthusiasm, determination, and a competitive spirit.

Whether or not your kid is destined for video game tournaments, the recognition of esports is a cultural phenomenon that could attract your kid as a player or fan. Learn more about esports, including the games it involves, the training it takes to be competitive, and whether your kid has what it takes to get a coveted college scholarship.

What is esports?
Is esports bad for kids?
What kinds of games are played in esports?
What kind of equipment do you need to play esports?
Could my kid make a living playing esports?
Should I encourage my young gamer to pursue esports?
Can you really get a college scholarship by playing video games?
What are esports communities like?
Do both girls and boys play esports?

Should I be concerned about screen time if my kid wants to pursue esports?

What is esports?

Simply put, esports is the competitive wing of multiplayer gaming. But there's a wide range of ways, places, and games to play.

Large-scale esports tournaments are actually 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 a team. While plenty of gamers play just for the thrill of it, online tournaments frequently award cash prizes to winners.

Esports is growing in the educational realm, too. If teens are part of an esports team at school, the games are played over the school's internet and there's no traveling -- except for, possibly, playoff games and state championships. Depending on the school and the student interest, fans may attend the games to cheer on their team. A growing number of colleges also offer esports as varsity-level spectator sports.

The brass ring is 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 televised on channels including ESPN and DisneyXD. Some games even have a spectator view so fans can see the game from the players' perspectives.

Professional esports players are typically sponsored by companies affiliated with video games, including game developers and game-controller manufacturers, and they compete for multimillion-dollar prizes. Conservative estimates project that the global esports market will be a $1.5 billion industry by 2020 (which is billions less than other national pro sports, but it's just getting started).

Is esports bad for kids?

Putting in the hours required to get good at anything takes a toll. Esports carries risks for the body -- and, possibly, the developing brain. The eight to 12 hours that many top esports athletes say they train per day has led to an increase in computer-related injuries including carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, and back pain among elite players. And after several competitors suffered collapsed lungs, players are being warned not to hold their breath during intense moments. Though esports doesn't have the same physical risks as contact sports like football, pro players and ex-pros complain of burnout.

Also, you can't ignore the fact that unlike, say, soccer, video games contain media content that the brain perceives, analyzes, and makes decisions about -- all within split seconds. 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 (which is part of the reason esports was sanctioned for high schoolers). But it could have negative consequences 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 very violent; research shows that overexposure to such violent media can lead to aggressive thoughts and behavior.

For this reason, the rules and regulations governing high school competitors could protect young gamers against potential health and well-being issues. But it's important for you to be on the lookout for warning signs and help your kid recognize these risks and take them seriously. If your kid shows promise in esports and is investing multiple hours per day playing the same game, make sure they have an ergonomic setup and are taking precautions for their physical and mental health.

The relative newness and novelty of esports as a spectator sport means the jury is still out on the impact on kids. Violence against competitors and among fans has occurred -- as it could in any open setting. If your kid 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 kinds of games are played in esports?

Certain types of video 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 to violent or age-inappropriate won't be allowed -- or may be allowed in some areas but not others. 

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 -- especially sports and fighting games -- tend to be console-based. So if you have a PS4 or an Xbox One your kids already have the gear they need to play seriously. Otherwise, your kid will need a very 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 Wi-Fi (preferably the fastest available) at home (although at tournaments the players use a hardwired network). All told, a super 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 definitely raking it in. Hobbyist players -- those who play in tournaments online -- can earn hundreds or even thousands.  Really good players can get sponsored, paid to produce YouTube promotional videos, or even sign with a team. 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 their league salaries). But it's the very rare player who qualifies at that level. And the lifespan 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?

That's up to you. 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 get good -- which takes away from other activities -- and the exposure to game violence. Unlike basketball or baseball, esports can be played at any time of day or night without the same kind of physical toll. But esports is a sedentary activity -- so you'll need to make sure that all that time spent gaming is balanced with physical 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 hugely 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. Currently 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?

You know those National Geographic shows where two jungle tigers fight to the death? Compared to esports communities, they're pretty tame. 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. The competitive nature required to be a top player, combined with the ability to express yourself freely and openly on the internet -- and maybe more than a few drops of testosterone (as most players are male), can make even the gentlest kitten a fierce predator.

But things are changing. The more mainstream esports becomes, the less this behavior is tolerated. And most everyone involved in esports, from the game developers to the platform providers to the event promoters, is actively working to clean it up. High school teams will have a written code 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 women esports players, such as the top-earning female StarCraft player, Sasha Hostyn from Canada. Esports runs all-female tournaments, and there are all-female internet squads, including the one that plays Counter-Strike Global Offensive for Team Dignitas. 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 requires is one of the sport's biggest negatives. To become proficient, players have to put in upwards of eight hours a day. And lots of screen time, even if it serves as "training" for a high school extracurricular or brings in income, isn't great for kids. Even pro players say the training regimen is harsh. If your kid wants to do esports, you'll need to get 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 things that are important: chores, homework, speaking to humans face-to-face. You might want to set clear guidelines for device-free times and zones in your home to help your kid stick to your screen rules. If your kid is playing on a high school team, the coach should be able to help families work out a reasonable training schedule that allows the player to develop but doesn't take up all their time.

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About Caroline Knorr

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As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more

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Comments (1)

Teen, 16 years old written by Brtmrn

The only problem with this article is that saying that games make people more aggressive is wrong. The actual study just showed that people who played violent video games were slightly more likely to put hot sauce on a taco than people who don't play video games.

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