By Jason Chung
Do esports belong in high school? In a rapidly growing number of high schools, gamers are the new jocks. School districts are scrambling to approve esports clubs and competitive teams. Breathless articlesâ€”sometimes written by tech industry representativesâ€”tout how popular esports has become among Gen Z, how esports drives STEM education, and how much money can be made from a career in esports.
Jason Chung (@ChungSports) is a visiting clinical assistant professor at NYUâ€™s Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport, where he spearheads study on the business of esports. An attorney by training, he writes about issues at the intersection of sports, technology, and health.
Embracing esports has also brought predictable consternation. For instance, opposition politicians in Canada have tried to score political points against the government by claiming that esports programs in high school may promote cyber-dependence. Others argue that they donâ€™t know if esports should be considered a sport. As Illinois high school esports coach Amy Whitlock noted, â€œPeople do not view esports as a legitimate sport and say itâ€™s not a productive activity.â€�
These reductive arguments are short-sighted and betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential risks and benefits of esports in schools. Esports is neither cure-all nor curse for engaging students. Like any activity, the devil is in the execution. How esports is implemented in schools by politicians and administrators will have an impact on whether our youth get the best versionâ€”one that is healthy, safe, and balanced.
Leveraging esports responsibly in schools depends on properly defining â€œesports.â€� Politicians, educators, and parents alike should recognize that esports isnâ€™t just about video gaming. Esports is the recognition of video gaming as a source of competitive play within a structured group environment. Contrary to outdated stereotypes about video gamers being unhealthy, solitary, and slovenly young people, esports has largely become about bringing a healthy, social, and structured form of team play to the video games industry. Professional esports organizations like Gen.G are investing big money into upscale training facilities that allow for the necessary development of positive group dynamics in an environment complete with wellness professionals such as nutritionists, personal trainers, and physical therapists. By embracing esports, schools can capitalize upon its organic growth and draw students away from uninteractive, sedentary avenues of entertainment towards an activity that can instill common values and principles.
Among those values is that physical and mental activity and wellness is key to quality esports play. Just like any competitive pursuit, esports organizations have found that taking health and wellness seriously helps athletes be more competitive and lengthen their careers by mitigating against injuries and mental exhaustion. Increasingly, they are using the same strategies as traditional sports: gym training, preventive stretching and testing to prevent against repetitive injuries, limiting training hours to fight against mental fatigue, and focusing on proper diet and sleep.
Politicians and educators should take a page out of this professional playbook. Instead of merely building esports facilities and enabling on-screen practice, equal emphasis should be placed on promoting general health and wellness. A holistic approach to esports would also help monitor and mitigate against the real danger of gaming addiction. Even the most ardent esports advocates acknowledge that video gaming may be addictive in nature. The World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association recognize â€œgaming disorderâ€� and â€œinternet gamingâ€� disorder respectively as a potential source of source of what the APA deems â€œsignificant impairment or distressâ€� with additional research necessary to judge its incidence and prevalence rates among the population.
Unlike the largely unsupported claims by out-of-touch Republican and Democrat politicians alike that video games have deleterious effects on mental health, current concerns about the link between gaming and addictiveness have largely arisen through responsible scientific research. Our national and local leaders must be ready to vigilantly combat against risk of addiction by rolling out esports in a responsible manner and as part of an extracurricular experience that promotes balanced digital and analog play through the search for optimal training time to improve individual or team skills, rather than simply churning through game after game.
Civic leaders should have a plan in place to meet the demand for esports whether they understand the appeal or not. Esports is a phenomenon that will inevitably pervade scholastic extracurricular life. Look at the explosive growth of esports in college, from where activities often trickle down to high school. In 2016, only seven colleges had esports teams; today there are over 130, which collectively offer more than $15 million in dedicated scholarships. Furthermore, even youth athletic organizations such as the National Federation of State High School Associations recognize that while participation in traditional high school sports are in decline for the first time in 30 years, participation in esports is going up. Thatâ€™s why they have partnered with venture capital-backed esports leagues like PlayVS to ensure that esports becomes a sporting reality among high school students in your city or town.