ESports and video gaming may seem both familiar and foreign to parents of tweens and teens, and with good reason.
For generations, parents have not entirely understood their children; it seems to be the natural state of things for children to roll their eyes at parents who “just don’t get it,” whether the “it” in question is that crazy rock ‘n roll music or long hair or wearing jeans or something else reflecting our continual cultural change. For parents today, it is often their children’s use of technology that generates this friction — primarily because the technological changes of the past few decades have completely transformed life as we know it.
Despite being part of the generation including the inventors of many of these technologies, parents are largely digital immigrants, unable to entirely shed the accent of their native country regardless of the length of time they’ve been in residence. Their children, by contrast, have swum in a digital sea since birth, and genuinely cannot imagine a time without constant connectivity and an always-on digital life.
Understandably, then, the playing of video games has followed the same pattern as so many other new advancements — first, the new thing is strange and generates cultural alarm; then it becomes something we must live with; then, it is indeed a convenience, but we could live without it; then, it is a standard part of life; and finally, we cannot conceive of life without it. For example, parents in the 1970s and 80s were sure that these electronic games were going to rot their children’s brains, just like parents were sure that “newfangled” inventions like television, the radio, or the telephone (or even novels!) would no doubt contribute to the decline of the moral fiber of their children and even the nation.
However, we are now deep enough into this age of massive technological shifts (including our recent intensive experience with remote working and learning) to stop and take stock rather than reflexively condemning all video games as detrimental to our children. Add to that this thing called “eSports” that is popping up everywhere, from grade schools to universities and beyond — while it is clearly a phenomenon growing at a breakneck pace, it’s not something with which most parents have personal experience, so it may remain unfamiliar and vaguely threatening.
(Importantly, because parents and children use almost entirely different programs and/or apps, they therefore essentially live in entirely separate digital environments; in other words, if you have a aol.com email address, you’re likely not spending time on Twitch, the live streaming video website primarily focused on video gaming.)
The basics of eSports and video gaming
This should offer some insight into what exactly all the fuss is about, as well as some information about what we know about our children, their brains, and video games. It won’t make you into a digital native, but it will keep you from accidentally calling the streaming platform “Flinch,” resulting in cringey twitches from your children (unless you enjoy that sort of thing).
Simply put, eSports are video game competitions, generally with a worldwide audience and players, and often offering considerable prize money for the winners. These events have actually been around since 1972 when Stanford University hosted the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics for the game Spacewar; in 1980, Atari hosted a Space Invaders tournament that boasted over 10,000 players. However, competitive video gaming needed to wait for the ubiquity of computers and smartphones to fuel its expansion — growth so explosive that the eSports industry is estimated to bring in over $2 billion in revenue in 2022.
Some of these competitions are focused on single-player video games (e.g., Super Smash Bros., Overwatch, etc.), while others are collaborative, requiring team play (e.g., League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, etc.). The technological complexity of live-streamed simultaneous multiplayer gaming across continents briefly slowed the rise of these competitions, but the fruits of Moore’s Law won out, and the continuing growth in processing speed and power available in general-use computers has finally reached the point at which that is possible.
The prizes for champions vary widely, but the professionals make serious money: in 2019, the top six eSports players worldwide earned over $3 million each; in 2020, the top three earned over $6 million each. (Statista.com)
Who are the gamers?
Of course, commercial interests have driven this cultural phenomenon, as its audience and 79% of its players are in that coveted demographic, ages 18 to 34 — an audience that makes up 73 percent of viewers of eSports, according to Syracuse University. Generally, the gamers are young, male, and affluent, and more than half of them live in Asia.
Interestingly, while technology can be a great democratizer, we know that it is still not equally accessible to all, and as a result, eSports has had its share of detractors for a marked lack of diversity in its population. Part of that is a result of siloing of games between devices: while over 98% of the US population has a smartphone on which video games can be played, the games that are part of these competitions are most often PC-based, and their users are more likely to be white or Asian. Black and Latinx gamers, however, are more likely to play console-based games (e.g., those played on an Xbox or a PlayStation). Consoles are far less expensive than computers, of course, mostly because they offer far less processing power. At an international level of play, suboptimal equipment is simply not going to allow a gamer to succeed, so there is a degree of socioeconomic imbalance in this population, as well.
However, there has been a recent upsurge in efforts to address and diminish the gender, socioeconomic, and racial diversity gaps that have previously prevailed in gamer populations, especially on college campuses, where there is already considerable attention to these issues. For example, AnyKey.org is a non-profit organization specifically formed to address historical inequities by providing training about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to schools with eSports teams.
There have also been studies focusing on female gamers, especially since we know that negative stereotypes about girls in STEM-related disciplines has been a contributor to the lack of female professionals in these fields. Researchers have asked: do the girls who choose to play video games despite stereotype threat and gender inequities differ in any significant way from girls who do not?
Happily, the answer is yes, for positive reasons. One study found that, while girls are 58 times less likely to pursue a degree in physical science, technology, engineering, or math (PSTEM) than no degree at all, 13-14 year-old girls who are “heavy gamers” (i.e., those who play for more than nine hours per week) are three times more likely to pursue a PSTEM degree than non-gamers (Hosein, 2019). Additionally, cooperative video games strengthen in-person friendships and encourage prosocial behavior in girls who game; in other words, when girls play online with friends they know IRL (in real life), the good feelings resulting from successful teamwork in video games “carries over” into strengthening those social connections, while the same is not true for boys (Verheijen 2019).
It is also worth noting here that one study found that earlier onset of video game play mitigates the gender gap between girls and boys in their ability to switch from one cognitive task to another; a different study found that as little as ten hours of training on action video games erases gender gaps in spatial attention and mental rotation skills — so there is evidence that girls who start playing video games at younger ages will realize very real positive neurocognitive changes! (Hartanto 2016; Palaus 2017).
When and why are they gaming?
Since eSports and video gaming are international phenomena, there are literally millions of people playing eSports all the time, everywhere. And evidently, they find plenty of time to do so — the average American tween racks up 4 hours 44 minutes per day of screen time, which increases to an average of 7 hours 22 minutes for teens — figures which do not include time spent using media for school or homework — and for boys, their favorite activity by far during this time is gaming, whether that play happens on a phone, a console, or a computer (Common Sense Media 2019).
Well, for one obvious reason: they are fun. The human brain, especially the gifted brain, is a novelty-seeking organ, constantly on the lookout for new things it can try, investigate, explore, and discover. It’s also a pattern-finding machine, eager to try to identify a pattern of behavior that yields a positive result (and a burst of dopamine-induced happiness) so it can repeat that behavior again and again. These characteristics are perfectly matched to the experience of playing video games, so it might actually be more surprising if they were not appealing.
Today, in particular, video game environments also offer something many of our children do not have access to in other ways: new things to do and see. For millions of children quarantining at home or learning virtually, the sameness of their surroundings every day may be mind-numbingly dull, while the limitless fantasy worlds of video games can put them in an entirely new world every single day.
Gaming offers a connection to others, no matter how virtual, as well as clear, measurable feedback about all of your successes, regardless of whether the unit of measure for that feedback is lives, gold, or health points. There are precious few opportunities in life for many of our children to get immediate feedback in that way, and even fewer for them to have an instantaneous opportunity for a “do-over” when they get to try again.
Grayson offers eSports as an after-school option, like a growing number of schools across the country and the world. Upper School student and eSports team captain Milo summarized their experience: “Our snow day matches went really well. We almost won in Smash Bros., and we won our Rocket League match despite missing a player from our main roster. The program is seeing a lot of success, and plenty of members are being given a chance to grow and use leadership skills, which really helps with teaching the newer players. What’s been the most impressive is the growth in communication skills, with a substantial increase in efficiency and focus. We’re really excited for our upcoming games, and the future of the team as a whole.”
So are eSports and video gaming a good thing or a bad thing?
Overall, the frustrating-but-true answer is: it depends.
There are definitely negatives: if your child is spending hours and hours every day alone in their room, looking at a screen all day for school, only to spend their non-school time also looking at a screen, not only is that kind of extended sedentary behavior bad for their physical well-being, but it also likely not a very well-balanced diet for their brains.
On the other hand, there are positive results, as well: we know that gifted children may be risk-averse — reluctant to try new things, perhaps because of anxiety or perfectionism — but video games offer a remarkable opportunity to try things, fail, learn from that experience, and try again. As one t-shirt reads, “Real gamers never die; they just respawn.”
Grayson is especially insistent on the educational and social-emotional value of failure for gifted children, after all. Zoltan Andrejkovics, a professional eSports player, described his own attitude towards making mistakes like this: “After making all the mistakes, every player has a chance to turn the outcome of the game by making the right moves next.”
Children who play video games don’t just develop strong hand-eye coordination, either — they get lots and lots of practice in problem-solving. Non-gamer parents might be unaware of how much simultaneous processing of huge amounts of complex information is going on — a player in the middle of a game has dozens of pieces of information on the screen at once, any of which might or might not be useful in that moment. Their brains are constantly evaluating the actions in the center of the screen while they are also likely monitoring how their teammates are faring and how quickly they are depleting their resources.
That brief explanation vastly oversimplifies the gameplay experience, however. For example, one student described the onscreen information like this:
Well, when I play League [of Legends], I can see all kinds of information on all four edges of my screen during gameplay, framing what I’m actually doing in the center. Some of it is super important and some of it isn’t, and you figure that out as you get more experienced. This is the information I can see at a glance, all the time:
- Attack damage
- Ability power
- Magic resistance
- Attack speed
- Ability haste
- Critical chance
- Move speed
- What my runes have done this game
- My champion’s level
- My experience bar (tells me how close I am to the next level)
- Ongoing active effects on me
- Passive ability
- My health and mana (the energy I use to cast spells)
- Abilities for the Q, W, E, R (my ultimate ability), D, & F keys, and their respective mana costs
- My summoner spells
- The items I have purchased
- The amount of gold I have
- The minimap, which shows all my teammates’ locations & all the enemy locations (the ones we can see, anyway) & known neutral monsters (alive or dead), as well as which turrets are alive and which neutral objectives are available
- The avatars for my four teammates, each of their health and mana bars, and the status of their ultimate abilities
- My team’s kills and the other team’s kills
- My personal kills/deaths/assists
- My “Creep Score” (# of minions I have killed)
- Gameplay timer
- FPS (frames per second) and my ping rate (to see how much lag my computer is experiencing so I can time my attacks properly)
The closest a non-gamer can come to this kind of thinking is perhaps the amount of input we experience when learning to drive a car — at first, all of the dials and indicators and displays and lights all seem equally important, and it seems impossible to handle all of these things at once, all while also using the gas and brake pedals and steering wheel and checking three rear-view mirrors and the blind spots. After a little while, though, we barely have to think about where the turn signal is, and we know that we can generally ignore the tachometer unless something seems to be malfunctioning: we each develop a prioritized and streamlined information flow that gives us what we need, but we know we cannot take it all in at once.
In addition to all of this complex information flowing into the brain, there are social dynamics at play, as well: gamers must develop trusting relationships with each other to play effectively and to optimize their team’s performance. As Milo described, they have to communicate clearly with one another, explaining their own plans, goals, and needs, both in-game and between matches; and the best teams, of course, spend copious amounts of time honing their skills through practice and creating strategies to improve their results. Importantly, they must also learn how to depend on others and (perhaps more importantly) how to be dependable, themselves.
In the end, eSports and video gaming can be viewed from many different angles — as simply a leisure time activity, as a new avenue for college scholarships (yes, scholarships for for playing video games!), or perhaps as a pathway to career opportunities as a programmer or even as a pro. However, as we have often discussed, play in and of itself has substantial value which should not be dismissed. And it is worth noting that children engaged in extracurricular eSports are definitely not turning off their brains. Quite the contrary, in fact; according to MIT mathematician, computer programmer, and educator Seymour Papert, “Every maker of video games knows something that the makers of curriculum don’t seem to understand. You’ll never see a video game advertised as being easy. Kids who do not like school will tell you it’s not because it’s too hard. It’s because it’s boring.” (Ouch!)
We can choose instead to see gamers differently: they are using their personal time to embrace a challenge, to tackle something with a steep learning curve and no guarantee of success, their only reward the promise of more and more difficulty as they go along. In and of itself, this eagerness for challenge — this intrinsic desire for mastery — is worthy of recognition and should be encouraged.
Life is more fun if you play games.
— Roald Dahl
Gough, Christina. (2021). Leading eSports players worldwide as of March 2021, by overall earnings. Retrieved from Statista.com on April 20, 2021.
Hartanto, A., Toh, W. X., & Yang, H. (2016). Age matters: The effect of onset age of video game play on task-switching abilities. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 78:1125–1136. Available here.
Hosein, A. (Feb. 2019). Girls’ video gaming behavior and undergraduate degree selection: A secondary data analysis approach. Computers in Human Behavior 91, 226-235.
Palaus, M., Marron, E. M., Viejo-Sobera, R. & Redolar-Ripoll, D. (2017). Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11:248. Available here.
Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2019). The Common Sense Census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2019. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media. Available here.
MBA@Syracuse blog. (n.d.) With Viewership and Revenue Booming, Esports Set to Compete with Traditional Sports. Retrieved from MBA@Syracuse online blog April 20, 2021.
Verheijen, G. P., Stoltz, S. E. M. J., van den Berg, Y. H. M., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2016). The influence of competitive and cooperative video games on behavior during play and friendship quality in adolescence. Computers in Human Behavior 91: 297-304.