In a relatively short time, esports has grown into an industry phenomenon, packing arenas with fans and helping video game companies, sports franchises, event organizers and esports pros earn some serious bank.
But in rec leagues and traditional sports—the kinds that involve actual physical exertion—is dwindling. At the same time, fitness levels among kids and young adults—esports’ target demographic—are abysmal.
It’s only natural to make a connection between these two trends—and to imagine a future worst-case scenario of obese, esports-addicted generations rarely leaving the house.
But some industry insiders say it’s not that simple. “I don’t see it as a cause and effect,” says Jeff Jarnecke, executive director of venues for the city of South Bend, Indiana, who previously spent 12 years as the NCAA’s director of championships and alliances.
Jarnecke points out that specialization in sports has dragged down the number of youth participants for years, long before the advent of esports. “But perhaps, in some respects, esports is accelerating the decline of certain sports in some areas,” he says.
On the positive side, however, Jarnecke says esports isn’t hampered by many of the barriers to entry that plague the increasingly specialized world of youth sports.
“You can do esports from your house,” he says. “It’s agnostic with respect to physical ability, attributes or gender, and there are fewer financial and socioeconomic barriers.”
Moreover, esports is providing opportunities for NCAA member institutions to increase enrollment and recruit students who have an interest in STEM-related topics and degrees, Jarnecke says.
Schools Jump In
In Pennsylvania, the science- and technology-focused Harrisburg University launched an esports team, the HU Storm, in summer 2018. It’s the university’s only athletic program.
We don’t have fraternities and sororities or big sports arenas, but athletics is an interesting thing for universities to get into—it helps with community building and brand exposure,” says university President Eric Darr. “Since the team’s launch, we’ve been on ESPN probably 20 times. We could never afford to buy that kind of exposure.”
Darr says the university spent about $800,000 renovating the basement of its science and arts museum to serve as the HU Storm practice facility, complete with professional-grade gaming computers, 24-inch monitors and ergonomic gaming chairs.
The university also hosted Hue Festival in September 2018, where 32 esports collegiate teams competed for a grand prize pool of $50,000. The National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body for high school sports and activities, has also tapped into esports. In October 2018, NFHS announced its partnership with PlayVS, a high school esports league, to launch its inaugural esports season, dubbed Season Zero.
“We started looking at esports about 18 months ago and decided it was something we wanted students to have the opportunity to participate in at the high school level,” says Mark Koski, CEO of the NFHS Network. Koski says there are currently nine NFHS member state associations participating in the league, including from Connecticut, Georgia and Kentucky.
“We expect this number to rapidly grow over the course of the next few years,” Koski says.
Koski said that while NFHS is concerned about the country’s youth fitness levels, he points out that esports is far from the first or only threat to sports participation.
He also stresses that esports provides students with an opportunity to participate in a team activity that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.
“These students are not typical athletes; the majority are not involved in high school sports,” Koski says. “This gives students another avenue to be part of their community and to be under the direction of a teacher/coach who provides behavioral and academic standards and requirements. It teaches leadership skills and teamwork.”
The NFHS has 51 state high school athletic and activity associations throughout the country, which represent 19,500 high schools and 12 million student participants annually. Says Koski: “We believe, with esports, we can raise our overall participation numbers from 12 million to 13 million really quickly. This is just the beginning.”
Alli Schulman, coordinator of communications and marketing for the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, also sees great potential in esports, especially for professional sports franchises.
“It increases and strengthens fandom astronomically,” she says. “Sports franchises are some of the biggest investors in esports competitions. When these games are based on their sport, it means fans are filling their arenas and buying more gear. It’s great for the sports industry.”
But Schulman says she also recognizes the potential downside of esports, especially in light of a recent SFIA report that indicates that 17% of U.S. kids 6 to 12 years old are completely inactive, and 18.4% of kids 13 to 17 years old are completely inactive.
“Our top priority is more people participating in sport and fitness activities, so if a child is spending all their time playing esports, then it’s not a good thing for the industry,” Schulman says. “But, unfortunately, cost is still a huge barrier in youth sports. Physical education is being cut in schools, and there’s a lack of county leagues. Everything is pay to play, and with sports specialization, competition is very intense. All this makes it tougher for kids to get involved and stay active. But hopefully, kids can use esports as another outlet and still be active.”
Jarnecke also believes it’s important to maintain a healthy balance, but doing so remains a challenge, especially as our culture is already dominated by passive digital activities like playing with your phone and spending hours on social media platforms.
“Esports is certainly an extension of that,” he says. “It is a great concern, and there has to be an intentional focus on the part of parents and educators to maintain a balance. We’ll certainly face similar challenges with the next wave of technology, but it’s still exciting to see the advent of esports and how it may change the perception of what an athlete is in the future.”