Esports popularity is growing

The esports competition suite at Ohio Northern University


The esports competition suite at Ohio Northern University

LIMA — Esports are video games that are played in a highly organized competitive environment. There is a number of different video games that are played competitively by professionals and students across the world. Often hosted in stadiums, events are televised and draw enormous audiences simply to watch. The esports market is estimated to grow to be worth $1.9 billion by 2025. Pew Research found in 2018 that 90% of teens, ages 13-17, play video games. Among boys of that age, the percentage was 97%.

The idea of adding esports into high school programs continues to be questioned. Some people equate esports to simply playing video games, therefore, it as strictly a leisure activity. However, others feel that esports belong in the high school athletic department. One of the reasons why is the structure of esports themselves. It features practices, weekly matches, state rankings and playoffs, just like other high school sports.

Growing in popularity

Maxwell Phillips, an esports competitor and student at Ohio Northern University, said that some people say, “It’s not a real sport because you don’t go outside and be physically active, but it’s a real sport. It is just as any other sport. It is the team camaraderie that you build working together. It’s just as fast paced as any other sport. It’s that team aspect you can really dive into in esports.”

Drayton Virgo, an ONU student and gamer from Tennessee, agrees. “Like any other sport, it’s a constant battle against yourself and trying to improve to be better than you were yesterday … when you’re working with your team and becoming a better team, communicating better, cooperating better and making better decisions, fitting into those roles, figuring out what your strengths and weaknesses are and how you can compensate for that with your team and growing together, not just as players, but also as people.”

The National Federation of High School Associations is the governing body for most high school sports in the United States. While it serves as an umbrella for education-based athletics and activities, only three listings qualify as an activity: music, speech/debate/theater and spirit. The others are common sports ranging from baseball to wrestling. The NFSH maintains an additional category labeled “other sports,” which includes bowling, esports, golf, and tennis. The lead arbiter of high school athletics says that esports is a sport.

The growth of esports is rapidly engulfing the world. In February 2022, the Commonwealth Games Federation announced that esports would be included in the 2022 Commonwealth Games as a pilot event, with the possibility of it being a medal event in the 2026 Games. The inaugural Commonwealth Esports Championship had separate branding, medals, and included both men and women’s Dota 2, eFootball, and Rocket League events. The International Olympic Committee has confirmed that the inaugural Olympic Esports Week will be held in Singapore in June 2023. The event will be held in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Sport Singapore, and the Singapore National Olympic Committee. IOC president Thomas Bach acknowledged the growth, “The first Olympic Esports Week marks an important milestone in our ambition to support the growth of virtual sports within the Olympic Movement. We believe the exciting new format of our virtual sports competition, with live finals to be staged for the first time, is an opportunity to collaborate further with esports players and to create new opportunities for players and fans alike.”

Esports go mainstream

Colleges are also beginning to offer scholarships for esports. They come in varying amounts financially, but they mean you are an athlete on a college varsity sports team. In 2014, Robert Morris University made headlines around the world by being the first institution of its kind to bring esports into its athletic program. This was when esports, at least in the US, became recognized as a collegiate varsity sport.

According to the National Association of Collegiate Esports, U.S. colleges that have varsity esports programs are offering around $16 million per year in scholarships. College esports tournament organizer Tespa notes that its competitions attract more than 1,350 schools and more than 40,000 players. It has also awarded more than $3 million in tournament winnings.

The amount of schools offering esports scholarships has grown rapidly over just a few years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Heidelberg University just hired Ryan McDannell, an esports coach in January 2023 to develop its program for the 23 – 24 school year. Previously, McDannell was an esports coach at Upper Sandusky High School. “The popularity of competitive gaming has exploded in recent years; viewership of some of the biggest Esports tournaments and general gaming content has been steadily on the rise,” McDannell said. “Gaming is something that can be enjoyed both casually and competitively, for men and women of all ages and abilities, and just like with traditional sports, it can be a lot of fun to watch.”

When a student is able to get an esports scholarship, there are still requirements to go to class. They still have to study. They still have to maintain a particular GPA set out by the school and it’s typically a respectable grade, not barely passing. An esports competitor is also going to have a set practice schedule and mandatory games for scrimmages and tournaments. They will have to commit to practice aspects outside of playing the game itself, like strategizing with their team and watching competitor demos. They will have physical fitness requirements too.

Esports in high schools have gone from recreational gaming clubs to full-on competitive gaming where players compete in high school esports leagues. Kevin Favro, the esports coach at Shawnee High School, was a gamer in college. Favro participated in Halo tournaments. The Shawnee esports team under his guidance finished in second place in the state of Ohio in Rocket League competition. The League of Legends team garnered a first place trophy.

Not just a game

The benefits for players participating in esports are similar to any other type of sport or extracurricular activity: discipline, commitment, goal setting, socializing. An esports team practices daily with drills and communication activities, including strategic discussions about game play scenarios. Teams may compete in weekly online tournaments. They usually also take part in regional tournaments and events. Some teams even engage in weight training that focuses on the core, arms, hands and wrists — the critical muscles needed for quick, accurate game controller manipulation.

There are proven benefit of esports. There was a study done on older adults who played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for six months. The researchers found increases in three of the major areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, personality, cognitive planning and social behavior; the right hippocampus, where we get short-term and long-term memory, as well as information processing; and the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls your fine motor skills and muscular activity.

Another study showed how video games can enhance the skills of laparoscopic surgeons. The findings show that surgeons who played video games improved their hand-eye coordination and the precise muscle movements necessary for surgery.

As we age, we start to see a decline in our cognitive flexibility, attention, working memory and abstract reasoning. Studies done with elderly patients, showed that gaming resulted in improvements to all of the mentioned categories. Another study found that on top of the above benefits, enhanced life qualities such as a better self-concept were experienced by the participants.

In a study reported the the journal Applied Ergonomics, it was found that 50 hours of action-based video gaming significantly improved test scores that measured the participants’ ability to multi-task.

Should esports be considered a sport? Should they be in the Olympics? Does it really matter? One thing is for sure. Esports, with a growing number of players and viewers, increasing revenues and popularity, allowing almost anyone to join has what one must believe is a very bright future.

Reach Dean Brown at 567-242-0409


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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