To the dismay of grandparents and traditionalists everywhere, video gaming is now officially a high school sport. Esports is the fastest growing spectator sport and its influence is being seen in the US education system where, in eight states, it is a legitimate varsity sport.
Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were the originators of the movement – opting for the change last year. However, before 2018 was out, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas Charter had also joined, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Amid a flurry of investment, even elder statesmen from more traditional sports are getting involved. NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young and former NFL player Jerry Rice have ploughed money from Young’s foundation to help make an esports arena in Atlanta a reality.
The 3,500 square foot arena is a free resource for students in Atlanta. Part of the Johnson STEM Activity Center, it was also funded by esports experts Skillshot Media. “Opening its doors in February, it was a matter of weeks until North Atlanta High School and Grady High School were facing off.
“Skillshot seeks to foster community via esports,” explained Todd Harris, the company’s president. “Esports cultivates discipline, teamwork and good sportsmanship as well as STEM skill development. This new venue and partnership will greatly expand access to the local community.”
Esports has truly taken off in recent years due in part to the enormous audiences gained by online gamers such as Felix Kjellberg. Known online as PewDiePie, the Swedish gamer has more subscribers on YouTube than anyone else – with a staggering 94 million.
“Jerry and I continually seek to reach the youth we serve ‘where they are’,” said Steve Young, who played 13 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. “We want to stimulate their minds and creativity by utilising platforms they are already passionate about.”
The social side of gaming is also an important aspect of the movement, with both online and offline tournaments providing an opportunity for gamers to forge friendships with like-minded individuals. Furthermore, those who build an audience by streaming their games may well diversify into vlogging, esports or even public appearances and paid promotions.
“Not every school has the financial resources to support an esports team,” stated Dr Lonnie Johnson, local inventor and founder of the Johnson STEM Activity Center. “Our arena will level the playing field and allow anyone with the desire to compete to play for a state championship.”
However, the ascent of esports into the US curriculum doesn’t stop there. A number of universities now offer scholarships for video gaming. These include New York University and the University of California, Irvine. “It is nuts to me, in a good way,” said Benjamin Lupo, a professional gamer known as Dr. Lupo. “Kids could be walking around with letter jackets for gaming and I love it. I absolutely love it.”
Lupo recently received a sponsorship deal from billion-dollar finance conglomerate State Farm. “I got very lucky to get to where I am,” Lupo said. “A lot of people now are trying to make what I do and what other big names do. Fortnite had a big part to play in that really blowing the scene up.”
Odd as it may seem to have video gaming replays sponsored by insurance companies, this is fertile – and often untouched – ground for brands wanting to connect to a younger audience. “We have Aaron Rodgers covering football and we work with Chris Paul in the NBA space,” said Ed Gold, marketing director for State Farm. “[Now] we’ve been starting to get much more involved in esports.”
“You take a major sports advertiser like State Farm that advertise in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, college basketball, college football, and now this company State Farm has said, ‘Yes, we believe in esports,'” Gold explains. “Did I think we’d ever sign an esports gamer? No. But a year and a half ago there wasn’t anything called Fortnite.”
According to research firm Newzoo, esports will generate more than $1 billion this year. The same firm calculated in May last year that video games create $116 billion of annual revenue. This makes video gaming the single largest sector of the entertainment industry.
“The current pipeline for esports is: Kid is interested in a video game, kid starts playing video game, kid gets good at video game, kid gets paid,” said the Johnson STEM Activity Center’s executive director Brian Prokes. “It’s a hobby that they’re passionate about and we want to encourage that and give them a pathway to a career in the future, whether that’s as a professional video game player or in a STEM career that helps to develop future games.”
Based on her previous concerns with video games, one can’t imagine multibillionaire and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can be altogether happy with this decision. Following the Parkland shooting last year, President Donald Trump created the Federal Commission on School Safety, making DeVos chair. However, she focussed more on video games and social media – the two industries on which esports is most reliant – than gun violence.
“Are you looking at some of those countries where the students do just as much time on video games, just as much time on social media as we do but do not have gun violence?” Senator Patrick Leahy asked her during a Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting. “Are you looking at those at all? That’s a yes or no question,” he stated. “Not per se,” DeVos replied.
However, it seems that there is no stopping this train. Having each earned several million dollars in prizes, the world’s top esports gamers are currently Germany’s Kuro Takhasomi (KuroKy), Denmark’s Johan Sundstein (N0tail) and Jordan’s Amer Al-Barkawi (Miracle-). These may well be the names you need to look out for but as to whether they are athletes, I couldn’t possibly say.