Surveys on youth sports have found that as many as eight in ten parents have concerns about the quality and behavior of youth sports coaching— and similar percentages are worried about the escalating cost and time associated with traveling for sports.
of collegiate esports players get no physical activity
Then there are the ever-growing concerns about concussions and their long-term effects (for more discussion see “Outside the Lines”). Yet youth sports are so essential to American culture that imagining a society devoid of them seems incredibly foreign. But a fast-growing youth sports category, with few of the issues listed above, has begun to capture the attention, interest—and increasing amounts of time—of America’s roughly eight million high school athletes: esports.
No Travel, Equipment on Hand
Boasting “no travel required throughout the regular season” and equipment that virtually all school computer labs already have at their disposal, esports are both inexpensive and safe. Participation among high schoolers has exploded, and the National Federation of State High School Associations recently partnered with PlayVS to enroll esports as an officially designated high school sport, alongside mainstays like baseball, field hockey, basketball and lacrosse. The High School Esports League boasts more than 100,000 players at more than 3,000 high schools and middle schools in the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea. Additionally, social and competitive gaming have led to great strides in erasing the stigma of games as an activity for the socially isolated or professionally unambitious. In fact, recent Pew data have found 83 percent of teen gamers play games with friends in person, and 36 percent report having made friends through gaming. COVID-19’s widespread school shutdowns only accelerated gaming’s rise as an essential social commons. And with 72 percent of all teens playing video games, the ubiquity already rivals that of physical sports.
Parental support for youth gaming will likely increase as its value in college settings continues to expand. When we published the first Future of Sports report six years ago, only Robert Morris University offered esports scholarships. Currently, more than 190 colleges have varsity esports programs, with scholarships worth $16 million available to esports athletes. Many prospective college gamers are including their gaming accomplishments on their applications.
Amount of scholarships awarded to eSports athletes in 2019
Number of colleges offering varsity eSports programs
The NCAA Stays Away
But is this a good thing? Is replacing the cultural prevalence of physical sports with digital ones truly beneficial to society? Are all the traditionally negative critiques of gaming erased once money, big brands and popular approval enter the equation? From the NCAA’s perspective, the answer is “not yet.” Despite widespread adoption by colleges, universities and several conferences, the NCAA board of governors split 6–6 on whether to ratify esports in 2019 and tabled further discussion of the question indefinitely. NCAA president Mark Emmert cited misogyny among players and violent content as major factors in the decision.
Trading Physical Injuries for Digital Maladies
While concussions and other kinetic and impact-based injuries are absent, esports are not without their own set of health consequences. With gamers spending prolonged hours in virtually the same position, many gamers suffer from what’s known as postural syndrome, recognizable by a hyperextended neck and a hunched back. If not corrected early in life, postural syndrome can persist chronically in adulthood, leading to constant pain and discomfort and permanent spinal disfigurement. Additionally, half of collegiate gamers report having eye fatigue, and roughly a third report chronic hand and wrist strain.
Hardcore gaming can even be fatal. Famed gamer and streamer Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson died at age 33 due to thrombosis—a blood clotting condition prevalent in those with sedentary lifestyles. The potential for other gamers to suffer the same fate is quite large given that 40 percent of collegiate gamers admit to engaging in zero physical exercise whatsoever. With legions of kids pouring into the competitive gaming arena, esports may experience its version of the NFL’s “CTE moment” sooner than later.
Beyond the physical risks, cautionary tales around gaming culture loom as well. Dominated by young men, gaming culture has spawned some toxic subcultures, which, while not propagated by all gamers, are overlooked or tolerated by many.
The Overwatch League, founded in 2017, has featured just one female competitor, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, who endured cheating accusations (subsequently disproven) and a death threat on her way to earning a spot on the roster of the Shanghai Dragons. And despite holding annual tournaments with thousands of competitors, League of Legends hasn’t fielded a female competitor since 2016. When transgender woman Maria “Remilia” Creveling did compete in League of Legends, the online harassment targeting her was so intense that she removed herself from her professional gaming team roster and didn’t return. She died in December 2019 at age 24.
Report: The Future of Youth Sports
10 in-depth topics from recruiting to brain development to esports.
We take a deep look at the best and worst-case scenarios for the future of youth sports as parents, coaches, futurists, industry experts—and former youth athletes.
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
A League of Their Own
In February 2020, all-female teams from around the globe gathered in Dubai to compete in the Girlgamer Esports Festival, having battled their way into the world finals by winning regional tournaments in South Korea, Brazil and Spain. Major companies like Johnson & Johnson, L’Occitane and Benefit Cosmetics sponsored the event. The reason: while women remain underrepresented at the elite esports level, they make up nearly half of the total gaming ecosystem—a massive opportunity for marketers who associate themselves with the growing cadre of female competitors.
Bridging the Mind-Body Divide
Sales of VR software tripled in 2019 from $100 million to $300 million, far outstripping the gaming industry’s overall rate of growth. The top-selling VR game, Beat Saber, is credited with helping legions of players lose significant amounts of weight. The widely hyped Population: One, a Fortnite-like VR battle royale game, requires extensive upper-body movement for climbing, flying and, of course, reloading and shooting. The more immersive gameplay becomes, the more physically involved the user input will become. As VR and AR systems become more widely affordable and available, gaming may well become our primary path to fitness.
Tapping into a global viewership upwards of 300 million, the NCAA’s validation in 2024 of esports further boosted digital gaming as a viable college aspiration for competitive youth gamers—and, perhaps more importantly, their parents. International scholarships jumped as university teams added top talent from well-developed Asian markets.
Gender Equality, Equal Access
Without the physical and economic restrictions of physical sports, esports became the most inclusive sports category in history. The long-contested discrepancy of disproportionate collegiate scholarships for male and female athletes was eliminated, as colleges incentivized female participation through scholarships and the split became roughly equal between genders. The absence of economic barriers such as equipment and travel costs allowed near-equal access for schools of all socioeconomic levels. Physically limited students were no longer without a social means to compete with their peers.
Lack of injuries played a prominent role in widespread adoption of gaming in youth education. Like their physical predecessors, physical regimens including posture stretches, regular joint icing and mandatory breaks were developed and spread to combat the potential side effects of gaming. The physical dexterity, mental acuteness and reflexes required to compete at a high level inspired a wave of specialized new workout trends that were encouraged by coaches and health professionals to begin at youth.
Shielded from the public through virtual avatars of themselves, gamers gave in to their basest instincts. A hyperaggressive, homophobic, sexist and bigoted subculture permeated the once-promising gaming landscape, as the empathy inherent in physical promixity was eliminated. As opposed to physical sports—where body size necessitates grouping by age—youth gamers were thrown into a general pool with adults, exposing them to toxic, aggressive and vulgar language from an early age. The vitriol was even worse for women and other marginalized groups.
NCAA Bows Out
Concerned with the controversy, the NCAA rejected competitive gaming as a collegiate sport. Simultaneously, however, the cash prizes for major tournaments increased dramatically. As a result, youth who were invested in gaming were forced to choose between pursuing lucrative but rare professional career opportunities or spending time away from gaming to excel in school. Mental and physical health plummeted, as gamers spent their waking hours vying for top spots in the world’s elite gaming spheres.
Gaming and School Don’t Mix
Despite their best efforts to change the culture, parents and educators found themselves unable to stop the use of school time for gaming. Increased presence of mobile gaming meant many kids played during class or sneaked away during designated activities to get online. This furthered the divide between scholastic achievement and gaming success.
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The complete report on The Future of Youth Sports is available for purchase. Includes 10 topics and our thinking on how to create a better youth sports experience for all.