E-Valuating the Future of Sport: E-Sports as Education

By Joe Lim

The e-sports landscape is rapidly expanding. Hundreds of millions of people tune into live events and millions of dollars are offered in scholarships and tournament prizes. Roughly 200 colleges across the nation have developed varsity e-sports programs and that number continues to grow. Now, as colleges recognize the potential value of e-sports and adopt more programs, the inevitable rise of high school e-sports has begun.

In this growing industry, it may be worthwhile to acknowledge the potential benefits, as well as the negatives, when it comes to team-based e-sports games. As a strength & conditioning coach and long-time gamer myself, I recognize the potential dangers of video games but I also see potential value in e-sports when done right.

Disclaimer: I am not saying e-sports should be brought up to the same level as sports, there is a noticeable physical difference between the two (this is mainly in response to people comparing the “difficulty” between the two). But I am saying that similar to sports, team-based e-sports games have the potential to enhance an individual’s character, mindset, and social-emotional skills when done correctly- just like athletics. 

Dangers of Gaming

Whenever gaming is mentioned, there is often a negative connotation associated with it. Instantly, most of us will think of how detrimental it could be to a developing youth.

One of the biggest concerns when it comes to online gaming is that it may aggravate aggressive behaviors which can lead to cyber-harassment/bullying. This is a legitimate concern, one that I see every time I step onto an online game. This is often due to a process called “masking”- a process by which an individual changes or “masks” their personality to conform to their surroundings, often enhanced when they are masked. Since all gamers are constantly masked behind their screen, gaming may enable individuals to act more hostile or aggressive when in reality, they would not be. 

Speaking from personal experience, even when I only play with friends for the night, it can be tough to get through one session without one negative moment, whether that be big or small. We get so comfortable talking from behind our screens, that sometimes we forget that the people we play with are also real people. But like anything else, it takes practice in a healthy environment, to be authentic and cooperative even when we’re masked! 

The other major concerns include the physical effects of being sedentary, gaming addiction, and social disconnection. This can be harmful to a developing adolescent and must be addressed. But like many things in life, a healthy balance is the key. It may not always be easy, but encouraging players to have a variety of hobbies (especially physical and social ones) that they are interested in, can help combat all three of these concerns. 

While you can’t force adolescent gamers into different activities, it’s up to the coach (or maybe in this case an e-coach) to foster an environment that encourages in-person social interactions and a variety of other hobbies. 

The Positives of E-Sports

Gaming is often associated with a negative connotation, but what about the positives? Believe it or not, with e-sports, there are a lot of mental skills and qualities to be gained when done correctly.

The first distinction to be made is that gaming and e-sports are not the same. E-sports is organized, multiplayer gaming, while gaming encompasses any sort of video game. Also, just like someone who never participated in organized sports, a person who never tried organized e-sports may find it hard to recognize the potential value in it. 

The areas in which I have seen and experienced the most improvement are emotional regulation, teamwork/communication skills, and a growth mindset. 

Emotional Regulation

One of the biggest challenges for e-sports can be regulating one’s emotions, especially when things don’t go as planned. 

Game after game, players are matched with opponents of varying skill levels and are always either at a slight (or sometimes enormous) advantage or disadvantage based on the character they choose. Also, due to the process of masking and the fact that a player can play anywhere from 1 to 25+ matches in a day (depending on the game), it is no surprise that “gamers” have a tendency to shut down or lash out when doing poorly and only think about the next match. They may not feel the pressure from others as the team falls apart because they are physically hidden. 

So coupling a very tough opponent with the understanding that they can always just “move on to the next one”, long-time gamers can develop a habit of unhealthy emotional responses and avoidance of a challenge. 

But with proper development training and coaching, emotional regulation can be bettered! Instead of shrugging off a challenge, encouraging players to analyze, adjust, and respond to a difficult situation is key to enhancing them as individuals. It teaches players to tackle obstacles in their lives and to listen to their emotions but not be distracted by them.

Speaking from personal experience, this is tough. Very tough. Especially when your opponents often taunt you for the smallest mistakes. But learning to not let someone else’s words or our own small mistakes hold us on the ground, is another huge part of emotional regulation that players can improve in. 

Communication and Teamwork

E-sports, like many other things, requires a heightened amount of communication and teamwork. Verbal communication becomes even more important in e-sports because you can’t physically see each other and everyone plays from their own perspective. 

Talking and communicating with your team is crucial when it comes to improvement and securing wins. It becomes the job of the e-sports coach to encourage healthy, productive language while discouraging distracting ones. This enhances a player’s ability to communicate clearly and efficiently, which becomes especially important during high-intensity moments. 

Improving communication will also likely improve teamwork. If anyone has been part of a competitive team, you’d understand the difficulties of getting along with everyone on the team. The challenge of being part of a team is that everyone believes their way is the right way to get the win, and it’s no different in e-sports.

Players need to learn to work together even if it’s hard (i.e. personality mismatch). Learning to set aside each other’s opinions and differences to achieve optimal results for the team is a skill that can be developed in e-sports. Again, this does not come naturally for most teams. It falls on the shoulder of the coach or leader of the group to keep the team together. 

Growth Mindset

One of the most important things that can be developed through e-sports is a growth mindset- a belief that with enough work, they can improve over time. 

Like sports, there is always a multitude of things going on which makes every second of the game valuable and a chance to improve. When there is consistent, constructive feedback on whether the players performed to the expected level or not and why, it has the potential to lower one’s ego and raise one’s humbleness. The attitude switches from “pointing fingers at everyone” to “analyze yourself and your skillset/gameplay” (i.e. “did I truly do everything I could to get us closer to a win?”).

Now it’s true that in certain cases, it can be one player who plays flawlessly while one or two others absolutely cause the team to lose (like when someone shuts down and refuses to play). In these moments, it is extremely important to highlight the situation. Sometimes you get placed with non-cooperative teammates and the best growth to be done is learning how to keep your cool. E-sports coaches should help players regulate their frustrated emotions while recognizing that sometimes that’s part of gaming- and life! Sometimes you get dealt a bad hand and you have to accept and make the best of it. 

A growth mindset may be achieved in many other activities or hobbies as well, but e-sports provides a special platform in which a coach can directly impact the mindset of the players on their team. 

The Future is Here

As e-sports continues to grow, so should the talk about the potential downsides and upsides. It is an unfamiliar world for many people, even for the players and coaches involved. But similar to sports, people have recognized that e-sports has the potential to improve an adolescent’s mind in a multitude of ways and the role of the coach becomes extremely important. 

An e-sports coach must acknowledge the pitfalls and dangers of a “wrong mindset”, in order to better the students as people first, gamers second. This way, it doesn’t become 5 students playing video games behind their desks. It becomes a true team that challenges one another, supports each other, and grows together.

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