Throwing a ball in a basket, hitting it with a bat, or fighting over a puck on ice have centuries of history. Such sports honor abilities we developed to dominate our environments, specifically, the stamina and coordination needed to hunt. The last NBA Finals, World Series, and Stanley Cup had a combined 20 million viewers at their peak.
League of Legends is a decade-old video game in which teams of players fight on a virtual battlefield of cloaked minions, monsters, and heroes to destroy the opponents’ base. The last League of Legends championship received 46 million views. This is more than double the combined viewership of three time-honored American sports.
In the U.S. alone, 175 colleges and universities are members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), and for good reason. This year the esports industry is on track to surpass $1 billion in revenue. There is no ignoring the trend. Aspiring to play in the NBA, MLB, or NHL will merit a lower pay grade than excellence in video games. Even now, a quick online search gives countless guides on video game training camps, job opportunities, and competitive events for children to become esports professionals.
Now consider the global pandemic. A generation of young adults locked inside for months. The generation that will run the world soon. And the most accessible method of genuine social contact is playing video games with friends. As Bo Burnham comedically put it in his brilliant special Inside, “I’ve learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space.”
Although it will take some time until esports players are considered athletes, it seems unavoidable that the next famed athlete on the level of Michael Jordan will be an e-athlete.
The loss of the physical activity that video games promote is concerning. Even if communication and teamwork can be fostered through strategy in video games, parents see their children spending hours every single day dormant in a chair. And for children to excel at video games, it takes thousands of hours of rigorous practice.
But esports teams know from competitive chess that, to mentally perform at their best, players need to be physically fit to endure the hours of intense focus. At the highest levels, competitive chess players can burn 6,000 calories a day from the stress of such focus. So, pro and university teams often have regiments of gym sessions for their teams to remain physically and mentally fit.
Nonetheless, for children playing video games recreationally, these external structures that encourage healthy lifestyles aren’t common. In my first few years of high school, my friends and I obsessively played the game Rocket League, where you drive an aerobic car to play soccer. Each night we hopped online, spent 30 minutes warming up, and then hopped into hours of competitive games. The adrenaline of the games would keep me up late into the night, sometimes skipping meals, until I was forced to grab a few hours of sleep before school. Yet, junior year, with the guidance of a math teacher who openly admitted to their own problems with video game obsessions, I realized that, if I wasn’t going to pursue the game as a career, I couldn’t justify the hours of physical inactivity I poured into it.
This addiction is likely shared by millions of kids today. They aren’t knowledgeable or mature enough to understand and address that in their teenage years. They are addicts. Authoritarian countries like China have taken some steps, for example banning children from playing video games during the week. Nevertheless, in China’s military, soldiers spend an inordinate amount of time playing video games in barracks during their downtime.
Furthermore, some of the brightest psychologists of our era are likely working for video game companies worth billions. Using every trick in the book, they can squeeze the maximum attention and spending out of psychologically susceptible children, have them begging their parents for cosmetic video game items or “borrowing” their parent’s credit cards without permission.
Moreover, the emergence of the metaverse, a complex reality in the virtual world increasingly like our own, is slowly revealing a haunting future. Under the rigorous, detailed control that a virtual world offers companies, their ability to manage dopamine will be unprecedented. Thousands of hours and trillions mindlessly spent consuming targetted media, video games, and products will lead to a human experience that seems deprived of humanity. Because where is the meaning of a life lived in chains?