Esports has become one of the fastest growing industries in the world but stigmas still remain that give parents great pause. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
It is natural for any new parent to wonder about what their child may be when they grow up. Of course, they want them to be a success. Maybe an astronaut, a lawyer, or a doctor? What about the person who finds a cure for cancer? Careers that command respect and often pull in large wages are common choices. And when that child gets old enough they too will begin to wonder about the future. Will they be a pop star? A vet? A train driver? Will they work a 9-5 nondescript office job like dad? Or maybe they’ll find themselves in esports.
As we grow up, childish dreams often segue into more realistic options and only a tiny percentage of us achieve the goal we once daydreamed about when we were busy ignoring school work on the ancient Greeks one rainy morning. But not all career paths are created equal and when mum and dad are boasting about the achievements of their offspring to their friends and co-workers, do they really want to say, ‘my daughter plays video games for a living’?
Lorna, 37, has a 13-year-old son who, like many of his peers, is really into Epic Games’ year old title, Fortnite. Really, really into Fortnite. “He spends all his pocket money on the game,” she grumbles to me, “all his friends play. They come round here and go into his bedroom and watch it on Youtube or something if they’re not on it. I’ve caught him up in the middle of the night watching stuff in bed. Guides and funny clips. That sort of thing.”
Nikki, 36, also has two young children who downloaded Fortnite for mobile recently. “I’ve had to take it away from them,” she sighs, “they were fighting over it all the time. I tried only letting them go on at certain times so it was fair but they started hiding the iPad so they could be on it more. I’ve deleted it.”
When I ask both these mothers what they would do if their kids wanted to play Fortnite professionally, I get wrinkled noses and a laugh. “No way,” says Laura, “he gets so angry sometimes, he couldn’t do that as a job.”
But Nikki is intrigued. “People do it for a living?” She asks, surprised. I nod, let her know the winner of the Summer Skirmish just walked away with a cool $250,000 prize. She taps her nails on her knee, considering it. “I guess if one of them were good enough, maybe,” she concedes, “if it was good money.”
It’s May and I’m off to a local school to give a presentation on character design for their art week. During my presentation, I pull up an image of Karma from League of Legends. “Does anyone recognise this lady?” I ask. One boy puts his hand up. “Is she from Paladins?” He guesses. I blink. I wasn’t expecting anyone to mention that as an offhand guess. After the presentation, we do an activity and I am surprised by the depth of knowledge the kids have on various subjects I consider to be ‘geeky’. One girl asks if I like manga. I tell her I watched Sailor Moon when I was her age. “Oh, I know that!” She chirps, happily reeling off a couple of lines of the Japanese theme song, humming the non-English words she doesn’t know. Another boy asks me who my favourite superheroes are. He tells me facts about Magneto from comics published years before he was born. Then asks me how to draw a skull.
At the end of the day, the teacher thanks me for not mentioning Fortnite. “I forgot to tell you,” she says guiltily, “we’ve banned it.” She was worried that I’d break a classroom rule I didn’t know about.
Across the four years worth of classes at her school Fortnite has taken over. For the faculty it has gone beyond a new, fun game to a point of real contention, popping up in the kids’ schoolwork, causing arguments between friends and being discussed near constantly to the exclusion of everything else. After complaints from parents, the administration simply decided that it would be best if the game was no longer a factor in classes: no more wearing merchandise, no more talk, no more Fortnite.
I chew on this in silence, wondering about the implications. When I was in school Pokémon cards were all the rage and were swiftly banned after fights and thefts caused problems. Yo-yos were quick to replace them. You had to have a certain brand. You had to know how to do the tricks. Who were you if you couldn’t walk the dog with your special, £30, light-up, new toy anyway? After someone’s front teeth were knocked out accidentally, they were banned too. Then they were forgotten about and we moved onto the next thing. Tamagotchis. Scoubies. Silly Bandz. Fidget spinners.
Are we adding Fortnite to the list of childhood, flash-in-the-pan fads?
Well. None of those things were giving out millions of dollars in tournament winnings to my knowledge. Curious, I go home and google ‘yoyo prize money’ hoping to garner some insight into how much professional yoyo-ers earn. The third result says ‘22 Sep 2018 – eSports profile for World of WarCraft player – “Yoyo” -: $500.00 USD in prize money won from 1 tournament.’ The highest figure I can find for actual yo-yo competitions is $3000. And I don’t even know how correct that is.
Two days later I am in the queue for McDonald’s. There is a boy in front of me, around ten years old, wearing a Fortnite hat and t-shirt. I suddenly cannot unsee it: walking through town my eyes continuously spot children wearing the game’s merchandise. I am now suddenly hyper-aware of just how prevalent and popular Fortnite is.
But is it just Fortnite? As far back as I can remember, parents have always had grim words to say about gaming as a hobby. Or, heck, even just nerdy things in general. I remember my mother being unimpressed with the amount of time I spent on the computer learning to code HTML, a whacking great book my dad had bought me wedged into my lap. I was eleven. Why couldn’t I be interested in something normal? Why did I spend so much time on the computer? Why didn’t I want to go clothes shopping or talk about boys or make-up?
With this in mind…is Fortnite normal now? And what does that have to do with, or mean, for esports?
On the website Common Sense Media, parents and kids can leave reviews for movies, tv shows, books and games to let other concerned peers know what may or may not be suitable for them. Fortnite has a 3 out of 5-star rating amongst parents and a 4 out of 5-star rating amongst kids based on nearly 400 reviews. Overwatch has 4 out of 5 stars for both. League of Legends has the same score as Fortnite but only has 26 reviews. Hearthstone has a 3 out of 5-star rating for parents but a 5 out of 5-star rating for kids based on 8 reviews.
These are pretty decent. Reading through the reviews for a lot of top esports across a multitude of sites paints a fair picture, but it is interesting to note how the common concerns for these games change from title to title. Fortnite’s seem to centre primarily around the level of violence portrayed. One review is headlined as ‘Gun Violence Sugar-coated’. Another says ‘Shoot realistic assault rifles and handguns at other people? This dad said no.’.
But switching to League of Legends? No one seems to care overmuch about Darius slicing people open with a gigantic axe or Caitlyn sniping people from across the lane with a rifle nearly as big as she is. Instead, the complaints are mostly focused on behavioural issues with captions like: ‘game isn’t great as it use to be game is now full of toxic people on’, ‘WORST COMPANY AND WORST COMMUNITY’, and ‘Practice dealing with the lowest forms of humanity’. Ouch.
There’s also a fear of microtransactions and the amount of money spent on these games. One parent reviewing Hearthstone said: ‘Terrible terrible game design to suck money from children’. I can’t really disagree with that. I don’t even want to know how badly my wallet fell open when Hearthstone was first released. And I’m an adult.
On the flip side though there is a tonne of articles and guides written for parents curious to know more. They range broadly in tone. Parent Zone kindly explains what esports is to those unfamiliar with the term and encourages them to support, and be interested in, their children’s dreams. British Esports Association goes one step further and interviews the parents of existing esports professionals to get their opinions. Common Sense Media has the ‘Parents’ Ultimate Guide to Esports’ and, again, this is largely positive.
But are these articles reflective of an overall mentality towards children pursuing esports as a pastime and, potentially, a career choice?
In 1999 Seo “ToSsGirL” Ji Soo professed a desire to pursue StarCraft professionally to her father. He infamously declared that he wished he had never introduced her to the game, resulting in her sneaking out of the house at night to participate in tournaments. Have attitudes moved forward?
In one interview, Stefano ‘Verbo’ Disalvo talks about his success in Overwatch despite facing huge opposition from his parents. Writing for The Guardian, Simon Hattenstone focuses on the negative effects of addiction and corruption in esports. In Malaysia, parents are not entirely sold on the concept of introducing esports lessons in schools. But esports degrees are popping up in universities across the globe including England and the USA. I can’t help but compare this to the rise of computing in the late 80s and early 90s.
So what now?
If you’re looking to improve your esports skills there’s the Gamer Sensei website. It offers a matching service to those seeking coaching, pairing them with professional players across a range of titles including League of Legends, Smite, Overwatch, Rocket League and Hearthstone. And some of these people are parents looking for tutors for their kids. In a recent segment on Fox, Gankstars pro player Pixul discussed ‘Fortnite Fever’ and how he charges parents $20 an hour to coach young hopefuls. The Wall Street Journal also ran an article on the relatively new practice.
But paying for private tutoring isn’t a new concept.
Certainly, paying a pro to teach your child about specific hero matchups in DotA2 or about the best legendary cards for a hunter deck in Hearthstone hasn’t been around that long. Not in the grand scheme of things. But how different is it really to sending your child to football or ballet lessons? Or paying for a private chess instructor? Or saving for a new sewing machine for Christmas because your daughter just loves to make her own clothes?
Most people are under no illusion about their kid becoming the next David Beckham or Anna Pavlova or Alexander McQueen, but why is an interest in one hobby considered more socially acceptable than another? Sending your child off to play basketball in the park until sundown with their friends is considered a wholesome activity. But those same friends sitting at home loading up a computer game and playing together from their bedrooms isn’t for a lot of people.
And yet it’s not all bad. I turn the clock back twenty years and think about how I was discouraged from learning to build websites. Computers and the internet were still relatively new and weird, and I was weird for being interested in them. Now lots of people make amazing livings in and around computers in all manner of industries. Tech is massive.
So can we not say the same for esports? There’s event management, marketing, journalism, video editing, social media organization, and even legal specialties for those all working together in this blossoming industry.
Esports is massive. And growing.
My sister is a new mother, 26 years old, and she brings my nephew over to my house. He’s just learned to walk and he’s busy trying to pull my Playstation 4 controller off my shelving unit. “He’s going to be a gamer,” I joke, “maybe you could play Kingdom Hearts with him.”
“Oh he’s already playing,” she laughs back, “he hit [his father’s] keyboard the other night and got a kill with a grenade! He didn’t even know there was a button for that!”
“Well, maybe he’ll be a famous gamer one day.”
My sister laughs. My nephew sees the Xbox controllers and decides he’d rather have those instead.
“That’s fine, as long as he takes me to lunch some time!” She says without missing a beat.
And I cannot help but wonder what esports will be like in twenty years when the kids of today are adults.