When something new comes along, we often fear that it will replace something older and more familiar. Why? Because we believe the older thing is…
But this is nonsense. When new replaces old, we should step back and ask: What is this new thing teaching us? And how can we mix the best of the new with the best of the old?
The New York Times just published a perfect case study of this, about how e-gaming is replacing traditional sports. Though I would argue that it missed the most important parts.
If that headline makes no sense to you, don’t worry — the SEO headline is clearer:
The story captures a shift away from traditional sports, and profiles two young brothers who, during the pandemic, started playing less soccer and basketball and more online games like Super Smash Bros.
“Oh, no,” is the typical response to news like this. “This new, scary thing is destroying the way of life that we hold so dear!”
And you can anticipate my response: NOT SO FAST.
Although the Times’s framing sounds scary, the meat of it (starting after 16 paragraphs of scary!!) is quite rational: It reveals how e-gaming is actually filling some gaping holes in the establishment of youth sports.
Should we want kids to run around and use their bodies, rather than just sit in front of screens? Totally. But traditional leagues have been underserving both kids and their families for years — and we cannot pin that blame on e-games.
We so often equate change with loss. But when we push ourselves to see gain instead, we can see the rise of e-gaming as an opportunity: We learn from it, and then apply what we find to the systems we already have.
For years, America has looked at organized sports as foundational part of youth: They’re where kids learn teamwork and respect and responsibility. (Though let’s be honest: While those things are of course a part of youth sports, they are not exclusive to youth sports.)
So when e-gaming starts to entice kids away from physical sports, people will worry. They’ll say kids are drawn to the siren song of screens, and therefore abandoning an essential aspect of kid-dom.
But let’s look more closely. Yes, there is something wonderful about kids playing sports, but there’s some deeply troubling stuff about the way they’re asked to do it.
And until now, kids have been offered few viable alternatives to that.
Caveat: I am not an e-gamer. I’ve never played a game of Fortnite or anything like it, and I cannot begin to understand why kids watch other kids play video games on Twitch. The only online game I play is Candy Crush — and I have been playing it for so long that I’m on level 4,521, which I’m a little embarrassed about.
But even I can see that e-gaming has something to offer that youth sports don’t.
Instead of seeing the rise of e-gaming as something weird and foreign and concerning, I suggest we start with these two assumptions:
Kids are not dumb.
If they like e-gaming, then there must be something to it.
So instead of worrying about what e-gaming does not contain, why don’t we spend some time looking at what it does contain? That's when you see...
A leveler playing field. In traditional youth sports, there’s typically a standout kid or two, and they’re bigger and stronger and more experienced, and they are the stars. That’s not fun. E-gaming, however, provides an opportunity for any kid to excel.
Autonomy. E-gaming happens on kids’ terms, not adults’. There’s no added pressure from parents, coaches, or organizers. And you don’t have to look far to see the power in that: We all crave autonomy — much so that it’s a core part of Self-Determination Theory, a widely accepted view of what motivates humans! (For more on how that factors into why kids play video games, here’s a podcast episode I made.)
Individualism. E-games allow you to play when you want, how you want. Traditional sports don’t. I can sympathize with this: I loved playing basketball in high school, but I never joined an organized team. That sounded to me like the fastest way to kill my love of basketball.
Time with friends. It’s good to be part of a team, sure, but you don’t always get to choose who else is on it. E-gaming gives kids the freedom to choose who they spend time with, and to make new kinds of social decisions as they grow and develop.
So, look — the rise of e-gaming is not a crisis of kids losing the desire to be physically active. It’s just that this construct suits a lot of needs much better than the existing system of youth sports.
Instead of sitting around and saying, “oh, video games are rot,” why don’t we learn what’s valuable about e-games and then apply that to youth sports?
We may be attached to our system, but youth sports aren’t exactly an age-old institution. They have changed over time, albeit not enough and not very recently.
As I explained in another podcast episode of mine, youth sports was born out of a very specific need: When states began mandating that children go to school — the last state to mandate it was Mississippi in 1917 — then kids’ time was suddenly divided into “school time” and “free time.” Parents had no idea how to manage the free time, and youth sports was invented as an answer.
But by the 1930s, the games had gotten too competitive. A backlash began. To draw focus away from winning and more on playing, sports leagues introduced the participation trophy — which means that, yes, that much-maligned trophy is actually a century old. Youth sports continued to evolve from there.
All of which is to say, we have been re-envisioning the value and presentation of youth sports for a very long time, and we should continue to do so. Kids’ activities need an upgrade, they haven’t gotten it, and e-gaming offers clues to a needed improvement.
When you look at it like that, these moments of change shouldn’t scare us; they should inform us of what’s going wrong with what we already have, and how we can improve upon it. That’s not so scary, is it?
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