Embrace gaming culture

Thirty-two million people tuned in to watch SK Telecom T1 issue the obligatory “good luck have fun” before obliterating Royal Club’s Nexus in the 2013 League of Legends World Championships. More people watched this match of the world famous video game in 2013 than either of the NBA Finals or the MLB World Series of that same year.

Competitive gaming (more commonly known as esports) is becoming incredibly popular, especially among young people. But as esports takes off among students, we have a responsibility to help players the same way we help student athletes.

Many professional gaming teams have mandatory fitness regimens for their players. The Los Angeles division of Team Dignitas mandates that all players go to the gym three times a week. It also hires nutritionists and sports psychologists to maintain health standards, according to a recent post on Western Digital’s tech blog. This should be the norm for school-based and professional gaming teams. But we can do more.

Gamers on school-based teams should have minimum grade point average and class absence requirements to enforce the priority of academics, a limited number of hours of practice per week to help prevent addiction and official school recognition alongside a sanctioned practice space to feel accepted.

Some schools have stepped up. Esports is now a varsity sport at Robert Morris University in Chicago and at the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Ky. Robert Morris University budgeted $450,000 dollars for 30 annually renewed gaming scholarships, some of which cover half of the price of tuition.

This is an excellent first step, but it is not enough.Many schools resist recognizing esports because they claim it is not popular enough to warrant special attention. But esports is quickly becoming more popular than most sports.

League of Legends is a free-to-play online video game that was released by Riot Games in 2009. As of 2014, it boasts 27 million daily players and 67 million monthly players, making it the most popular PC video game in the world. To put these numbers in perspective, every Call of Duty game combined had 40 million monthly players in 2011, and Candy Crush currently has 46 million monthly users.

Twitch, a live video game streaming site, has more internet traffic than ESPN, Major League Baseball, and the World Wrestling Entertainmen, Inc. combined, according to Qwilt, a videogame delivery and analytics company. The Wall Street Journal reported last February that Twitch was fourth in total US peak traffic, only behind Netflix, Google and Apple. And Fortune reported on Apr. 20 that it anticipates 335 million esports fans by 2017, outstripping the NFL’s 151 million fans.

In July 2013, the United States government officially recognized esports gamers as professional athletes, allowing international players from countries like South Korea, Sweden and Brazil to travel into the United States with athlete visas.

Esports one sweeping the globe. But despite their popularity, many are still skeptical. Critics often claim that gaming leads to addiction and social withdrawal. These are both huge issues.

But gaming is unhealthy because it is unregulated and stigmatized in the United States, not because video games are inherently unhealthy. In South Korea, video games have become a huge part of mainstream culture.

Couples go to video game clubs as frequently as they go to the movies, and fans fill soccer stadiums and beaches to watch live competitions,  according to a New York Times article published on Oct. 19, 2014.

Moreover, gamers in South Korea are not addicted because the South Korean government and schools are able to better regulate gaming. Gaming clubs for people under the age of 18 close at 10 p.m. to prevent people from pulling all-nighters.

Parents will play video games with their children from an early age to teach healthy and balanced practices. Sure, people could still go to their basements and be just as unhealthy, but when gaming is a popular and fun social thing to do, no one wants to.

It is time for the U.S. to step up. We must embrace esports. Without recognition and support, gamers are susceptible to addiction and social isolation. We can easily fix this.

First, we must recognize and accept esports socially as an activity. Without this, gamers do not feel like we accept them the same way we accept basketball players or dancers. We cannot let millions sit ashamed and isolated in dark basements. We must offer gamers an accepted public space, like South Korea’s gaming clubs.

Esports is different from other competitive activities like basketball and chess, but it is not better or worse. It may not train someone to run a marathon, but it builds teamwork and good decision making skills.

Many discussions about esports derail into debates over whether or not it is an actual sport. It does not matter whether or not esports is actually a sport. It does not matter if it engages the mind more than the triceps. All that matters is that way too many people game for us to just ignore them.

It may feel uncomfortable to accept a lifestyle that is so foreign to many of us. But this is the cultural struggle of the digital age. The new culture we must embrace is not in some country whose name we do not know; it is embedded in every country with access to the internet. We use it to scapegoat young people’s attention deficits and academic shortcomings. But young people use it to liberate themselves, allowing for anyone with access to a computer to become world famous.

Esports is not going away anytime soon. We could try to fight it. But to that I say: good luck, have fun.