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Grassroots Esports debate turned into a hot seat for panellists!

The third day of the MOVE Congress 2023 brought various insightful discussions, masterclasses, debates and talks touching upon topics such as placemaking, mental health, digitalisation and a healthy childhood. It also invited participants to step out of their cosy comfort-zones and open their minds to the virtual arena of (grassroots) esports. In the landscape of modern entertainment, esports and gaming have emerged not purely as pastimes, but as cultural phenomena shaping the way we interact, compete and even learn. What was once considered a niche interest has evolved into a global industry, replete with an array of benefits that extend beyond the confines of a screen. From cognitive enhancements to community building, the realm of esports and gaming offers a trove of advantages that often go unnoticed. But is that really that simple?

Panellists representing diverse backgrounds and organisations took the landscape of grassroots esports to a whole new level, busting the greatest misconceptions about esports in general – but not without some heated debate with members of the audience.

The debate was moderated by Sjaak Kuil, manager of gaming and IT at H20 Esports and Go!Gaming in the Netherlands, and joined by Matthijs Vink (former professional handball player, CEO of H20 and Go!Gaming), Jayne Greenberg (ISCA North-American Chair, Education Sector Chair for the National Physical Activity Plan, research analyst for the University of Miami, Movement Ambassador for Lifetime Foundation), Patrik Katona (esports event manager, commentator, Hungarian Esports Federation), and Mads Didriksen (an esports consultant at DGI, Denmark).

Just to warm up: Structural similarities, overlaps and differences
To set the scene, Sjaak Kuil, started off the discussion by asking the panellists to define the landscape of esports and grassroots esports (gaming), because these are two phrases that are frequently used interchangeably. Although there are some similarities between the two, everyone should be aware of their core distinctions, he noted.

For the record, in today’s world, gaming covers playing in any number of games with the aim to have fun, be in a community and is only as competitive as you want it to be. But the main purpose is supposed to be to have fun. On the other hand, esports are highly competitive. Structurally, regional differences were noticeable already in the beginning of the 2000s, when the tournament structure was mainly grassroots-based, especially in Central-Eastern Europe, where gamers got together in community houses to play against each other (as the internet was less available to households), while in 2004, Sweden had already held esports tournaments hosting over 10,000 attendees and gamers.

As Patrik Katona said, “by today it is really easy to differentiate between gaming and professional esports, but it is less easy to differentiate between a traditional sport and a professional esports tournament”, referring to the Intel Extreme Masters event held in Sydney in October 2023, gathering on average 134,000 viewers with a peak viewership of 463,000 viewers. The exponential growth of the esports industry has opened up an excess of career avenues. From professional gamers to content creators, coaches, event organisers, and analysts, the industry offers diverse job opportunities.

However, when it comes to turning your gaming habits into a professional esports career, you may find yourself facing the first obstacles – especially if you are located in Central-Eastern Europe. In between the above-mentioned two fields lies a thriving grassroots esports culture, where advancing to a professional career may be quite challenging (in terms of acquiring equipment, funds, sponsors).

However, just over the Atlantic, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, many children and young people had the opportunity to develop their own communities and social skills, even amidst social isolation at home, thanks to gaming. But what the USA has seen in education is that more and more of the schools have developed esports competitions and varsity sports in esports. Witnessing this change in US education, Jayne Greenberg asked, “How is esports a varsity sport?”

The answer is pretty simple: esports have the same type of necessary skillsets that you gain in any other traditional sport. Interestingly, to keep up with the 21st century expectations, over 100 US universities not only offer scholarships for esports competition, but they also have majors in esports, which changes the whole competition on how you develop sporting events, making it very similar to any other sporting event.

When the seats are getting hot!
On the perception of esports being less active than “regular” sports, Jayne Greenberg highlighted that “when you get excited while playing, it elevates your heart rate to the capability as if you were going out running a mile. Researchers add on whether or not that has enough VOmax to cause the physiological changes, but the reason we keep it in the schools is that we look at it as an extracurricular activity that has the same type of benefit as all sports, i.e. developing soft skills, leadership, teamwork, communication, confidence, building a community, and copying with setbacks which is an important lesson for any athlete to learn. But with the cognitive skills, and the reason it has gained so much attention in education and at the university level, is the spatial awareness, decision-making and planning, strategic thinking, improved attention, hand-eye coordination, and most importantly: sense of a community, especially for those kids who do not fit it.”

Greenberg also mentioned that as an author who writes textbooks, she can sit in front of her computer for eight hours a day, then do a treadmill for one hour, but the eight hours still counteract the one hour on the treadmill.

Referring to the health risks, ISCA Secretary General, Jacob Schouenborg, shone the light on the evidence that “if you play excessively, it is going to be unhealthy for you, like many things in life, indeed. However, the WHO had assigned gaming disorder as a disease. Therefore, it is needed to be taken seriously, it is necessary to understand that in gaming and esports the sedentary positioning is something that is bad for one’s health, and it is a general concern that is not being addressed quite sufficiently at the moment.”

A valid point, and it has to be said that esports are mostly developed by commercial companies, and this alone creates a very different structure compared to traditional sports. The health aspect is unfortunately secondary, whereas the sport is more commercially driven. Developers should progress towards integrating health-relatedness when designing/developing a new game as there are plenty of challenges, but also there is a lot of room for improvement in this aspect, Matthijs Vink assured.

However, Vink, reflecting on his professional handball career, also mentioned that “top esports players know that they need to be physically fit to be able to remain on the top. Being role models for the younger generations, they have to convey messages about physical fitness and the need to exercise on daily basis. And with gaming, we can reach the young society.”

Patrik Katona added that “the Hungarian Esports Federation generally focuses on a lot on the education of the children and parents, with a special focus on physical activity being a must supplementary activity besides esports.”

Adding more fuel to the fire!
Will Roberts (above), the COO of Youth Sport Trust in the UK, joined in on the conversation with the proposed topic of responsibility of publishers/game developers. He said he was lucky to have met the CEO of the British Esport Association, the IOC and executives from Rockstar Games on a number of occasions, challenging them to shut down their games every 30-minutes. During these breaks, he suggested that children should do at least three minutes of physical activity, because their abilities to think and respond in the game will decay over 30 minutes of being sedentary. He was told that this is not going to happen, as these games are commercial, and by shutting them down games it would decrease the time that generates revenue.

In the UK, esports is not recognised as a sport for a number of reasons. But Roberts pointed out that at Youth Sport Trust, they survey tens of thousands of kids in the UK on an annual basis on their attitudes, and the real problem presents itself in a shape that gaming is hijacking the term sport.

“The commercialised industry of gaming has chosen to use the brand of sport because it’s ubiquitous and powerful around the world for commercial benefit. Sport is physically active, and gaming isn’t. (…) The commercial industry has cynically taken the term ‘sport’ purely for commercial advantage and if anything that is competitive can be in the Olympics, bring on the Spelling Bee in the Olympics Games.”

“In a country, where less than half of young people are physically active, for nearly a fifth of young people to think a sedentary activity is physically active demonstrates the need of an industry to take greater social responsibility. And for that matter the use of the term ‘sport’ is damaging,” Roberts added.

Jayne Greenberg responded to the raised challenges: “If we use the difference between gaming and esports and we use exa-gaming and active gaming and getting the kids back in physical education daily, then we see that being physically fit executes and innovates the executive functioning of the brain which enhances the esport participation. So, taking a holistic approach to being physically fit, performing at your highest level in esports as opposed to sedentary behaviour in gaming for five hours a day, then you could see the connection between sport, physical activity and high-performance level in esports due to the executive functioning of the brain due to physical fitness.”

Relieving the tension – or the other side of the coin?
Mads Didriksen chipped in to ease and cool the heated discussion. “On one hand, there is a huge problem of obesity and physical inactivity in general, but we also see that esports can have a positive impact on the lives of kids who would never go to a football club, who have special needs, or maybe were diagnosed with chronic diseases. The social component of esports, the bright side, also needs to be mentioned. There is a huge benefit for all using esports as a powerful tool to drive social inclusion and improve mental health of kids who lack the sense of belonging. And yes, game developers and publishers need to show social responsibility, which we don’t really see that much.”

Education needs gaming or gaming needs education?
Esports and gaming have evolved far beyond mere entertainment, emerging as a prominent avenue for educational development, and in this sense there is more and more social responsibility that publishers represent. While often criticised for their perceived distractions, these platforms offer a multifaceted landscape that fosters a range of cognitive, social, and emotional skills, thus contributing significantly to the educational sphere.

As mentioned before, one of the most striking educational facets of esports and gaming lies in their capacity to enhance cognitive abilities such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and strategic planning. Players engage in complex decision-making processes, honing their analytical skills as they navigate through challenges within the game environment. Strategy games or puzzles induce kids to think several steps ahead, improving their foresight and adaptability—skills highly applicable in various academic and real-world scenarios especially in the 21st century.

Summarising the educational aspects, Jayne Greenberg expressed that by having esports in schools (speaking predominantly about primary and secondary school teachers and coaches) provides an opportunity to educate kids on time spent at the computer, time to take a break to do something more physically active, to involve parents by educating them on esports/gaming. By educating, we can turn the page for the next generation of gamers.

To close the panel, Matthijs Vink expressed how much he appreciates that the MOVE Congress provided the opportunity and a safe space for all sides to speak up and raise their concerns about the pros and cons of esports. It is a great place to create opinions, even if they are conflicting opinions, he said.

Visit ISCA’s European Grassroots Esports webpage – this panel debate was part of this EU-funded project https://esports.isca.org/
By Anita Király, ISCA
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