Why Video Games Are The Future, And Not The Enemy, Of Youth Sports

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Source: Forbes Technology

The Washington Post recently posted a story about the impact of the long-running and wildly popular Madden football video-game series on the real-life high school version of the game, such as how players are coming in better prepared because they learned football nomenclature and reading opponents. This is not a new discovery — as it happens, I wrote about this in 2010, given the example of how much the Backyard Baseball series taught my oldest son about the sport before he actually played it in real life. (Pablo Sanchez, you are a legend AND a guru.)

My point is not to slag the Post for being seven years behind the curve, but instead to cite it as one of the many examples showing why video games, despite what so many coaches and advocates say, is not the enemy of youth sports. At a time when youth sports participation is declining, video games can be used in two ways: one, to get kids interested in sports, and, two, as the sport itself, providing the lessons of teamwork and competition that kids would miss not playing real-life games.

Typical of the discussion of video games v. sports is an excerpt of this article from Good Sports, titled “New Study Shows Youth Sports Are in Big Trouble.” To wit:

Technology can make it a challenge to get out and play. Recent research from a 2015 Pew Research Center study shows that 72% of all American teens play video games on a computer, game console, or portable device, such as a cell phone, and 81% of teens have or have access to a game console. The Aspen Institute found that percentage of children 6-12 who played a high-calorie-burning sport such as soccer or dance 151 times during the year dropped from 28.7% to 24.8% since 2011.

Of course, even the folks behind Good Sports — by which I mean the Dick’s Sporting Goods chain, which runs the site and certainly has a dog in this fight — recognize that video games alone aren’t responsible for the decline in activity. A youth sports system that requires heavy investment at early ages and weeds out kids as pressure grows to concentrate on becoming an elite talent in a single sport, which has driven a $15 billion youth sports economy and tourism strategy that requires this process to continue, for one thing. But it’s been a common refrain for ages that kids are only too happy to sit and play video games all day rather than experience the joys of physical activity outdoors.

Except video games may not be keeping kids from sports. A 2010 study found that 75 percent of all gamers under 21 participated in sports, and that 38 percent of male gamers under 21 played a video game representing the sport they played in real life. My 14-year-old son, starting his high school basketball tryouts,  is an avid NBA 2K game series player.

Perhaps there is a way with kids to introduce them to sports games, or steer them in that direction, for the purpose of getting them excited about playing in real life. I don’t have a surefire way to connect children to sports video games and, by extension, sports, but it’s something those in youth sports might think about as a way to goose participation. Kids — you can try in real life all the things you learned in the game!

The other way to get kids involved is to forget about the traditional games, and just have them play the video games themselves for competition. I hate to say this, but for you ambitious, scholarship-chasing parents, but so-called e-sports might be the best option.

After all, the audience for watching video game championships is as big as it is for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, TBS regularly shows e-sports competitions, 17 NBA teams are sponsoring entries in a new NBA 2K league, and 40 colleges and universities have varsity e-sports teams, and many give gaming scholarships. This may seem ridiculous, but there is always an audience for people who can do something well — don’t my fellow Gen-Xers remember those 80s movies and TV shows (and real arcades) where people would gather around and watch someone killing it at Asteroids?