Raising an Esports Champion

Two weeks ago, a headline hit the news that caught a lot of gamers’ and parents’ attention:

“With Dad’s support, one teen is playing ‘Fortnite’ instead of going to high school.”

What followed was the tale of a teenage drop-out, secluded from his family, deprived of social interaction with his peers, and glued to a computer screen in a dark room. The sixteen-year-old trains (aka, plays video games) during the 8-10 hours he would have spent at school. Some days he plays Fortnite for closer to 14 hours. While his family is downstairs eating dinner together, he is upstairs eating alone and watching YouTube videos of other competitive Fortnite players.

The teen’s father is depicted as an overbearing puppet master who controls all aspects of his kid’s life. There will be no family vacations during training. There will be no tennis with mom for fear of injury.

The article feeds into an alarmist view of the future. A future in which the only career children aspire to is internet personality. A society where people can no longer interact with each other in the real world (irl) and instead grunt and emoji at each other until our species dies off because of the lack of procreation. These are the stories that non-gamers cling to as examples of why video games are bad, and gamers are irresponsible and childish. Video games will lead us to an apocalyptic wasteland. Probably similar to the fears of the older generations in the 1920s when those talking pictures came out. And the parents of kids who all wanted to get in on that hot printing press action back in the 1440s.

As a mom and a gamer, I tend not to get caught up in the knee-jerk negative reaction to video games, but there were some aspects of this story that concerned me. I checked the social media profiles of the gamer in question (taken with a grain of salt, as all things online should be), and it does appear that he has a bit more balance (and more friends) then was portrayed in the article. I think it’s safe to assume that some aspects of the story have been played up to drive article clicks and ad views, but even if the kid is a willing and committed participant, the fundamental point remains.

This family has let their 16-year-old leave a traditional school setting to play video games full-time so that he can be a competitive gamer, in the hopes of building a career and profiting.

I’m not going to lie, when I was in high school there were days I’d have loved to have stayed home and played Mario Kart. But when I was in high school there was no such thing as a professional gamer. There have been gaming competitions for as long as games have existed (who else remembers The Wizard??), but esports as a potential money-making career didn’t begin in earnest until the 2010s. The father claims that he was “breeding” his son “for this.” He put a controller into his son’s hand at 3 (back in 2006, years before gaming was the powerhouse industry it is now).

I think the statement by the dad that he predicted Fortnite’s multi-million dollar prize pots way back in 2006 is a bit outlandish. My opinion is that he was trying to draw comparisons between his son’s situation and other famous elite child athletes. We all know the story of Tiger Woods’ dad putting a golf club in his three-year-old’s hand and raising one of the greatest golfers of all time. Tiger Wood reportedly trained for 14 hours a day too. His father recognized a gift in his son and fostered it. Is this Fortnite situation truly that different?

One difference is that even while winning Junior PGA tournaments, Tiger Woods graduated from a traditional high school. But that’s not true for every elite athlete. The high school that I attended was near an Olympic gymnastics training facility. A few of the gymnasts were supposedly enrolled in our school, but I never saw them in class. Now, I think it’s much more common for Olympic gymnasts-in-training to be enrolled in online schools now because of the flexibility.

I see the esports/sports parallel, but I also wonder if a better comparison for this situation might be child actors. For elite athletes, often the parents are spending tons of their own money and prize pots are minimal, if any. For child stars and esports competitors, we are talking millions of dollars potentially up for grabs. With child actors, we see parents involved as “managers” for these kids, taking a salary from their earnings. To some extent, that’s probably okay- they are working for their kids essentially. But there are some famous examples of parents spending everything their kid earned, such as Macaulay Culkin, Gary Coleman, and Jackie Coogan. Coogan’s mother spent all of his million dollar fortune, resulting in the creation of the Coogan Act, California’s Child Actor’s Bill. Child actors in New York and California are protected by laws that limit the hours they work, require schooling, and establish a trust with 15% of their earnings to be set aside for them.

We also have (rightfully) become more sensitive to protecting children in these types of situations because it can be easier for abuse to be hidden and for adults to take advantage of vulnerable children (see wide-spread gymnast abuse case). I think we’d all agree that we’d feel better about esports situations like these, as long as those basic protections for the child are provided, as they are for child actors.

My husband and plan to raise a gamer. I even (jokingly) detailed the first year of our training program here: https://www.momswithgame.com/video-game-school-freshman-year/.

But that curriculum was designed to foster a love and appreciation of video games, not to raise an esport pro. That said, if in a decade or so, if my child wants to leave school to become a competitive gamer, I’d definitely need to think a lot. And if we decided to go through with it, I’d treat the situation the same as with any elite child athlete or actor:

Am I living vicariously through my kid? First and foremost, with anything we encourage our kids to do, I think it’s important to take a step back and assess the reason. Is it your child’s dream or is it your dream? Vicariously living through our kids is tempting. There’s a part of me that wants my daughter to succeed at the things I didn’t or couldn’t do, but I want to make sure her motivations are hers and that my encouragement is supportive and not coercive.

Is my kid hitting the point of burnout? For any kid pursuing a passion that requires lots of time and focus, I’ll be keeping an eye out for signs of burnout and other mental health issues that might come with the sacrifices.

How can I make sure we eat together? We’ll eat at least one meal together each day. My parents did this with me growing up, and as much as I protested, I’m glad we did. I’m going to try my best to make this happen whether my daughter is an esports pro or not.

Is she staying physically healthy? I understand the concerns of career-ending injuries, but I think there’s a reason we see the major esports teams encouraging physical fitness. These gamers need to maintain good posture and watch their ergonomics. I’d work to help my kid find some balance, especially if what they were doing had them sitting for long hours.

I’d love to keep going on this but I’m already overdue for this post so I think I’ll share what I have so far. Gamer moms, let me know your thoughts too. Would you support your kids doing this or force them to go back to school? Would you feel differently if they were a Disney star or a gymnast? There’s a lot to take in a digest and process, and I hope to visit the subject again. I’ll probably have the chance because I suspect this will an increasingly more frequent story. Especially with outcomes like this one had:

Yesterday, the 16-year-old subject of the article was signed to Lazarus, a professional esports team, and time will tell how well he does at the Fortnite World Cup this weekend.

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