Colleges across the country are embracing competitive video gaming as a sport. Top high school gamers can now apply for “e-sports” scholarships, and universities are spending millions on state-of-the-art gaming facilities. But the acceptance of e-sports at the college level could have negative repercussions on students’ mental health.
Ohio State University and University of California, Irvine, have joined e-sports trailblazers like Robert Morris University Illinois in giving generous gaming scholarships and building hi-tech gaming centers. Florida’s Full Sail University opened a $6 million, 11,200-square-foot e-sports arena in May. The facility has room for 500 spectators, making it the largest venue of its kind on a college campus.
Yet some are concerned about institutionalizing the problems gaming can cause for young people. ESPN Esports writer Tyler Erzberger described a public panic attack he witnessed at a major tournament last year. “In the world of competitive video games, mental health issues loom so large and come up so often that the problem somehow becomes invisible,” he wrote.
Addiction is also a real concern. The World Health Organization defines video game addiction as “a mental health disorder in which the individuals compulsively waste away hundreds of hours in a week on the console or computer playing video games.” But diagnosis in e-sports is murky since the athletes might “train” for hundreds of hours a week to ready themselves for competition.
Violent and dark imagery saturates many popular games, and mounting evidence links exposure to video game violence with increased rates of aggressive behavior in real life. It’s difficult to imagine a discussion about the shootings at schools such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, or Marjorie Stoneman Douglas without accounting for the effect of violent video games on the perpetrators’ mental health.
Still, a handful of Christian schools are stepping into the e-sports fray. Central Christian College in Kansas announced last year it would launch its e-sports program this upcoming school year. The college plans to field teams for two popular online games: League of Legends and Overwatch.
Describing the college’s new venture, Athletics Director Johnny Garvilla characterized e-sports as a mission field. “For a Christian institution like Central Christian College of Kansas, it provides a vast arena where the gospel can be shared and lives impacted for Christ,” he said.
But in a 2016 review of League of Legends for Truth Matters Ministries, gamer Tyler Jung said the culture of the game breeds aggression. Players constantly trash talk one another with insults and name-calling.
“I have played this game for three years, and for me, this game made me spiritually broken,” wrote Jung, who was 16 at the time. He recounted how he became filled with malice toward other players, rebellious toward his parents, and a “hater of God” through his online gaming. Jung concluded that “my addiction broke after encountering God’s grace during 10th grade.”
The NCAA has yielded any governing responsibilities over e-sports to the National Association of Collegiate Esports since many of the policies designed for traditional sports don’t translate to the world of online gaming.
“The market is so complex that the NCAA probably doesn’t know where to start,” Drew Crowder, a professional gamer and e-sports event manager, told OZY. “The less involvement, the better.”
Without NCAA rules, e-sports athletes get to keep any tournament winnings they earn while in school. Combine that with the estimated $15 million per year now available in scholarships, and it’s not surprising that top high school gamers have their pick of colleges anxious to establish their programs.
But the warnings of Erzberger of ESPN Esports should raise cautionary flags. He noted that the reality of e-sports is that “it’s frightening, and it’s lonely, and it can make a mess of anyone.”