Not Just a Game

Kim BellardI fear the Apocalypse may be here.

No, don't worry; this has nothing to do with our recent Presidential election.  Many others have already opined on that, from all perspectives, and I'll leave any further discussion about it to them.  No, what struck a nerve with me is something that drew much less attention: a U.S. university has given out what is believed to be the first varsity scholarship for esports.

That's crazy, right?  We know what college sports are, and they're not esports.  Are esports even sports?  Why would a university be giving out athletic scholarships in them?

If you don't know what esports is, you're probably over 30 -- make that over 40 -- and you're someone who should probably really read this.  Put simply, esports refers to online, multi-player gaming, both the actual playing and, believe it or not, watching the gaming being played.  It's no longer a fringe sport.  There are recreational, college, and even professional players (some of whom make millions of dollars).   And there are active attempts to turn esports into something that is more like the NFL or NBA.

People not only play esports, but watch them, both online and in-person in esports arenas.  Two years ago I wrote about Twitch, the online gaming viewing platform that Amazon paid nearly $1b for, and which is one of the most trafficked sites in the U.S.  Twitch claims 550,000 average concurrent viewers in 2015.  In the most recent month, they attracted some 13 million unique global viewers and over 150 million views.  ESPN has its own esports section of its website, covering it like other sports.

So, we can debate if esports is a real sport or not, but it is a big deal.

The university in question is Robert Morris University (Chicago).  It doesn't have just a esports club, as many other universities do, but actually treats their esports team as a varsity sport, including giving out scholarships.  It is listed on their athletics page (although, to be fair, separate from either men's or women's sports).  Great Big Story (which produced the above video) declares Varsity Gamers Are The New Jocks on Campus.

It's not just Robert Morris that is getting into esports.  The University of California Irvine, for example, launched an esports initiative this fall, including a "state-of-the-art" arena that allows esports to be played, viewed, and webcast.  They aren't offering athletic scholarships -- yet -- but they are offering ten academic scholarships.  "We hope to attract the best gamers from around the world," says their vice chancellor for student affairs.  Why not?  72% of their students identify as gamers and 89% supported creation of an esports team.

Mark Deppe, the head of UCI's esports initiative told The New York Post, "We're going to be the Duke basketball of eSports."

Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, one of the most popular esports games, has a head of  collegiate program, who says UCI is one of the over 300 college gaming clubs that they support.  League of Legends attracts over 100 million users each month (not necessarily all college students), and has a uLoL campus Series, which is their version of the BCS/Final Four.

Unlike other NCAA athletes, gamers can win prize money -- in addition to any scholarships they may have.  The Post estimated a four year players could earn $200,000.  It's good preparation for a career in gaming, but Mr. Deppe believes that the skills involved in esports "are things that transcend every single industry and field."

Well, maybe, but if you want to attract the best computer science students, it's a pretty good strategy.

We seem to be a long way from health care, but, if so, that's the point.  I've written related posts on interesting efforts to use gamification in health care and how Pokémon Go is applying augmented reality better than health care is, and I continue to think health care leaders don't really get what is going on, or why it is -- not just will be -- important to them.  

Here are three reasons why they should:

1.  Talent: the health care industry has many fine computer programmers and designers, but somehow I don't think Riot Games -- or Apple, or Google -- is too worried about losing top talent to, say, Epic or The Cleveland Clinic.  If UCI thinks it needs to offer a robust esports program to get the best computer science students, what do health care organizations and institutions need to do in order to get the best computer science workers?  What about the esports strategy can the health care system learn from and adopt to in order to ensure that they compete for the best talent?

2.  Time: Someone pointed out to me that, while it is true that the younger generation(s) are heavily involved into gaming, the people who most heavily use the health care system are not from those generation(s), and so it does not need to be adapted to them just yet.  That's valid, but consider this: PCs have been ubiquitous for over 30 years and the Internet has been for over 20 years, yet we still don't have EHRs that users like or that can easily communicate with each other.  So, if we want to get the health care system ready for the coming (gaming) generations, we need to be starting to make changes now.

3.  Health, not health care:  Even if the gaming generation(s) isn't (aren't) interacting too much with the health care system now, they are developing many of the health habits that will dictate their health status in years to come.  We tend to stereotype gaming as less healthy than taking a walk or playing a (physical) sport, as well as with consumption of large amounts of junk food.  There is probably some truth to those stereotypes, but they underscore why we need to change them.  We know gaming is a key interest of many teenagers and young adults, but what we haven't figured out is how to use that interest to help them prepare for a lifetime of good health.

OK, so maybe it isn't the Apocalypse, but esports represents a tidal wave that looks further away to the health care system than it really is.

Not Just a Game was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.