Koski says there are currently nine NFHS member state associations participating in the league, including from Connecticut, Georgia and Kentucky. “We expect this number to rapidly grow over the course of the next few years,” Koski says.
Koski said that while NFHS is concerned about the country’s youth fitness levels, he points out that esports is far from the first or only threat to sports participation. He also stresses that esports provides students with an opportunity to participate in a team activity that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.
“These students are not typical athletes; the majority are not involved in high school sports,” Koski says. “This gives students another avenue to be part of their community and to be under the direction of a teacher/coach who provides behavioral and academic standards and requirements. It teaches leadership skills and teamwork.”
The NFHS has 51 state high school athletic and activity associations throughout the country, which represent 19,500 high schools and 12 million student participants annually. Says Koski: “We believe, with esports, we can raise our overall participation numbers from 12 million to 13 million really quickly. This is just the beginning.”
Alli Schulman, coordinator of communications and marketing for the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, also sees great potential in esports, especially for professional sports franchises.
“It increases and strengthens fandom astronomically,” she says. “Sports franchises are some of the biggest investors in esports competitions. When these games are based on their sport, it means fans are filling their arenas and buying more gear. It’s great for the sports industry.”
But Schulman says she also recognizes the potential downside of esports, especially in light of a recent SFIA report that indicates that 17% of U.S. kids 6 to 12 years old are completely inactive, and 18.4% of kids 13 to 17 years old are completely inactive.
“Our top priority is more people participating in sport and fitness activities, so if a child is spending all their time playing esports then it’s not a good thing for the industry,” Schulman says. “But, unfortunately, cost is still a huge barrier in youth sports. Physical education is being cut in schools, and there’s a lack of county leagues. Everything is pay to play, and with sports specialization, competition is very intense. All this makes it tougher for kids to get involved and stay active. But hopefully, kids can use esports as another outlet and still be active.”
Jarnecke also believes it’s important to maintain a healthy balance, but doing so remains a challenge, especially as our culture is already dominated by passive digital activities like playing with your phone and spending hours on social media platforms.
“Esports is certainly an extension of that,” he says. “It is a great concern, and there has to be an intentional focus on the part of parents and educators to maintain a balance. We’ll certainly face similar challenges with the next wave of technology, but it’s still exciting to see the advent of esports and how it may change the perception of what an athlete is in the future.”