Video Games at Camp? Are You Kidding Me?

Lenny Silberman
November 2018
Kids playing video games

No, in fact, I'm completely serious.

For the record, my 40-year career has been spent entirely within the camp, sports, and community center worlds, and has included positions as coach, athletic director, resident camp director, and day camp CEO. Along the way I have served on the United States Olympic Committee.

I'm passionate about both camp and sports, and the power they have to engage kids in their community, teach the values of teamwork and citizenship, develop their talents, and encourage healthy lifestyles and appreciation for the outdoors. In other words, nothing about my career screams video games.

But mark my words: Within four years, video games will be part of every resident and day camp's business.

The Esports Revolution

Just in case you're not yet familiar with the term, "esports" refers to electronic sports, or competitive video gaming. At the professional level, esports is big business — and growing at a pace that's getting noticed on Wall Street. The global esports market will post revenues of nearly $1 billion this year and is projected to top $1.6 billion in 2021 (Newzoo, 2018).

A big part of the esports story is viewership. Unlike the days of the Atari 2600, gaming today is almost as much about watching as it is about playing. Fans follow top players and teams on outlets like Twitch and YouTube. Twitch alone has 140 million unique monthly viewers tuning in to follow the play of over two million broadcasters. The average Twitch viewer spends 95 minutes daily watching streamed gaming (Smith, 2018).

Esports enthusiasts watch top gamers for entertainment and to learn skills through observation. According to Forbes, video games are already getting more viewership from the 18–25 age demographic in the US than the NBA Finals or the MLB World Series (Robison, 2018).

Big money is at stake for professional gamers. The 2017 international competition of popular online multiplayer game Dota 2 saw 16 teams compete for nearly $25 million in prize money (Gies, 2017). And winning championships is not the only way to prosper. Popular players make money through sponsorships and via subscribers to their livestreams on YouTube and Twitch. Tyler Blevins, an esports athlete better known as Ninja, has over 3.7 million followers on Twitch and five million YouTube subscribers — and reports earnings of over $500,000 each month (Heitner, 2018).

Ninja is best known as a leading player of a game called Fortnite, which has rocketed to astonishing popularity since its debut in July 2017. Between September and May, Fortnite grossed more than $1.2 billion, according to SuperData Research (Pendleton & Palmeri, 2018), a number all the more mind-boggling because the game's most popular, Battle Royale version is free to play. Revenue comes entirely from the sale of optional add-on accessories for players' avatars, purchased by many of the game's 150 million players worldwide.

Sports figures in the NBA, MLB, and at the FIFA World Cup have been spotted performing moves from Fortnite to celebrate victories and goals, and many high-profile professional athletes are becoming known as high-profile aspiring esports gamers. This crossover between popular athletes and esports is significant beyond demonstrating the depth of gaming's appeal today; it also is emblematic of the blurred line between participant and superstar in esports.

While only a small proportion of football or baseball viewers also play the game they watch, in esports, the tables are turned. 70–75 percent of the audiences of popular games like League of Legends and CS:GO are avid players of the games. And whereas limitations in size, strength, and agility compel the typical teen to admit early on they will not become the next LeBron James, no physical obstacles stand in the way of young esports gamers. In fact, all that may separate a devoted amateur and a shot at esports superstardom is rigorous practice; that is, playing a whole lot more of the games he or she loves.

Fans who subscribe to a player's stream on Twitch become part of that player's community and can post messages to the chat feed, which can even elicit a live, verbal response from the star player. Imagine being able to congratulate Mike Trout on beating a throw to second — and he thanks you personally on live TV as he dusts himself off.

These dynamics are emblematic of a key difference between esports and traditional sports: The boundaries between fan, player, and professional are much less rigid, a quality that likely contributes to the phenomenal enthusiasm among Generation Z for esports.

Building Now for the Future

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the esports revolution is the huge investment we're seeing across all aspects of the industry — and who is doing the investing. In the past two years, high-profile individuals like Mark Cuban, Alex Rodriguez, Magic Johnson, and Shaquille O'Neal have purchased equity in professional esports teams, as have the owners of the New England Patriots and the New York Mets. We've seen multimillion-dollar and even billion-dollar investments by corporations like ESPN, NBC, Disney, Turner, the NBA, Amazon, Red Bull, and Coca-Cola. These youth-oriented and media brands are positioning themselves to connect with vast audiences in the coming decades.

That's right: decades. These brands and dozens more are betting big that esports will be a central part of American and world culture for the foreseeable future.

Coming to a Campus Near You

Esports is expanding just as quickly at the college level. Many colleges award scholarships to attract the best players, and over 90 of them have granted official varsity sport status to their esports teams. The Big Ten has established its own esports conference and championship. This year, the Fiesta Bowl hosted a national collegiate championship tournament for the game Overwatch, selling out Arizona State University's Sun Devil Fitness complex. Tens of thousands of fans of the Final Four schools watched UC Berkeley win the national title.

The next frontier, unsurprisingly, is the teen space. Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Orange County, California, launched state- and county-wide high school esports leagues last year, and many more states and regions are poised to follow suit. The Orange County league, created by the Samueli Foundation in partnership with UC Irvine, has expanded — renamed as the North America Scholastic Esports Federation — to make its research-based, four-year, esports-centric high school curriculum available to schools across North America.

Esports appeals to a wide range of teens, including many who have never been involved in team activities nor represented their school in competition. Many parents report improved academic performance, as participation on teams requires maintaining a minimum grade point average. Study after study demonstrates that team play in strategy-based games like League of Legends helps develop skills in problem-solving, creative thinking, and interpersonal relationship building (Eichenbaum, Bavelier, & Green, 2014).

So, What Does All This Have to Do with Camp?

Camp is a no-screen zone, right? Many of us think of camp as one of the last tech-free environments left in the complex world of children today and believe that part of the unique value we provide campers stems from giving them an "unplugged" experience that fosters interpersonal skill development, creativity, and discovery of the world around them.

A belief in the integrity of the screen-free experience is something I share. Then why am I suggesting that within four years camps will introduce esports into what has been an analog summer oasis?

Here are three reasons.

"Nutritional Value"

I'm not talking about video games as pure entertainment, but rather esports as a serious elective — like horseback riding or waterskiing. Kids will be coached. They will learn skills, strategic thinking, and the same kinds of teamwork and sportsmanship lessons they learn from traditional team sports.

Evidence and research mounts that competitive video gaming yields educational benefits for young people, from improved academic performance to exposure to potential career fields (Steinkeuhler, 2018). No one doubts that participation in athletic sports yields benefits to kids off the field. I envision a time not too far off in which esports will be regarded just as highly and seen as a gateway to interest in STEM learning and careers in a broad variety of tech-oriented fields.

The Future Is Now

For many youth and young adults, video games are as big a part of life as are traditional sports, Hollywood, and social media. And the trend is poised to grow. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 97 percent of teens play some kind of video games (Lenhart, Kahne, Middaugh, Macgill, Evans, & Vitak, 2008).

That's an astounding level of popularity and represents a deeper saturation into the youth demographic than rock ‘n' roll had with the Boomers, or even than the Internet had with Millennials. Any phenomenon enjoying that level of popularity with a generation is not a passing trend, but a cultural tidal wave, one that can define and inform that generation for a lifetime. Video gaming, in one form or another, will be a part of the experience of Generation Z and Millennials for the rest of their lives.

We're already seeing this happen. The biggest users of games today are Millennials; growing up no longer means giving up playing video games. It is not a guilty pleasure; it's simply part of their entertainment and social landscape, like Netflix or Facebook.

This phenomenon is not going away. Steve Bornstein, former CEO of ESPN and the NFL Network, professes, "I believe esports will rival the biggest traditional sports leagues" (Activision Blizzard, Inc., 2015). Kids are going to play and interact through esports, and they're going to want to do so at camp. At the end of the day, a percentage of camps at the leading edge are going to go in this direction, and gaming will become something campers — and parents — seek out and expect to have available to them.

I see a future where esports-centric specialty camps thrive, as serious young players look to improve their game, hoping to earn a college scholarship, rise in the rankings of their chosen game, or become the next Ninja. Just as camps dedicated to improving sports skills flourish, so, too, will camps devoted to enhancing esports skills. And a one-week, two-week, or stand-alone camp centered on esports can bring in gaming-flavored variations on the values of traditional camp as well. Nutrition. Exercise. Wellness — balancing indoor activities with outdoor ones.

The first question to answer is not if you will explore how gaming fits with your camp, but whether you will embrace the phenomenon ahead of the curve and take advantage of it — or play catch-up with the camps that do.

Year-Round Branding 

No matter how you've felt about the first two reasons to bring esports into your camp business, I guarantee you'll find this third one appealing: year-round branding.

One of the reasons esports is so popular with youth today is that it's inherently social and allows kids to connect with their peers casually, from virtually anywhere. A group of friends who once upon a time used to get together after school to shoot hoops now are more likely to go their separate ways, heading home to their consoles or PCs so they can reconvene online to play Fortnite, Rocket League, or Candy Crush together.

Gaming today is as much a vehicle for socializing as it is for entertainment. Therein lies the opportunity that camps have been seeking for generations: a means to keep the cabin group connected during fall, winter, and spring.

Just as the Big Ten has a league — or the State of Connecticut, or Orange County — a camp can have a league of its own where esports competition keeps the camp's brand in the thoughts of campers year-round.

Imagine your campers gaming with each other regularly across the miles that separate them or playing together for your camp against your rival from across the lake (or even the ocean). Imagine bringing your cabins together during winter or spring vacations for in-person esports tournaments held regionally, or in areas near your campers' hometowns. Camp brands are among the strongest in terms of deep and abiding emotional resonance, but our Achilles heel has always been the ten-month off-season. With esports, those ten months can be reduced to literally nothing.

The year-round opportunity gaming presents can also help camps attract and retain great staff. We all know that the counselor-camper relationship is a critical factor in the success of our summer operations, and continuity is crucial. We can keep key staff continuously engaged during the fall-spring interval by hiring them to help coordinate and run year-round esports programs for campers. And as chances are pretty good that your counselors are gamers themselves (remember that 97 percent statistic?), the gaming stations used for camp esports electives will be available for counselors to enjoy at night during the summer, and they can compete against each other in the off-season via the camp gaming platform as well.

This can be the future of camp — with esports — if we are ready to think big and dream in color. Creative programmers are going to love this. The possibilities are endless, and the common thread is that your camp's magic no longer grinds to a halt when the taillights of that last bus or car pull away from your summer oasis in August.

How Esports Can Benefit Your Business Year-Round

Competitive video gaming already rivals traditional sports and entertainment media in its appeal to youth and teens, and its popularity is only expected to grow. The esports phenomenon is here to stay. What role can it play for your camp?

Offering esports as an elective at camp is just one part of the story. Consider the potential benefits of providing online gaming opportunities to your camp community from fall through spring:

  1. Engage campers and staff year-round.
  2. Generate revenue in the off-season.
  3. Bring year-round branding and messaging to campers and prospective campers.
  4. Attract new business as your campers bring their friends and siblings into your gaming community.
  5. Upgrade and hone your marketing based on data generated by esports participation.

References

  • Activision Blizzard, Inc. (2015, October 22). Former CEO of ESPN Steve Bornstein and MLG co-founder Mike Sepso to lead Activision Blizzard's new division devoted to esports. Retrieved from investor.activision.com/news-releases/news-release-details/former-ceo-espn-steve-bornstein-and-mlg-co-founder-mike-sepso
  • Eichenbaum, A., Bavelier, D, & Green, C. S. (2014). Video games: Play that can do serious good. American Journal of Play. Retrieved from journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/7-1-article-video-games.pdf
  • Gies, A. (2017, August 12). Here are the winners of Valve's $24 million 2017 International Dota 2 Championship. Polygon. Retrieved from polygon.com/2017/8/12/16136964/dota-2-ti7-winners-international
  • Heitner, D. (2018, March 20). Esports legend Ninja confirms he is earning over $500,000 per month. Forbes. Retrieved from forbes.com/sites/darrenheitner/2018/03/20/esports-legend-ninja-confirms-he-is-earning-over-500000-per-month/
  • Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008, September 16). Teens, video games and civics. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from pewinternet.org/2008/09/16/teens-video-games-and-civics/
  • Newzoo. (2018). 2018 global esports market report. Retrieved from asociacionempresarialesports.es/wp-content/uploads/newzoo_2018_global_esports_market_report_excerpt.pdf
  • Pendleton, D. & Palmeri, C. (2018, June 24). Fortune phenomenon turns epic game developer into billionaire. SFGate. Retrieved from sfgate.com/business/article/Fortnite-phenomenon-turns-epic-game-developer-13100669.php
  • Robison, N. (2018, January 30). Esports is the new college football. Forbes. Retrieved from forbes.com/sites/moorinsights/2018/01/30/esports-is-the-new-college-football/ #70747d221855
  • Smith, C. (2018, August 28). 52 52 amazing Twitch stats and facts (August 2018). DMR. Retrieved from expandedramblings.com/index.php/twitch-stats/
  • Steinkeuhler, C. (2018, June 12). Schools use esports as a learning platform. US News & World Report. Retrieved from usnews.com/news/stem-solutions/articles/2018-06-12/commentary-game-to-grow-esports-as-a-learning-platform

Lenny Silberman is CEO of Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in New York City, home to 14 metropolitan day camps and serving over 5,500 campers each summer. He was the continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games from 1994–2008, and directed the Pittsburgh JCC's Emma Kaufmann Resident Camp from 1987–1993. His teen engagement initiative, 4G44 Esports, is developing an esports platform to serve camps and community-based organizations.