‘But Mom, Video Games Are My Job’

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Kyle Giersdorf is 16 years old. He’s a junior at Pottsgrove High School, about half an hour from my home in suburban Philadelphia. In July, he won the first-ever Fortnite World Cup, earning $3 million.

As a family doctor, I often hear from parents about how their kids push back at any attempt to limit how much time they spend playing video games. The parents will say, it’s after midnight, maybe it’s time to turn off the video game and get some sleep. But the kid — usually a teenage boy — responds that he wants to be a professional gamer. “This is my job,” the boy might say.

E-sports are booming. When the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) was started three years ago, only seven American colleges offered formal e-sports competition. NACE now has more than 170 member colleges and universities in the United States.

Millions of young Americans are paying real money to watch other young people play video games. Tyler Blevins, known as “Ninja,” earns $500,000 a month playing Fortnite — and that was before he dumped his previous host, Twitch, where he had over 14 million followers, to join Microsoft’s streaming platform, Mixer.

Does it make sense to support a teenager’s dreams of being the next Tyler Blevins? Plenty of parents do everything they can to support their children’s athletic dreams. They invest in soccer camp for the next Mia Hamm, do endless tennis drills with the next Serena Williams or wake up before sunrise to drive the next Michael Phelps to swim practice. Is it any different if your child is staying up all night playing video games?

The University of California, Irvine, offers scholarships to play e-sports in games such as Overwatch and League of Legends, just as many colleges have long offered scholarships to play traditional sports such as soccer and football. In a phone interview, I asked Mark Deppe, director of the e-sports program: If you heard that one of your students was staying up till 5 in the morning playing video games, missing classes, what would you say?

“That’s not what we want to see,” Mr. Deppe told me. “That’s what we want to avoid. We teach time management. We teach mental health. We have a staff member dedicated to monitoring class attendance, assignments and grades.”

“But what if a student says they want to be a professional gamer? What do you tell them?” I asked.

“We’re pretty blunt. We show them the numbers. Sure, you might go pro, but you’re probably not going to make enough money playing video games to live off that. Students sometimes ask about the ‘path to pro.’ I tell them to think about the path through pro. Even if you become a professional gamer, that career isn’t likely to last more than a couple of years. You need to have a plan for what you will be doing after you hang up the mouse and keyboard. E-sports can’t be your final destination.” That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, and you have Mr. Deppe’s permission to quote him when you talk to your teen.

The key to emotional well-being is balance. Children, especially teens, can easily careen off balance. As parents, we have to teach our kids the skills they need to keep from crashing through the guardrails.

That is not to say you should be dismissive of your child’s passion. If your child is dreaming of being a professional gamer, I advise parents to answer just as they would a teenager who wants to be a professional athlete. Play your game. Improve your skills. But homework and other responsibilities come first. And don’t sacrifice sleep. Sleep deprivation is a major risk factor for depression in teenagers.

Parents can support their kids’ interests while also providing a reality check. Let’s look at the numbers. There are just over two million gamers broadcasting their games on Twitch, hoping to monetize their gaming skills. The top 10 streamers earn an average of $2 million a year, but the overwhelming majority of streamers earn much, much less. The odds of your kid making it into those top 10 are less than 1 in 200,000. Most of those gamers aren’t earning much. One YouTuber who reached the million-view milestone calculated that those million-plus views had earned him … $389.07.

If you had a child who was dreaming of being the next Tom Brady, you could point out that there are just over one million kids playing high school football in the United States: 1,006,013 to be precise. There are 1,696 players in the National Football League right now: 32 teams with 53 men on each roster. That means that only about one out of every 600 high school football players is going to play in the N.F.L. (Take note that the odds of a high school football player making it to the N.F.L. are hundreds of times better than the odds of a gamer making it to the top-10 list on Twitch.) And, the average career of an N.F.L. player is just over three years. So even if you are the one in 600 athlete who makes it to the N.F.L., you’d better have something else in place for when your three or four years in the league are up.

In other words, you respond to your aspiring pro-gamer teen just as you might respond to your aspiring pro-athlete teen. You say: I commend you for your dream. I applaud your dream. I support you in your pursuit of your dream. But dreams don’t always come true. And even if yours does, it may not last. Nobody plays professional soccer or professional football forever, and the same is true for e-sports, which take a greater physical and mental toll than many would imagine — with long bouts of live streaming in particular being tied to real risks.

In a powerful piece in the New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr writes about addiction to video games. One young man profiled falls into a spiral: He feels that he isn’t good at anything except video games, so he spends more time playing video games, and becomes more and more incompetent in every other sphere of life. “Gaming was the only thing that distracted him from his mental anguish. Nothing felt as good as gaming; nothing else felt good,” the article explains. The next step, in that young man’s story, was planning his suicide (which fortunately did not happen).

You don’t want your teenagers to get anywhere near that tipping point, where they feel that video games are the only thing they are good at. Parents can remind teenagers that no matter what, they will still need to be able to read and write well, and to understand the world around them. That means a teenager’s job is still attending school and doing schoolwork and fulfilling household responsibilities. And their obligations as human beings — to be kind, to be honest, to be conscientious — are not secondary to their dreams of being a professional gamer, or a professional soccer player, or a professional football player.

That may not be an easy sell. But it’s our job, as parents, to teach our kids that a life well lived doesn’t derive from having lots of money or from being famous. It derives from virtue and character.

Your kids won’t learn that from playing Fortnite. They will learn it from you.

Leonard Sax is a practicing family physician and the author of four books for parents, including “Boys Adrift.”