We’ve come a long way since “Pong.”

Not only are video games far more advanced than that table tennis simulator from the 1970s, but gaming itself has grown into something much different, with competition reaching levels only matched by top sports leagues. It is no longer something you just do when you’re wasting time.

Esports, in which formal teams of gamers compete against each other, is now a billion-dollar industry with hundreds of millions of fans worldwide and professional prize pools worth millions. There are now more than 200 colleges offering esports teams, many offering scholarships. Twenty-three states now offer high school esports.

In Maine, 12 high schools are competing now in the state’s first esports season, which runs mid October through December. Let’s hope it doesn’t stop there.

Gaming has been maligned as an unhealthy waste of time. Indeed, the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees all Maine high school sports, including esports, got a lot of pushback when the league was first proposed.

But the experience, in Maine and elsewhere, shows that esports can be a valuable addition to the activities offered through school.

Maine schools offer two leagues: League of Legends, a five-player arena battle game, and Rocket League, in which soccer is played by rocket-powered vehicles.

Schools are finding that esports attracts a lot of students who are not involved in other sports. It also brings in students from many different cliques and social backgrounds, giving them a chance to interact in ways they haven’t before.

Just as in other high school activities, those taking part are rewarded for their talent, skill and hard work. Just as in other activities, they get to represent their school and wear its jersey as they compete against schools from across the state — though gamers also compete with others across the country.

And it is competition. You may not need a good 40-yard-dash time to be a gamer, but it takes the focus and stamina of an athlete.

“Unlike other sports where it’s physical play, this is more mental,” Billy Dumond a student on the esports team at Temple Academy in Waterville, told the Morning Sentinel recently. “You have to have a sharp mind and sharp reflexes to be able to perform your tasks. I don’t think people realize that.

“So what they think is, you’re just sitting behind a computer playing a game. But really you’re focusing and using your mind to come up with strategies and ideas of plays that will hopefully work in a game.”

And as the competition becomes more serious, gamers are finding they need to take care of themselves to keep up. They are finding that it takes gym training, stretching and proper diet and sleep to prevent injuries and mental fatigue.

School esports leagues encourage this safe, balanced, social approach to gaming, making it less likely that young players will spend too much time in front of the screen, sedentary and alone.

For some players, gaming could be part of their path to higher education. The esports team at Waterville’s Thomas College has 56 players, and they can earn scholarships of up to $5,000.

Whether you want to call it a sport or an activity, gaming is legitimate competition. For generations that spent too much time watching a pixelized ball bounce around a screen — or trying to get their kids to put the controllers away — that can seem like a bit much.

But schools should give it a chance. Students around the state are showing it can be a lot more than an idle activity.


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