Video games such as Fortnite have surged in popularity as most U.S. households now possess at least one video game system. The growth of eSports along with platforms like video game streaming sites like Twitch, further attest to the growing significance of video games in U.S. culture. While there are a number of popular video games, Fortnite is arguably one of the more heavily consumed games. Reports indicate that 250 million people play Fortnite globally and, in terms of the time consumed, Twitch users have spent over 5,000 years watching Fortnite streams on the site. Athletes have become a visible consumer group of video games such as Fortnite, which creates unique opportunities for fans as Fortnite randomly places players into the game, allowing fans to end up competing in Fortnite against athletes. Athletes also participate in formal Fortnite tournaments.
Media reports have documented Fortnite activity among both student-athletes and professional athletes, along with concerns from head coaches and executives regarding the amount of time athletes are spending on Fortnite. These concerns are perhaps more pronounced with student-athletes who have very compact schedules that may produce complications for both academic and athletic performance. However, playing video games is a common activity for young adults, and gives student-athletes a mechanism for them to stay connected with friends and family. The popularity of Fortnite with athletes prompted researchers from Texas Tech University and Baylor University to investigate student-athletes’ motivations for playing Fortnite. In a recent study published in the Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, the researchers interviewed 22 Division I student-athletes in sports such as basketball, baseball, football, and golf. This research provides a better understanding of why student-athletes are playing video games such as Fortnite, and illustrates how games like Fortnite are both beneficial and risk-intensive.
Student-athletes discussed various motivations for playing Fortnite, including to fulfill competitive needs. Given the competitive nature of sport and student-athletes desire to compete, games like Fortnite offer an additional venue for them to satisfy these needs, both with other game players and their teammates. Student-athletes also shared how Fortnite was a part of a larger shared experience with other student-athletes. Student-athletes shared that they played Fortnite with student-athletes at other schools, many of whom they had come to know through the recruiting process and/or the AAU/travel system. Through Fortnite, student-athletes connected to others who were in a similar situation, and understood the culture and dynamics of that sport. While these interactions did not decrease their desire to compete, it did illustrate the shifting social dynamics where players become accultured to each other as they progress through competitive levels of participation.
Fortnite further offered a way for student-athletes to bond with their teammates. Student-athletes talked about how Fortnite was a common activity amongst all their team as evidenced by players discussing how Fortnite lingo was used between teammates, and noted that players who were good Fortnite players accrued social capital with their teammates. Student-athletes also conveyed that Fortnite helped to build team chemistry and that they observed how other teammates played Fortnite to assess traits like leadership abilities. Student-athletes also observed that Fortnite allowed them to stay connected to friends and family members from whom they were separated. In addition to family and friends, student-athletes also talked about how they would play Fortnite with people following them on social media, and also posted Fortnite clips and usernames in their social media profiles. This then allowed them to accept challenges from other people extended via social media to play Fortnite. Student-athletes also disclosed that Fortnite helped them to decompress and relax from their compact schedules. Some student-athletes indicated that they needed time away from their sport and Fortnite helped them release, although one student-athlete shared that Fortnite could potentially make athletes more anxious given how competitive and serious some players take the game.
Finally, student-athletes shared concerns, either individually, or about teammates, regarding the addictive tendencies that Fortnite fostered. For example, some student-athletes candidly admitted they were addicted to playing Fortnite as evidenced by not being able to quantify how much they played the game, along with sharing how Fortnite was impacting sleep patterns, which then affected their ability to go to class and perform well academically. Some student-athletes reported that they watched Fortnite streams in class, and that they would fall asleep at night by watching Fortnite streams on Twitch or YouTube. However, this became difficult, as they would learn a strategy through the steam that would prompt them to get up and play the game to see if the strategy would help their performance. Addiction also manifested as student-athletes discussed how much money they spent on Fortnite by purchasing add-ins and enhancements for their Fortnite character. For some student-athletes, these purchases tallied over several hundred dollars a month.
These findings have application to head coaches and other athletic departments support personnel. Below some recommendations are provided to consider in managing student-athletes’ video game consumption.
Recommendation #1 – Video games are here to stay – Much like social media, playing video games is a common, shared experience for student-athletes and this consumption is only likely to grow with each incoming class of student-athletes who will have been playing games like Fortnite longer than the class before them. Banning or restricting video games is not a sustainable strategy. Rather, finding ways to help student-athletes manage video games constructively is likely to be the more optimal path. Also, while changes to name, image, and likeness are still in the developmental process, given the audiences that some student-athletes may possess through video games, and the ability to monetize that audience, planning for how video games will factor into this process needs to be discussed. For instance, is it possible that a donor would spend their money on a student-athlete’s Twitch channel as opposed to giving those funds to the athletic department? As one example of what this might look like, Minnesota Twins pitcher Trevor May has a YouTube channel where he streams his gaming.
Recommendation #2 – Video games can help build team chemistry – Playing video games appears to be a shared team activity and provides a way for teammates to bond and connect with one another. Coaches could utilize games like Fortnite to promote team activities such as holding Fortnite tournaments, which would help student-athletes see that coaches are invested in activities that student-athletes care about, along with providing organized team. activities that help student-athletes fulfill competitive needs. The shared experience with Fortnite also can help with chemistry by connecting teammates who may not be inclined to connect offline, but through games like Fortnite, connect and build a relationship. Said differently, Fortnite may facilitate teammates who do not appear to have much in common and would be unlikely to interact, to connect around a shared interest in the game, which allows them to build a relationship through the game that then translates offline. Student-athletes also appear to infer traits such as leadership through Fortnite and these observations can help coaches understand which players might be perceived by their peers to possess certain traits and attributes. Additionally, culture/chemistry can include helping student-athletes recognize addiction signs and help teammates who they perceive may be displaying addictive tendencies.
Recommendation #3 – Video games fulfill social connection needs and reflect social engagement through Technology – Transition to college is a difficult time for student-athletes and video games like Fortnite can support them as they manage this transition by providing a mechanism for them to stay connected to family and friends. Fortnite helps student-athletes to maintain these support structures which can alleviate some of the anxiety and stress that comes from transitioning to college, including those who are transfer students. The social connection needs that student-athletes find through games like Fortnite reflect larger social shifts to engagement with technology, particularly among college students. Social media and technology is now a way that younger people understand themselves, and through which they feel supported and connected. This was clear with student-athletes who found connection needs satisfied through games like Fortnite. While there are certainly concerns about social isolation that accompany video game consumption, consistent with larger trends across college students, it appears video games like Fortnite help student-athletes develop and maintain social connections with family, friends, other student-athletes, and fans.
Recommendation #4 – Boundaries for connection – While Fortnite does offer student-athletes the ability to maintain social relationships, some guidance and boundary management may be important. For example, student-athletes are often subjected to abusive comments from fans on social media, and such behavior may also occur through video game platforms. Additionally, if student-athletes are playing with members of the public, Fortnite streams are easily recorded and student-athletes could divulge commentary that leads to news stories. For instance, in 2019, Auburn basketball player Danjel Purifoy was playing Fortnite on a Twitch stream and criticized the officiating in Auburn’s loss to Virginia, which was picked up by media outlets. In another case, although in professional sports, San Diego Padres player Wil Myers had to apologize after he criticized Padres manager Andy Green while playing Fortnite with a teammate that Myers was unaware was being streamed. Thus, much like social media and the visibility that student-athletes have on these platforms, student-athletes should expect that anything they say in a Fortnite game is being recorded or documented, and may need to exercise caution to whom they divulge their Fortnite usernames. Coaches also may need to educate athletes that Fortnite streams are not private and therefore, not places where confidential team information or grievances should be discussed.
Recommendation #5 – Monitoring for addiction – Addiction is a very legitimate concern with student-athletes. Video game addiction can impact sleep, health, academic performance, and potentially athletic performance. Coaches along with academic and other athletic support staff may benefit from being aware of signs of addiction, including conversations among athletes about who might be playing video games an excessive amount of time. Additionally, if a student-athlete is experiencing decreased academic performance, it may help to investigate if video games is a contributing factor. Coaches also may want to assess the video game consumption habits of recruits to determine if there are potential risk areas that need to be addressed through the student-athlete’s socialization to the program.
Recommendation #6 – Integrating video game education – Given some of the risk factors associated with video game consumption, it may be beneficial for athletic departments to implement training and education around video game consumption. While such education would need to be customized, a basic framework may include letting student-athletes know that video games can be a constructive activity, can help fulfill social connection needs that can assist them as they transition to the school and athletic program. Education also could help student-athletes to recognize signs of video game addiction and support they can obtain if they observe these signs in themselves or teammates. Student-athletes also could be cautioned that Fortnite streams are not private communication and things they reveal can quickly become public.
Video games are the latest iteration of a changing media landscape anchored in screen time that produces significant impacts on student-athletes. Much like social media, student-athletes appear to be heavy consumers of video games and this trend shows little signs of slowing. Consequently, video games are a force for which coaches and athletic department support personnel must account. While the popularity of certain video games will ebb and flow, the underlying structure predicated social connection, and the ability to fulfill competitive needs indicates that video games will remain a constant in most student-athletes’ lives. Understanding how student-athletes can benefit from video games, while also working to identify and assess risk to help educate and support student-athletes is a crucial task and one that will need to evolve along with technology.
Sanderson, J., Browning, B., & DeHay, H. (2020). “It’s the Universal Language;” Investigating Student-Athletes’ Use and Motivations for Playing Fortnite. Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, 13, 22-44.