Christian colleges embrace video gaming as a competitive sport, yet critics worry about aggressive behavior
Former Northwestern College esports captain Jonah Upton hasn’t forgotten the rivals he met on the other side of the computer screen.
When Upton arrived with his team at Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa, in the spring of 2023, he knew Cornell College would be a formidable opponent. Ranking two levels higher with a winning history, Cornell was Northwestern’s Goliath. Unbending. Unbeatable.
Except for maybe a few choice headshots.
The teams sat down to play Overwatch, a first-person-shooter video game. During the game, a Cornell student taunted Upton’s team. “I’ll speak to them in a language that they understand!” he yelled. “Violence!” Upton watched as the Cornell student stopped to vape in the middle of the match.
When the Cornell team beat Northwestern, Upton’s rival stood up and flexed his muscles in victory.
College esports (or electronic sports) have exploded in popularity, particularly in the United States, which hosts more esports players than any other country. The National Association of Collegiate Esports formed in 2016 with only seven colleges. Now, the league has expanded to over 240 post-secondary schools, both Christian and non-Christian.
Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind., recently joined the list. The school built a physical gaming facility and even hired a coach for the 2023-24 school year. Athletic director Deane Webb said, “It’s hard not to notice the growth in the esports industry, and it’s time to be a part of that.”
But while college esports have paved the way for nonathletic gamers to compete, antagonistic competitions such as the one Upton experienced raise questions about the negative effects of gaming. Critics point to studies showing increased aggression, depression, and anxiety among avid gamers. However, Christian colleges, including Northwestern, claim gaming boosts community relationships.
It’s hard not to notice the growth in the esports industry, and it’s time to be a part of that.
Upton calls Cornell’s game-day trash talk atypical, but he understands the feeling of getting too wrapped up in the game. He has fallen into the same trap. During his four years on Northwestern’s team, Upton often felt angry and burnt out during practice. His teammates at the Iowa school learned that his attitude would turn sour if a video game battle strategy fell through.
He also made backhanded jabs at inexperienced players. Upton recalls berating a teammate who was studying to become a doctor. “I was angry at him because he couldn’t put in more time to play Overwatch,” Upton said, chuckling sheepishly at the memory.
Upton admits that gaming can get under his skin. Team games require constant communication between players (via headsets), presenting what Upton sees as a unique problem for people who play competitively. It makes it easy for Upton to take out his irritation on his teammates.
In fact, his behavior ultimately landed him in the office of his coach, Cole Prescott, who urged him to be more careful with his words.
Upton’s experience is a snapshot of what skeptics claim is the problem with violent video games. After the El Paso, Texas, Walmart shooting in 2019, some political leaders condemned the video gaming industry for its graphic content. Former President Donald Trump called video games “gruesome and grisly” and blamed society’s “glorification of violence.” The World Health Organization and the American Journal of Psychiatry caution against the addictive properties of gaming, which research suggests can lead to elevated levels of anger and a desire to escape the real world.
However, Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, claims game addiction is rare. Ferguson says he has never found evidence for increased hostility in the dozens of studies he has conducted on the effects of video games. As long as people limit their game time, he says, there aren’t any harmful effects. Ferguson, 52, notes that he still plays Call of Duty with his teenage son.
At Northwestern College’s esports facility in Orange City, Iowa, Jonah Upton’s white-red-and-black jersey matches the basement bunker’s red walls. The back of his jersey reads “Sayitback”—his video game username. Upton chose the name from a meme he saw during his sophomore year.
Jonah Upton at Northwestern’s esports facility. Photo by Georgia Lodewyk.
Upton was the first recruit to Northwestern’s fledgling esports team in 2019. Since then, he has watched the program grow. The trophies atop a facility filing cabinet show the team’s limited yet celebrated success—a GGLeagues trophy from fall 2020 and an NECC Rocket League Emergents trophy from 2022.
But Upton’s favorite memories involve “doing stupid stuff” with his teammates. He points down a line of monitors and padded chairs, calling out his teammates by their usernames: Smoothie. Mad Dog. Hades. Together, they’ve logged hundreds of hours in the gaming room, even sleeping overnight on the bunker’s brown suede couch. It was easy for the team to play, but often difficult to stop.
“I think the most important thing I’ve learned about esports in college is balance,” Upton says. During the regular season, the team practiced up to 12 hours a week. To get players away from the screen, Upton and coach Prescott introduced two hours of physical exercise into the regimen.
While maintaining physical and mental health is important, some Christians think video games can transcend traditional gameplay to foster spiritual connections as well.
Brad Hickey, director of gaming at Dordt University in nearby Sioux Center, views interactive gaming as a missional opportunity. “If the Church found a new continent with 4 billion people on it, you’d have mission teams,” he said, “but we don’t think about it that way when it comes to digital space.”
Hickey worries that many gamers feel isolated, believing their callings are less valuable to the Church. Hickey thinks creating gaming communities can provide a sense of belonging.
“There is nothing that [God] is not trying to redeem and that He doesn’t love,” he said.
Hickey himself believes he’s found a spiritual element in gaming. He says he came from a broken home and had few role models in his formative years, but engaging in fantasy worlds introduced him to characters that were strong, intelligent, and kind. Understanding “good” characters in video games helped Hickey understand Jesus’ character, he says.
Some Christian organizations are already using the medium for outreach. Video Game Ministries uses popular games as a means for discipleship.
The Northwood University team celebrates after defeating Fisher College at the Collegiate Esports Commissioners Cup in Arlington, Texas, in May.Sam Hodde/Getty Images
After Upton’s visit to coach Prescott’s office, he realized he was taking games too seriously. As team captain, Upton noticed how often his teammates mimicked his behavior. If he was angry, the game became miserable for everyone. He began making it a priority to be a positive role model and to control his emotions.
Upton is now a graduate with a degree in social work. He still has his keys to the school’s gaming bunker, but between his girlfriend and new job, he has less time to play. Sometimes he’ll turn on the computer or console to play casually with friends.
Coach Prescott acknowledges the negatives of gaming, such as anger issues, but says these challenges help students grow over time. “The positives definitely outweigh the negatives in my mind,” he said. “As with everything, there’s risk. … I do think, overwhelmingly, it tends to be a positive experience for our students.”
Upton says playing at a Christian college in particular has caused him to grow. “You learn a lot because you’re always with people,” he said. “I think there’s a big emphasis put on just being better people and on faith as well, as opposed to just playing video games.”