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To the casual observer, there doesn’t seem to be a lot in common between traditional sports and video games. At the core, however, there’s actually very little that separates the two. Former NFL running back and University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumni, Ahman Green, knows a thing or two about competition and that’s exactly what sports and esports have most in common.

Esports is Competition

Green discovered his love of gaming at a young age, and like 70% of American adults, continues to enjoy it today. It’s one of the reasons that in February 2020, he took the position of head coach for Lakeland University’s varsity esports team.

Now, two years later he’s a lecturer, Director of Esports, and head coach at the University of Nebraska. He spoke with Esports Illustrated on the remarkable similarities between sports and esports.

“Esports in general is just a competition, you know? It's just like traditional sports where you're competing against somebody else or a whole team, you know, your team versus another team.”

When the Nebraska Esports Club decided they wanted to elevate their performance to the varsity level, the club reached out to Green to head up that effort. With his extensive experience in professional sports, he saw the crossover between sports and esports — and that the lessons he learned throughout his playing career could be applied to young, aspiring esports athletes as well.

Mentoring Young Athletes

When Green spoke of how his past influences the way he approaches being an esports coach, he recalled the same lessons from both little league and the NFL.

“As a coach, a director, an athletic director, that person was the person that helped create opportunities for us as athletes,"  Green said. "They taught us how to become professional, make sure you show up on time, work hard at your job, whatever your position is.”

He talked about how competition, at any age and through any medium, teaches young people about accountability, respect, confidence and dedication. Green says that those are all the things he teaches and preaches about in the esports field.

Green admitted that he doesn’t see much difference in sports and esports, it’s all competition to him. “It’s either going to be one on one, four on four, or five on five. It’s just developing that player side of it. You’re teaching that player how to communicate better, or in a different way. [...] If it’s through a microphone, if it’s face to face, they’ve got to learn to talk to one another.”

The difference between traditional sports and esports may look vast when you’re watching the action unfold. After all, one takes place on the green and the other behind the screen. But when the game is over, the lasting effects that stay with you, the ones that are the most important because they influence who we are as people, are the same.

Understanding the Game

Ahman Green runs with the ball during college football game

Ahman Green runs with the ball during college football game

Another major aspect of traditional sports that plays into esports is understanding all the aspects of the game in order to make yourself a better athlete. Green talks about how playing Madden can help with preparing football players for their own games.

“When I coach traditional sports, when I coach football at the high school level, I would ask my players, 'Do you play Madden?' And then if they say yes or no, it was like either way I was like, if you play Madden, that's going to teach you what I'm talking about in real life. You know how to cut, what cover two is, what a zero blitz is.”

Green explains the usefulness of gaming even in traditional sports, to learn, memorize, analyze and execute your knowledge. When you play a game like Madden you need to have knowledge of all positions, not just your own. You have to be able to identify opportunities and threats all around the field. This becomes useful knowledge in practice because it gives you more to work with when trying to anticipate your opponents in real games.

This is true in any competition, including video games and esports. When you look at a game like Overwatch 2, which has 37 different heroes, it can feel overwhelming, always coming up against new challenges. However, the more you know about each of those heroes, the better prepared you are to deal with them.

Opportunities in Esports

For any young athletes or gamers, whether in high school or college, Green says there are many opportunities to pursue in the esports space. In addition to his work in the collegiate space, Green also attended the first-ever High School Esports League National LAN.

He points out that major gaming companies like Electronic Arts or 2K Games, developers of games Madden and NBA 2K respectively, offer internships across the gaming spectrum. Now more than ever schools are also offering scholarships for esports teams.

The most common avenue for gaming and esports is streaming and content creation, but Green is quick to point out that just liking something isn’t going to be enough. Too many young folks go into streaming or content creation because they want to play video games for a living, but it takes a lot more than that.

“Anything you try to do as a career, you’ve got to have that drive for it, you’ve got to have passion.”