Interview: Being a parent of a gamer with Shae Williams, Co-founder of COPE

NASEF and the Coalition of Parents in Esports (COPE) formed a partnership earlier this month to work together to help families understand esports career pathways and equip parents to support their kids who are pursuing their dream jobs. We sat down with one of COPE’s co-founders, Shae Williams, to expand on COPE’s founding, purpose, and advice for parents.

Visit them at Cope.gg

Shae Williams, Co-founder of COPE

Shae Williams, Co-founder of COPE

To begin with, what is COPE?

It’s a non-profit and was founded by a bunch of us parents who found ourselves here with children who loved gaming and excelled at gaming and found themselves becoming content creators or pro gamers. It was born last summer somewhat out of boredom, being stuck at home due to Covid-19, and a lot of us parents getting online, connecting on Twitter, and supporting each other.

Basically, it was the idea that we were all frustrated that more parents didn’t understand how valuable gaming is for our youth. It was one of the situations where I realized my son was learning more than just how to play a video game; he was learning some pretty valuable life and business skills like networking and branding and marketing. He was also building a lot of confidence in this space. It also translated into an interest in STEM careers. He’s taken some programming classes and is really fascinated by the Unreal Engine.

I still didn’t see it as a full-time thing, though. I saw it as something he did in his downtime. He kept asking to be homeschooled. He kept asking to quit his regular sports so he could focus on gaming. It changed for me when I went to my first big LAN event, which was the Fortnite World Cup.

When I went there, I saw that he had discovered the next big boom. Esports was just this exploding market. It was exciting and had so many different elements that I loved: sports, technology, and kids. I just saw there was so much potential there and I was fascinated by all the people I was meeting. Everyone was so passionate about it. Everyone had grown up as gamers, experienced their parents and peers not understanding it.  

But we were still feeling a lot of negative pressure. We got pressure from the schools for taking our kids out of school and from other parents who didn’t understand what we were doing and thought we were the worst parents on the planet because we let our kids game until the early hours of the morning. And then there were really negative press articles that would come out about gaming and screen time and how it was destroying our youth. They made it sound like it was the next vice that parents had to worry about with their kids.

Our idea was to change that. It was to let parents know, that just like any other sport, the more the parents are involved the more the kid will get out of it. It’s also an exciting spectator sport, but parents are intimidated by it. Our goal is to help parents understand how they can support their practice, their tournaments, and how they can see the value in it.

It’s also connecting it to the education side of it. Colleges are looking at students who excel in esports right now because that translates to success in STEM careers. It’s also kids who are really self-motivated so there are scholarships and opportunities around it.

It’s getting the message out to parents that gaming isn’t what they think it is and that if they get involved it can be like any other sport and hugely beneficial.

When your son first started getting heavily into this space, what kind of biases did you have?

My son was really physically active. He was on a soccer team and he fenced. As I saw him spending more time on gaming I got worried about his physical health.

I liked gaming, I love the technology side of it, but one thing I really didn’t understand was the anger. When he would get really upset and would be in his room screaming. I still have a dent in the wall of the playroom that is the same shape as a controller. It drove me crazy as a parent. I didn’t understand why the mouse was broken or why there was a controller-shaped dent in the wall.

To me, that was a red flag. I thought it was really bad for his psyche. Fortunately, another parent sat me down and talked to me about it when I got upset with my son at a tournament. The parent asked me if I would have gotten upset with my son if he had gotten that emotional on a basketball court. Would I have run out to the middle of the court and yelled at him?

Of course not! We expect inside voices with gaming, but the reality is that when you play a game it’s the same thing as the middle of a football field. You’re going to show that passion and you want that passion there. Without that passion, you quit caring about it.

One of the things we do at COPE is to help kids control that anger. We’ve learned that when you learn to control that you actually play much better. So we talk about stress balls and other things you can do to help overcome that. But I’ve also realized you need to give your kids that space. That you want them to be passionate when they’re playing.

You’ve mentioned contracts and streaming stuff being common areas of inquiry in the past, so what are the most common questions parents will come to you with these days?

We support both parents of pro players and any gamer. For the pro players, it’s often those questions of is this real? Did my 14-year-old kid just get offered a contract and how do I keep them safe in this space? That’s something we can help with. 

For parents of the more casual gamer, it’s understanding that there really is value here. We’re not just here for parents, though. Our Twitter DMs are a support line to every gamer and the question we most often get from them is how to talk to their parents about needing practice time after dinner.

Now your son is part of an org, Team Vanish, what should parents look for when their kids are offered a spot with a team or a content creation org?

That’s probably not something that will probably not come up for most people, but the first thing to really look for is if the org asks to talk to the parent first. One of the things I am really trying to get away from here is communicating directly with the kid. When I see an org ask to talk to the parent first so they can then talk to the 13- or 14-year-old it shows that the org is very professional about this.

That’s not to discount the smaller organizations that are being created by their friends. That’s one of the things I love about this space is that you can create an org yourself. It’s something I encourage kids to do, put together their own teams and clans. It teaches them a lot of skills like managing people, branding, social media, and more. 

A couple of times you’ve mentioned this is more than just gaming. What’s that difference you’re seeing between mindless screen time and the engagement, learning, and development of skills?

Especially with Covid-19, a lot of parents are concerned with how much screen time their kids have had with online school. So many are pushing back on gaming and trying to get them outside. But gaming is also strategy. It’s learning skills. I’d much rather have my son playing a strategy game and engaging with his friends on Discord than having him lying on his bed and watching Netflix for hours. 

I think that’s one of the misperceptions about this space is that when kids disappear into their bedroom to play games, I think most parents still think their child is alone. They don’t realize what a vibrant social network this is. That their kid is in a Discord call with their friends chatting about their day while they play. As a parent, I ask them to get engaged. Don’t be intimidated by the technology of it. Look at what your kid is doing and I think you’ll be surprised by how social this network is. 

Any final advice you would give to students who are looking to get more into this space?

The advice I give there is to look for the people you admire. That’s how my son got started, he watched hours and hours of YouTube videos, which honestly concerned me at first, but I realized that he was finding people he admired. I think that’s the best thing to do. He would watch their YouTube channel and visit their Twitch streams and began to meet others who also admire that content creator or pro player and start to build a network. It’s finding your community. There are so many different communities out there and it’s all about being brave and reaching out and finding those. 

For parents, I would say the best way to learn about this space is to ask your child to teach you how to play a game.