Video game Fortnite a battleground from kids' dressing rooms to the pros

When I walked into my 10-year-old son's hockey dressing room early on this season, there wasn't a lot of hockey talk.

Instead of power plays and gap control, it was all about "deegals" and "skins."

I quickly learned these were Fortnite terms. You have likely heard of it.

It's the massively popular multi-player game that can be played for free on consoles, phones or computers. Gamers are dropped on to a virtual island and battle until only one player remains. 

Fortnite was virtually all players spoke of.

Head coach Brian Dooley at first tolerated the seeming obsession. He's coached children of all ages for years and seen many gaming trends come and go. As the season wore on however, his feelings changed.

"This one feels different only in maybe the intensity," Dooley said.

Dooley says Fortnite talk soon became inescapable, and it started to prevent focus. 

Toronto minor hockey coach Brian Dooley has seen video game trends come and go, but says kids' obsession with Fortnite is different. (Martha Irvine/Associated Press)

"It was something that players were talking about during warmups or while they were dressing in the locker room rather than focusing on the actual hockey game that we were getting ready to play," Dooley said. "Part of the issue was just the inability to put it aside. I did even on occasion hear the odd reference on the bench in the middle of the game."

Dooley says as the season evolved, it was becoming clear that the game was creating two distinct groups within his team: those who played and those who didn't. It was beginning to undermine the team's on-ice performance and its off-ice unity.

"Some of the players who didn't play Fortnite started to voice opinions like, 'hey can we talk about something else?'" Dooley said. "That was the first kind of sign that I saw that there's something here that maybe we need to put some general guidelines around."

In the lead-up to the playoffs, players were told there'd be no Fortnite talk in the dressing room. What players did at home was for parents to determine Dooley says. But while at the rink, players would be focused on hockey.

"The players would slip back into talking about it without even thinking and so it took a couple of reminders of, 'hey we're not going to talk about that.' We weren't joking," Dooley said. "This is a real thing. You're not going to talk about in the locker room before the game."

It's not just 10-year-olds being told to tone down the video games.

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays became the latest professional team to try to temper their player's Fortnite enthusiasm.

For the Jays, it was the players themselves who pushed to limit play before games.

"I don't think it needs to be a big ordeal that we're making it out to be. It's one of those things we can police ourselves and we can make sure everything is done properly," veteran outfielder Randal Grichuk told reporters.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk supports his team's decision to curtail use of the game Fortnite, but says its something players can police themselves. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Image)

Last season, the Vancouver Canucks banned the game during road trips, tired of players' energy being sapped by hours of game play.

Veteran first baseman Carlos Santana smashed a clubhouse TV after his Philadelphia Phillies lost a ninth consecutive game late last season. Santana said some teammates spent part of the game playing Fortnite in the clubhouse.

"I see a couple players — I don't want to say names — they play video games during the game," Santana told ESPN. "We come and lose too many games, and I feel like they weren't worried about it. They weren't respecting their teammates or coaches or the staff or the [front] office. It's not my personality. But I'm angry because I want to make it good."

Professional athletes have a tremendous amount of downtime between games and practices.

For years, card games filled long bus and plane trips. And since the advent of video games, various systems have held a high profile in professional clubhouses.

None have received the kind of scrutiny Fortnite is getting.

Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price had to stop playing Fortnite in the clubhouse after it was reported he missed a start because of carpal tunnel syndrome caused by frequent play.

Obviously some avid Fortnite players are able to thrive on the ice or field. But teams increasingly want to know about video-game habits before agreeing to pay players millions of dollars. They don't want an unchecked obsession to undermine the carefully choreographed sleep and training schedule that is part of modern sports.

At last year's NHL draft, eventual Washington Capitals draft pick Riley Sutter said almost every team inquired about his Fortnite play.

Washington Capitals draft pick Riley Sutter says almost every team he interviewed with inquired about his use of Fortnite. "There's definitely some guys around the league, some even on my [junior] team, that are pretty bad for it," he said. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

"There's definitely some guys around the league, some even on my [junior] team, that are pretty bad for it," Sutter told the Washington Post. "It takes away from their sleeping and keeps them up late. It's starting to become a pretty big issue."

Coach Dooley says no matter how old the players are, it's important to find activities that promote team unity and cooperation. And to eliminate anything that could potentially upset team growth and success.

Call him old school, but Dooley says video games are not a team-building activity because not everyone is included.

"I still believe that really effective team bonding should be face to face, something where you can actually interact and be fully engaged," Dooley said.

"Arguably they could be cooperating or learning teamwork [playing Fortnite]. But I feel like there needs to be that face to face, hopefully some sort of problem-solving element where they have to face a challenge and work together as a team in order to succeed." 

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