While Traditional Sports Worry About Head Injury, Mind Sports Grow In Engagement…

While sports like football in the US and even hockey and soccer continue to wrestle with the issue of long term head injury issues, the sports of the mind…especially chess, seem to be gaining momentum as development and strategy opportunities like never before, and other “mind sports,” like competitive robotics, also continue to gain steam for brands and other partners looking to reach a gaming audience both young and old.

The recent fill page stories in media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and even 60 Minutes have pointed to chess’ cyber-renaissance  because of the young prodigy Magnus Carlsen of Norway and the slew of young grand masters from countries around the world, and inner cities, who can now use analytics to not just play against computers, but to follow, engage and learn in a virtual world make the game of chess even more exciting, fun and interesting to those who have online access.  It is no longer man vs. machine, it is now man learning with and from the machine, much like traditional sports have used video study for years.  

Almost at the same time Carlsen was racking up his championship, the First Lego League is holding  its Qualifying Tournament in robotics, with kids from ages 9 to 14 competing in teams using science and technology to drive Lego Mind Storm robots to various tasks, with the winners moving on to the state and then the national robotics championships in the spring in St. Louis.

Similar to the chess opportunity, robotics is growing in popularity amongst young people. A culture that has grown up with gaming tied to advances in technology gives robotics on a competitive level a wide audience that can connect across any boundary via the digital world, as well as in person to person traditional competitions. The competitions teach the same skills…teamwork, strategy, attention to detail…as traditional sports do and help to also stimulate the mind.

Are all these events some sort of rise of “nerds” into competitive events to try and steal the thunder from the die-hard sports fans and jocks for media and social attention? No. What these events signify is actually a melding of entertainment and gaming worlds to hopefully form a partnership of healthy mind, healthy body which can appeal to millions and even attract some amazing brands to a more diverse audience.

Mind Sports…chess, poker, Chinese Checkers etc…have been around for thousands of years, and many, especially chess, have been used by world leaders to teach strategy for ages, that is certainly no secret. Most have always operated in a vacuum and away from the casual public eye. Even the advent of competitive poker on television, as well as an elite champion like a Bobby Fischer, have helped to gradually raise the image of some Mind Sports over time. However in more recent times, as science comes to understand more about the stimulation of the brain to combat issues such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease, the value of all mind sports has grown. Factor in the ever-growing popularity of gaming, both casual and competitive, and the case for unifying the millions who play mind sports together for a country by country competition and celebration makes great sense, and has endless possibilities. The strength will be in the numbers.

So what does this all mean to traditional sports?

First, the simple connection is to analytics and strategy. Coaches of any level, as well as elite athletes are constantly looking for a competitive edge, and the lessons taught by mind sports or even robotics, can satisfy another dimension for both strategy that applies to athletics and for an alternative way of thinking and expanding the ability to think quickly and effectively while competing. The world of traditional sports is also becoming more and more digitized, whether that is in scouting, analyzing skills, communicating or even watching events. Robotics and mind sports can also help provide a bridge of understanding into a high tech world by applying tools and technical elements to athletes and coaches.

Then there is gaming. Perhaps the fastest growing segment of competition globally is competitive and casual gaming, whether you are considered a jock or a techie. Everyone enjoys games from Angry Birds to Madden ’13, and gaming provides another key common ground between mind sports and competitive traditional athletics. There is also the jobs marketplace. More and more we are seeing professional and collegiate athletics look outside traditional circles for leadership, and those with an understanding of the tech, strategic and business world are getting more and more opportunities. The competition in mind sports could help bring another employment dimension for those versed in both convention athletics and the expanded use of competitive mind sports and gaming.

There is also the projection of the complete individual, one that marries healthy mind and healthy body. First lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative has inspired thousands to get up and get active physically, and balancing that physical aspect with a healthy and active strategic mind fits very well, so a mix of competitive athletics with mind sports is a great balance.

If you are a brand what does all of this mean? Lots. Those brands of all sizes involved in traditional sport are always looking to get more bang and get access to a larger, wider demo. Activities like mind sports and robotics provide that wider audience. Tech brands are always looking to access a more mainstream audience that is becoming more savvy, and traditional sports provide that mix. Does it mean we may see Nike or Under Armour sponsoring robotics or the U.S. chess team somewhere down the line? It is actually a possibility. Does it mean that you may see more athletes paying attention to bridge or more poker players throwing a baseball, or watching rugby? That’s already happening.

So this weekend, as college hoops kicks into gear and college football winds down, and state playoffs in all fall sports are going in, keep an eye on the mind sports as well. Chances are in the not too distant future there will be links of all kinds…competitive, brand, national, digital…that will be built between sports of the mind and those of the body which will be very healthy indeed.