JD Higginbotham tried pulling the plug on his son Matthew’s round-the-clock gaming marathons several times.
His strategy mainly involved yanking the computer’s plug from the wall. When Matthew argued the PC was his personal property, Mr. Higginbotham unplugged the home’s internet connection.
“How are you going to support a family?” Mr. Higginbotham recalled telling his then-teenage son. “I’m almost 60 and from an era where you had to sweat to earn a living.”
Matthew eventually worked his way up to the top 1% of players who compete world-wide at Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s popular fantasy game “League of Legends,” which boasts 100 million monthly active users. The 21-year-old bought a Toyota 86 sports car last year with his earnings.
“He makes more than me,” said Mr. Higginbotham, a certified public accountant, “and here I’ve been in the workforce for 40 years.”
Mr. Higginbotham has since seen the light. He started recognizing similarities between the game’s battle tactics and his own experience in the U.S. Army. “It’s virtual warfare,” he said.
His change of heart was a vindication for Matthew. “Everyone thought it wasn’t legit,” he said. “When I started making a bunch of money, they changed their minds.”
An estimated 191 million spectators world-wide now watch esports competitions—where people play videogames—at least once a month, more than double the number from 2012. Revenue from corporate sponsorships, media rights, ticket sales and other sources is on track to top $1 billion by 2019, according to videogame industry tracker Newzoo BV.
The rapid rise of organized esports has bewildered many, perhaps none more than moms and dads who used to scold their offspring about wasting their lives in front of a computer.
Selene Meschino tried hard to curb her son’s videogame habit. There was the time she held up his underwear behind him on camera as he broadcast a gaming session online. Once, she set off the fire alarm in their Toronto home to pull him away.
None of it worked. Her son Stefano Disalvo, known in gaming circles as Verbo, not only continued gaming but put off college to pursue esports full time.
The 18-year-old in January will begin competing at Activision Blizzard Inc.’s shooter game “Overwatch” for the Los Angeles Valiant, one of a dozen teams in a league where players will make at least $50,000 annually, with health benefits and a retirement plan.
“He didn’t get the talent from me, that’s for sure,” said Ms. Meschino, who admits she recently got confused when her son shouted the name of the game’s hulking armor-clad character “Reinhardt!”—also the name of their local church pastor (but with a different spelling).
Joe Dager, a freelance marketer in Fort Wayne, Ind., was confused years ago when he first saw his then 22-year-old son Peter battle it out at Valve Corp.’s game “Dota 2,” in which teams raid bases with characters such as Troll Warlord and Chaos Knight.
“It looked like a bunch of figurines beating on each other with clubs,” recalled Mr. Dager, who, when Peter was a teen, would crack open his son’s computer and remove vital hardware to prevent him from gaming all hours of the night. “If he was going out kicking field goals as much as he was playing videogames, it wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Today, Peter, whose screen name is ppd, travels the globe as one of the highest-earning esports players. Fans request selfies, said Mr. Dager, who is still getting used to Peter’s celebrity—and his own.
“When they find out you’re his parent, you get people who want to take pictures with you,” Mr. Dager said. “You’re like, huh?”
Paul Garland, a 50-year-old manager for an aerospace company, used to take his son Cuyler’s Xbox console to work when the boy claimed he was too sick for school. A second Xbox hidden in the closet eventually started making the trek, too.
Even so, the 18-year-old is putting off college to compete at Activision Blizzard’s war shooter “Call of Duty” and has already earned more than $200,000 in prize money.
While other parents had Little League baseball, Pop Warner football and endless soccer clinics to nurture their children’s skills, Mr. Garland, who lives in a Phoenix suburb, felt lost about gaming. “There was no direction, no help for this,” he said.
One thing esports has in common with its traditional counterparts is only a fraction of players earn enough to compete full time, industry analysts say. For those who do, salaries and prize-pool winnings can eclipse $100,000 a year, with the best of the best earning as much as $1 million annually.
“It’s culture shock,” said Ryan Morrison, who represents esports players as young as 14. “One day their kid is the family disappointment locked away in his bedroom playing videogames. The next day he’s the highest-paid member of that family in its history.”
Penny Morris of Cardiff, Wales, described the money her son Barney makes as an esport pro as “slightly ridiculous.” The 18-year-old is on a team in Europe that competes at “League of Legends,” which kicks off a new season in January.
“My first job after college was a few thousand pounds a year and he makes more than that in a month easily,” said Ms. Morris, who works in a cafe and owns rental properties.
Ms. Morris has been trying to learn esports lingo so she can keep up with Barney’s career. “I know scrimming,” she said proudly, referring to when teams practice against one another.
Maurizio and Andrea DeLisi used to give their 17-year-old son, Matthew—code name Super—grief for staying up late on school nights to play videogames. “We just thought he was wasting his time,” said Mr. DeLisi, a public-safety worker in Philadelphia.
Now the couple is letting the teen finish high school through online courses so he can play “Overwatch” for the San Francisco Shock when he turns 18 in March.
“In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that he was grinding away to be as good as he is,” said Mr. DeLisi, who figures Matthew can go to college later and maybe even cover tuition with his esports earnings.
“When do you get a chance to do something in life you love and get paid for it?”