And so we come to a particularly thorny and well-contested issue - are eSports really sports? It’s a complex topic, but one which can be eternally discussed and only gains greater prominence as eSports continues to gather more traction worldwide. There are tournaments and leagues taking place practically every week with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars up for grab. It’s a massive business, and the best in the world only get there with thousands of hours of dedication and training, but there’s a big question mark over whether we should consider them athletes.
We’ll start with the dictionary definition for sport, noun, with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” And an athlete? That’s “A person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.”
We’ve got the dictionary definitions then, but it’s debatable whether we actually find ourselves any closer to the answer.
To take sports as an example, there is no doubt that eSports necessitate an incredible about of skill, pretty much regardless of the game. Typically, the longer a game has been popular, the higher the skill ceiling necessary to compete professionally. Counter-Strike and Street Fighter professionals will have universally sunk countless hours into their chosen games, not in a casual capacity but exactly as an athlete would. Training for hour upon hour every day, perfect their craft and minimising mistakes in the hopes of becoming better than any other person on the planet.
For something to require skill is only half the story, but it does at least separate out the obvious non-sports. Playing roulette isn’t a sport as it relies on chance rather than skill, but something like Rocket League or golf certainly meets this specific criterion. So too does chess, an activity for which similarly vociferous discussions can take place. There are only a few things that arguably slip between the cracks of chance and skill, notably poker, which fans will often refer to as a ‘mind sport’ due to the lack of physical exertion.
Which brings us to the first part of the definition - an activity involving physical exertion. Considering most of us game to relax after a hard day’s work, it’s difficult to argue there’s physical exertion involved. Mental exertion, sure, but it’s doubtful you’re burning many calories while you’re doing your World of Warcraft raid. In fact, eSports one of the few ‘sport-related’ activities where participants are likely to gain calories over a match, thanks to the excessive supplies of sponsored crates of Monster energy drinks and other brain fuel.
Considering there are debates about even whether the likes of snooker and darts are sports, both of which seem to fulfill the criteria, eSports are an even further cry away from being considered sports. Nevertheless, some people are keen to see eSports classified as sports, a move likely fuelled because of the name, which both references gaming as a sport while simultaneously distancing itself with that telltale ‘e’.
For all of this though, it’s easy to get hung up on the lack of physicality in eSports, while often top-level sports is more about mental state of mind than innate skill. Taking darts as an example, which in terms of the competing tension and mental battles actually draws a lot of parallels with gaming, and the pros will tell you’re hitting 180’s for fun in the dressing room, but it’s a whole different kettle of fish to get up in front of 20,000 people and do it on the big stage with no safety cushion. eSports emphasises these very same strengths in a player, not only to be able to do the seemingly impossible but also to do it consistently and with a baying crowd watching their every move.
Where things get even murkier is just how seriously eSports are being taken as sports. Real world sports teams like PSG and Schalke football clubs now have their own eSports players and compete in FIFA, League of Legends and Counter-Strike, and are very much at the forefront of gaming as a sport. This raises the interesting question of when, or if ever, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would ever go so far as to recognise eSports as sport. So far it’s been vehemently against it, and rumours that the 2020 Olympics could feature eSports seem wildly out of whack. Make no mistake, a sport is a sport regardless of whether the IOC endorses it, but it would certainly do leaps and bounds to help legitimise professional gamers as athletes.
The final point, and this one is a little more ethereal, is the distinction between reality and games, which for want of a better term, are virtual realities. Part of what makes a sport a sport, for me at least, are the tiny variables at play that are inherently impossible to recreate with any degree of authenticity in a gaming world. For example a dry crease on a cricket pitch, the very specific injuries or sprains that can come from a crunching rugby tackle, or even the wild winds that can sometimes make the difference between a near miss or a blast into the top corner. They’re imperfections in competition but they’re elements that lends sport its character, rather than a sterile environment that’s identical every time. I know these are absolute intangibles though, particularly for those not overly into sports, and you wouldn’t find this view anywhere a dictionary definition, for sport is often all about the intangibles, and why the best players don’t always win.
Over to you now then, in what will probably be quite a divisive topic. Are eSports actually sports, and why?