When is a sport not a sport? You take two or more teams of players, pit them against one another in competition, and you have a sport, right?
Well, perhaps not. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sport as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
There are two interesting words in that definition: physical exertion. Does a sport really need to have that physicality element in order to be described as such?
There are those who claim that chess is a sport – it certainly ticks most of the boxes apart from drawing a sweat from its competitors, so are we going to describe it as a game of strategy, rather than a sport, simply because those involved don’t have to run miles or get embroiled in physical contact during a match?
For the same reasons, are we going to have to reclassify the likes of snooker and darts, which have been considered sports for decades, simply because there isn’t a great deal of ‘physical exertion’ involved?
Then we consider something like WWE wrestling. Billed as ‘sports entertainment’, there’s certainly no shortage of physicality in the brand, but when the matches are scripted – with a pre-defined winner and finishing point – can it truly be considered a sport?
We’ve asked a lot of questions so far but not really provided any answers – and that’s because we wanted to frame the argument around one of the hottest new ‘sports’ on the scene: eSports.
There have been movements that indicate that eSports is being welcomed into the sporting community. Its star names, teams and events now regularly feature in breaking sports news stories, and the fact that many bookmakers now offer odds on various eSports competitions is, in itself, a tip of the hat.
That said, there are still naysayers who believe that a sport can only be described as such when those involved perform feats of physical excellence.
But are they right?
The question has raised so much debate that even scholarly articles have been published on the subject, with professors, academics and sporting historians clashing on whether eSports should, in fact, be treated as sporting competition.
The irony is that not even the boffins at some of the top universities around the world can agree on how we define eSports in its current form, and this goes to show the nuance and complication of the original query.
Typically, eSports involves two or more players – acting alone or as part of a team – to do battle in games as varied as League of Legends, Dota, Fortnite and NBA 2K.
There is the competitive element; there’s a scoring system; there are official competitions and tournaments around the world – but there’s little to no physical exertion, of course, with most eSports players prioritizing comfort over dynamic endeavor.
So, in the classic definition, eSports would fall short in its bid to be classified as a genuine sport.
However, there have been calls for eSports to be added to the schedule of events at the Olympic Games, and while a move of that scale appears to be nothing more of a pipedream right now, what is interesting is that more and more eSports stars are turning professional – both in their vocation and in their approach to their gaming.
If an eSports player is able to make a handsome salary from their gaming, should they then be classed as a professional athlete?
Some of the biggest names in the game are doing exactly that, with the likes of Johan Sundstein – aka N0tail – and Jesse Vainikka (JerAx) earning a reported $6m from their gaming so far.
Like it or not, eSports is a multi-million-dollar business, with some events enjoying a crowd – be it in-person or via online streams – that many professional sports could only dream of.
There are organized, formal leagues and competitions that help eSports players to make a comfortable living from gaming, and surely that in itself defines eSports as a sport able to sustain an ecosystem of professionalism?
Some major brands, including Coca-Cola and Red Bull, have fallen over themselves to get involved, sponsoring tournaments or individual teams and players – another aspect that eSports shares with traditionally recognized sports.
There are professional sports teams, including the European soccer outfits Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, that have even developed their own eSports franchises bearing their name and team colors, so the lines have been well and truly blurred.
Why eSports should be considered a sport
The argument for why eSports can be easily framed when we consider what we love about sport in the first place.
It’s entertainment on grass, theater on the court floor, drama in the Octagon. We’re often invested as a consumer, waiting to be thrilled and entertained, and very often we’re immersed on an emotional level.
Sport brings people together as fans with a shared passion for a game. Millions are willing to tune in on TV or online, and thousands will attend in person to drink in the atmosphere.
The ecstasy of victory, the pain of defeat, the handshake of a game well-played – can you see how sport and eSports share so many similar characteristics?
Gamers are highly skilled and trained in what they do, and they exhibit many of the same features as a top athlete might – determination, strength of character, concentration and desire.
Many eSports gamers won’t be able to run the 100 meters in 11 seconds or throw a javelin 90 meters, but they possess a skillset not wholly different to some sporting stars – hand-eye coordination, unwavering focus and a killer instinct.
Why eSports should not be considered a sport
You can argue against eSports using some of the flags that it bears.
If strategy makes a game a sport, should we start crowning office time-wasters as athletes when they load up Minesweeper on their computer?
If competing against an opponent makes a game a sport, should tic-tac-toe be introduced at the Olympics?
If the pursuit of skill and practice identifies something as a sport, shouldn’t we make learning a musical instrument a weekly feature on ESPN or NBC?
Many who play sport at an amateur level or even casually will dedicate themselves to some kind of physical conditioning. Video gaming, as has been noted many times, can actually be harmful to our health – not many sports can say that.
One thing that is for sure though is that this debate will continue to rage on for some time yet.