The question has been circulating again, especially in light of recent announcements by the Olympics Committee that a Virtual Series will be featured this Summer, about whether esports can be categorized in the same class as traditional sports.
Bolder positions taken by voices like the European Journal for Sport and Society and Global Esports Federation, but the challenges of physicality and esports taking place, at least partially, in a virtual world give rise to a debate.
The real question is: what does it mean to be a sport? Most sports contain the elements of being a competition, between individuals or teams, involving skill and physical exertion for entertainment. There’s obvious examples of this in Basketball, Soccer, and Tennis, but other sports that are considered legitimate sports have a looser adherence to these constraints, especially in terms of physical exertion. Take Curling, Pool / Billiards, Archery or Golf - all considered sports - while these activities require less physicality, each involves skill and some interaction with actual objects. And some would say, particularly of Pool, if you can play while drinking a beer, it should be considered a game. Archery, Driving and Shooting sports might align closer with esports in a categorical sense, since each requires the athlete to use a device (for lack of a better word) to compete and the contest measures accuracy and manipulation of that device more so than strength or speed. Naturally, the same physicality piece is the center of the debate, but using the same criteria, there’s a strong case for esports.
Competition: not every video game is an esport
What’s important for those outside the gaming community to understand is that not all games can be considered esports, there needs to be a competitive element. There aren’t winners in Grand Theft Auto (your only outcomes are arrest or death) and there are no Animal Crossing world championships. Instead, games like League of Legends, Rocket League, DOTA, and Overwatch that require fine motor skills, hand eye coordination, sharp reaction time, communication, and team dynamics are proper esports. Once gaming evolved to its current online form, the competition grew larger than who you could beat in your living room, and opened the arena to millions on the internet. Because of this, esports have become hyper competitive, with massive global player bases all vying to be the best.
Skill and ability: it’s not “ez”
To be a professional gamer requires a significant amount of training, just as traditional sports do. All esports require a dedicated concentration, precision, and execution; based on genuine skill, with very little left to chance. You cannot become a professional gamer without thousands of hours of in-game experience. The plain fact that there are millions of active players for top title esports are a driving factor behind why someone who is, at times, just milliseconds faster is a champion while those slightly slower are unknown. Similarly, in Tennis, the gulf between the serve speed of a Wimbledon winner and a country club pro might only be as little as 10 miles per hour. Esports athletes therefore also have their prime, peaking at about age 25 years old, similar to that of many traditional sports.
To give a key example of just how fierce competition is, in the 2018 Overwatch league, the Shanghai Dragons suffered a 42 game loss streak despite adhering to a controversially rigorous practice schedule of 72 hours a week.
Is it real if it’s virtual?
A complicating factor arises from esports being virtual. It’s the hardest part of the debate because there aren’t many precedents or close comparisons to be drawn. This is the first time in history that events of this nature have been able to take place. The knee-jerk instinct of critics might be to assume that it’s “easier” to strike a ball in a virtual world than it is in the real world. 30 seconds against a Supersonic Legend in Rocket League might change their mind. This assumption is again, an underestimation of the kinds of skills required.
It is actually because esports are virtual, and require more of the mind than body, that they are the levelest playing field to have ever existed. There are few other sports where all genders, regardless of height, stature, or (many) physical impediments are able to go head to head. The skillset found in gamers is unique in comparison to other sports, but it is no less of a skill.
The scale: numbers don’t lie
Both in terms of viewership, revenue and prize pools, esports not only compares, but is exponentially growing when compared to traditional sports. Esports (as a group) recently eclipsed the MLB and followed the NFL in terms of viewership, and is on track to reach 646 million viewers by 2023. It’s become a billion dollar industry, where professionals are earning real salaries and serious award money. Esport prize pools rival traditional events, the 2018 DOTA 2 International had a pool of 25.5 m while the 2018 Daytona 500 (Nascar) was 15.5m; the 2017 League of Legends Championship had a pool of 4.9 m, with the 2018 Tour De France being 2.7 m.
Who needs to recognize it?
From another perspective, the only real distinction between what’s considered a game or sport is the determination of official governing bodies. Esports have already been formally recognized as a sport by the Asian Games, Universities and many countries around the world, including Pakistan. This formal nod from both the Olympics and Special Olympics is a great stride for the adoption of esports and sets a precedent for its status as a sport. This debate is bound to resurface until gaming is more normalized and is able to cross cultural and generational divides. Regardless of which authority announces it to be a sport, the declaration won't resonate until more recognize esports as earning a rightful place in the sports world.
Esports aren't going away. They will continue to prove to be the future of competition. As Dr. Andy Miah so eloquently said in his TEDx talk at the University of Salford,
“Esports are worlds in which we find innovators, creators, makers, and performers seeking to reimagine our lived reality - the spaces in which we collaborate and compete.”
Hopefully more will begin to appreciate that vision.