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Published: July 6, 2021

Written by: Stoyan Todorov

The debate of whether esports is a sport has raged on with some intensity over the past years, with no clear answer in sight.

There have been some breakthroughs, and then again, there have been no breakthroughs at all. The Swedish Sports Federation recently argued that The International, Dota 2’s crowning event with over $40 million in the guaranteed prize pool, is not really a sport.

Then again, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced a number of e-sports, referring to simulators of actual sports that are too dangerous to hold in person because of the pandemic. Athletes have taken keenly to some of those, such as e-sailing, for example.

But when we talk about esports and whether it really is a sport, we don’t mean simulators, but video games. This delineation is important because it doesn’t couch the discussion in the wrong terms, that is that e-sailing is esports.

For all it’s worth, any sports simulators are the preserve of athletes, and if they enjoy them, then it’s not really our place to offer critique or even endorsement. The good thing is that there are some compelling arguments that video games are an actual sport, and we are prepared to present them. So, what makes us say that esports is a sport in the first place?

The Chess Argument – A Popular Fallback Solution

So, is esports a sport? The first thing we ought to consider is how the sports world regards chess. After all, chess is a game, and while not playing at a computer, it surely bears similarities with video games. Chess’ mental effort required and its physical manifestation to play at the highest level is what makes the game to be deemed worthy as a sport. On this level, you can think of esports as a sport.

But can’t you apply the same argument to competitive games? It turns out you can. Esports players not only face a physical exertion similar to that of professional athletes, but they are arguably under the same stress when playing.

Image credit: Valve

Physical fitness has a direct impact on your performance as a player. Chess is not just a last resort argument here. Esports players expand significant mental efforts to compete in any of the top competitive games.

There is no way you could argue otherwise. While the physical activity involved is limited to mouse and keyboard control, it’s there and needs to be carried out with precision nevertheless.

The level of coordination required and reflexes built into an esports player at the top level have already caught the eye of the US army, so why wouldn’t they be good enough for any sporting body to consider esports an actual sport?

Esports vs. Traditional Sport, Why Compare It?

Because it matters. Esports doesn’t try to argue that it requires the same skill sets, but then again, there are very distinct skills you must master to play competitively in video games. You may think that it comes down to the same basic understanding of a game, but it doesn’t. You need to factor in:

  • A game’s constantly changing nature
  • Competitors’ own expertise
  • Learning curve and game mechanics
  • Hours needed to master it
  • Other extenuating circumstances

The same pretty much applies to sports, but if you try to ask a soccer player to play American football or vice versa, you can’t really expect to see the same performance. But hold on, what’s your bloody point here?

It’s simple – esports is a complex activity that requires dedicated, specialists skillsets that are only cultivated through hard work, rigorous regimes, and unfaltering commitment.

An esports player may become a professional athlete in some capacity, and a professional athlete may become a professional esports player, but their chances of breaking into the world’s elite of their respective career paths are not very high, to begin with.

Therefore dismissing esports as “not a sport” is simply damaging to the ecosystem and an industry that is already has a huge turnup and even begins to eclipse traditional sport viewing numbers, which brings us to our next stop – live attendance.

People Turn up to Watch Video Games Played

If you are a hardcore esports denier, you may not even know that franchised leagues such as the Call of Duty and Overwatch League are already gathering huge crowds, but it’s not just that. The League of Legends Worlds, Dota 2’s International, ESL One, BLAST Premier, WePlay! Majors are just some of the events that draw huge turnup.

People are willing to pay for tickets, fanfare, and the privilege to watch their favorite esports team play live. The industry is evolving and what is changing is that more people are looking to attend in-person, and that is an undeniable fact.

It’s simple – esports is a complex activity that requires dedicated, specialists skillsets that are only cultivated through hard work, rigorous regimes, and unfaltering commitment.

While the pandemic did bite in esports leagues’ ability to host events on a national and international level, the organization of esports has continued as intended. Esports did sustain damage from non-physical attendance, too, pointing to the fact that competitive gaming is also depending on in-person attendance, much like regular sports events.

Nobody really enjoyed the non-attendance NFL, NBA, and NHL games played in a bubble in 2020, and pretty much the same logic applies to esports. So by this same measure, esports is very much like sports, and given how quickly competitive scenes are growing, we can expect more live attendance in the years and decades to come.

But Esports Isn’t a Physical Activity.

The argument against esports not being a physical activity stems from a much simpler time when video gaming was generally looked down upon. It didn’t provide a meaningful career path to follow nor any financial stability in the past. Even when esports was on the cusp of exploding, most players looking to become professional would say that they had very little support from their families, and that is not a difficult thing to imagine.

Yes, esports isn’t physical, and there is no denying that, but sports is pretty much about skill, and so is competitive video gaming. You cannot expect a casual player to come even close to the play style and success rate of a trained professional.

Image credit: Team Liquid

And this is just it. People don’t recognize esports because it’s not a physical activity, and that is what rules it out from the family of “sports.” Semantics aside, esports has physical manifestations but doesn’t necessarily translate into positive health benefits, for example, and this is an argument that the anti-esports lobby has leveraged with success.

They have a point. However, to stay competitive in video games today, many esports athletes are focusing on building physical as well as mental health. Highly-salaried organizations such as Team Liquid, Cloud9, and Evil Geniuses hire professional physical fitness coaches and incorporate rigorous physical training routines into the overall improvement of their players.

With this out of the way, sports and esports boil down to the same thing – a pure, unadulterated skill that you can only build and develop through dedication.

Esports Deniers Really Don’t Get It, Do They?

The way we see things is not so much that we want people to call us “esports athletes,” a term that is a bit testy in nature. Rather, we need video games to be recognized as a sport to help tackle the many insurmountable difficulties and hurdles we face today. For once, because we don’t have a status of a sport, obtaining a visa is a nightmare.

Athletes benefit from having an easy way of accessing many countries around the world because they participate in different competitions. Esports tournaments are no different. Even though games are played online, most significant tournaments and leagues have physical representation, and that is precisely what is happening.

WePlay!, one of the biggest tournament organizers in the esports space, had to arrange chartered flights to make sure that players could fly in from China to Ukraine and avoid pesky visa hurdles. Why treat esports as a sport, you may ask? It’s simple – it’s what the ecosystem needs to prosper further and does away with the red tape that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

So please, when you dismiss esports players’ right to call themselves athletes, at least try not to hurt the ecosystem’s growth potential.

Huge Esports Tournaments Are Already Here

Huge esports tournaments are already happening. Just think about The International, a video gaming event that promises $40 million in total prize money split among 16 teams. That is well above many sports’ prize purses, and as such, esports is already rivaling traditional sports.

Yet, The International is not the only competition that allocates significant funds measurable to real sport events. In fact, league formats are very popular among video gamers. The Overwatch and Call of Duty League are two of the most prominent and compelling arguments for why esports is a sport, with multiple venues hosting games around the world and local crowds always in attendance.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

A single slot for the teams wishing to compete in these esports leagues can cost up to $60 million, and that alone represents some significant commitment to the long-term potential of the esports ecosystem. Dismissing it as a non-sport is a bit shortsighted, and it can lead to no meaningful outcome of the debate.

In light of such significant competitive gaming events, it would be more beneficial to everyone involved to create a framework that coaches what esports is in such terms that it is agreeable to sports federations and video gamers.

The Olympics Games Welcome Esports

You can argue that video games have no place in sport. In fact, even we agree that the term “esports athlete” is indeed divisive, but still, support it because it represents the culture that we embrace and enjoy. You can argue that esports cannot be treated as a sport, and maybe you have a point. There is no physical exertion in the same way that an athlete would exert, but then again, if esports is so far from sports, how come the Olympics are also embracing it?

The first time the Olympic movement brought up esports was back in 2018, and the news buzzed across the ecosystem, yet the International Olympic Committee didn’t really follow up on it. Yet, 2020 has made it more difficult for athletes to attend competitions. In fact, NASCAR switched entirely to e-series during the pandemic, and something similar happened for the Tokyo Olympics, with several “electronic” disciplines such as e-sailing announced.

If the Olympics are entertaining esports as a sport, it may be time to change attitudes towards video gaming as a whole. However, the Olympics will take at least a few more years to define what playing video games are. Right now, the IOC is still split, and so are many other sports leagues and bodies, including the Swedish and German Sports Federations.

Salaried Teams and Events

One of the necessary prerequisites to recognize any video game as a sport is whether you can argue that it’s played professionally. In most cases, professionalism is defined as the competence or skill expected from a person trained in a particular activity. When applied to sports, we mean well-salaried athletes who earn a living from doing what they have chosen as their field of expertise.

Is esports a sport by that same token? You can play games such as League of Legends, Dota 2, and Overwatch recreationally, but then again, you can treat esports as a sport and try to excel and achieve the highest level of competition.

And guess what? If you play for any of the top teams, you will be remunerated with a fixed-rate salary but also get a percentage of the winnings you bring in for your organization through tournaments. It’s not just that. Even entry-level esports teams today are able or try to cover their athletes’ expenses and provide them with an environment in which they can thrive and be taken care of.

That equates to what it means to be a sports and esports player on yet another level. Salaried professionals are the norm in many video games, even though many players are trying to make it on their own and prove their skill and merit independently. How is that different than sports?

Even Sports Leagues Are Venturing into Esports

Sports leagues venturing into esports is not a new phenomenon. Actually, there has been a lot of movement in that direction. All Major Leagues in the United States, for example, now take video games seriously, and they don’t question their validity in relation to traditional sports. The NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL are all turning to digital pastures where they know they can reach out to new audiences.

One thing that has changed is that traditional sports leagues are no longer treating esports as a fad but as a well-developed and developing ecosystem that dictates its own rules of engagement. As such, the NFL is indeed hoping to get more people involved with traditional sports and football, but it also realizes that it should honor esports gamers’ preferences for simulated sports competitions.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The NBA is one of the best developed such leagues as it takes the NBA 2K League seriously. Commission Adam Silver called the video game a part of the family and welcomed esports athletes into the ranks. Sure, some form of skepticism reigned in the NBA at first, but more organizations are arguing that esports is a sport.

And the NBA is hardly the only organization to have followed a similar path. F1’s McLaren has committed to SIM races and has long treated esports as a sport which is more proof that video games are actually much more physically demanded than skeptics may imagine.

In honesty, though, SIM races are difficult as they strive to simulate real racing conditions, so there is a physical factor here that other esports do not necessarily have. Nevertheless, serious leagues and organizations would not subscribe to the idea that esports is a sport if there wasn’t sufficient evidence already.

Should We Treat Esports as a Sport?

The short answer is yes and no. For all intents and purposes that have to do with easing up travel and visas for esports athletes, we should treat esports as a sport – no less, no more. If you want to equate esports to sport, that’s another matter.

We believe that there are a lot of similarities, and we feel confident that esports is a sport. If sports leagues and bodies have an issue with that, that is also okay. The esports fandom is one that cares little about titles or ego.

The entertainment value of video games aside, esports enthusiasts and competitors know the true worth of the industry, and as long as we can be allowed to access the basic prerequisites athletes enjoy, we are happy to be called whatever term pleases the powers that may be. They have little say in our industry anyway.

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