Is Esports a Sport? An Informative Guide

by Fabio

The term ‘esports’ refers to competitive video games, usually in a multiplayer-environment. Depending on the exact definition, the first games of ‘Pong’ might even be an early predecessor of esports. As technology progressed, gamers got the chance to play together. Soon, they wanted to play against each other as well. From that desire, competitive games emerged and players soon took those titles to conventions and big stages. Now, they have become a world-wide craze and attract hundreds of millions of viewers every year. So, is esports a sport?

On the stage, the players compete under enormous pressure. Thousands are watching, hundreds of thousands of Dollars are on the line. With super-fast keystrokes and incredibly accurate mouse movement they have to be quicker than their opponents, or else they will fail. There are endless ways of approaching every situation in the game, yet they have to decide on the one best move to overpower their opponent. 

This sounds similar to the likes of football, basketball and racing. In those traditional sports, the athletes have to make split-second decisions and work with perfect precision. There is certainly some similarity between what a football player does on the grass and what a Counter Strike player does in front of a computer.

Should Video Games Be Considered a Sport?

No, at least not all of them. Some games don’t have a competitive aspect, some are just made to have fun and fool around. There is no shame in that, but if players are not playing against each under under high-pressure, you can’t really call it a sport. For instance, there is no competitive aspect in The Last of Us or Read Dead Redemption. But there is in Dota 2, League of Legends, Overwatch, and all the other big esports titles. Games like these may deserve to be treated as sport, for a variety of reasons. 

Is Esport A Real Sport?

That totally depends on your definition. Some, like the International Olympic Committee, are uncertain when it comes to the physical aspect of the games. They also heavily criticize the ethical ambiguity of certain titles. Without a dedicated control structure, they are afraid that the traditional moral values of sports cannot be upheld. So, is esport a sport? The aforementioned counter-arguments may seem reasonable at first, but a deeper look reveals some logical gaps.

Physical Exertion

Esports are exhausting. Those two-hour Counter-Strike matches or Best-of-Three series in Dota 2 are absolutely draining. They take a toll and demand a lot of mental and physical fortitude. When FaZe Clan and Cloud9 fought in the overtime of the Boston CSGO Major, the pressure on those players to perform in front of ten thousand live viewers was indescribable. Still, they kept calm and focused. They never let themselves be distracted from the game for just one millisecond.

Researchers at the German Sports University Cologne have studied esports players and found remarkable insights on the physical aspect of competitive video games. For one, the movement and action of the players is entirely asymmetrical. The left and right hands work separately and different brain regions are used independently. These demands are completely outside of anything that a regular person will ever have to experience. The pressure and stress of competing on stage make the players’ hearts race similarly to those of Formula 1 drivers. 

At this point, esports are not just about fun. The players put one hundred percent of their energy and their capabilities into the game, just like traditional athletes. Chess players aren’t moving a lot and Formula racers are stuck to their seats for the entirety of the competition. There is certainly more to sports than just running around a lot.

Split-second decisions make all the difference
Split-second decisions make all the difference

High Mechanical and Cognitive Demands

StarCraft players sometimes achieve 300 clicks per minute. This means that they click their mouse up to five times per second. That alone is insane, but take into account that they’re doing it on purpose as well. Every one of those clicks happens for a reason. The players have to make decisions multiple times per second, or else they’ll fall behind. Behind every movement, there is a carefully crafted-out master plan. 

Counter Strike players have to react within the shortest amounts of time. If you’ve ever tried it yourself, you’ll know that flick-shots aren’t easy. The eyes and hands of pro players have to be perfectly in sync, so much so that millimeters of movement on the mousepad can make the difference between virtual life and death. 

Ethical Values

Many defenders of traditional sports argue that they want to uphold the ‘values’ in sports. In violent games, such as Counter Strike or Call of Duty, they see a violation of those values. The graphical display would make them morally questionable and perhaps even dangerous. 

But what about boxing, mixed-martial-arts and fencing? Don’t they have a violent component and quite a graphical display? Most importantly, in these disciplines, people are hurt (and sometimes even killed) in real life. A headshot in CSGO might look violent, but the players themselves are not harmed in any way or form. 

Hans Jagnow, president of the German Esports Federation, sums this up in an interview: “None of our esports athletes get to the point at which they hurt each other. Instead, the games have a certain content. A narrative, a display, of sorts. The fact is, not the players shoot each other, but the game’s characters – and the players stand up afterwards and shake hands peacefully.” Maybe the divide between sports and esports is too wide to bridge. Maybe esports should not be considered sports. Some think that this debate about semantics is doing nothing. After all, isn’t that just a name? Is esports a sport? Who cares!

Does it really matter what it’s called? After all, players have joyfully dedicated their lives to the competition long before anyone had the idea of making Counter Strike or League of Legends an official sport. Likely, they will continue even without the official title. The industry is doing well already and with franchising, some clubs have become multi-million Dollar companies without any traditional sports background.

Recognition in Law

So why is everybody so hell-bent on making esports a sport? A lot of it has to do with how governments currently view esports. In Germany, for instance, many amateur sports clubs can get around paying tax by declaring themselves non-profit organizations. This is hugely important, as it leaves more financial resources with the clubs.

Currently, German clubs can’t add esports to their portfolio without losing their non-profit status. This means that traditional clubs likely won’t engage with esports at all, leaving a huge gap in the player development pipeline. Many amateur groups have formed, but they are not eligible for the same kind of treatment by the state. 

The government let the question “Is esport a sport?” open to the German Olympic Committee, who have flatly answered ‘no’. At least they recognize sport games, like FIFA and Madden, but they won’t engage with Call of Duty or PUBG anytime soon. This lack of recognition leaves a gaping hole in the support structure of esports. Imagine a place where young and aspiring players could gather in amateur clubs and compete in local events. Collecting more and more experience, they would advance to regional events and eventually reach the highest level of national competition. There are millions of esports enthusiasts in Germany and so many more across the entire globe. With the right kind of tools, some of them could become the next stars players. 

Is esports a sport? It certainly looks like one!
Is esports a sport? It certainly looks like one!

Esports Are Becoming More Socially Accepted

As more and more people are drawn to esports, the acceptance is also growing stronger among the general public. Even if esports aren’t yet considered a sport, many now believe them to be a viable competition – and a viable career path. Universities are spawning esports courses and degrees left and right. Companies like DHL, BMW and Pringles have signed sponsorships with the biggest event circuits in an effort to reach younger audiences.

Recently, the German government has adopted a more accepting stance towards esports. With the introduction of a special visa, players can now stay in the country for up to 90 days to compete. The process has been simplified, so that it has become much easier to bring teams and players to events, even for month-long leagues. But esports are still not viewed as a ‘real’ job in most of the world. Often times, players are denied visas. Teams end up with one or two players missing, either dropping out of events or fielding last-minute stand-ins. 

Read this: What are the Biggest Esports Games?

So Is Esport a Sport?

There is no definitive answer to this question. On the surface, there appear to be big differences between traditional sports and esport. But when looking closer, these differences increasingly fade. As chess and boxing show, physical demands and ‘ethical purity’ are not universal values of sport, so it would be unfair to only judge competitive video games by these standards. Is Esport a Sport? We don’t really know. But perhaps the question is framed wrongly. Maybe we should ask: “Do esports deserve the same recognition in law as sports?“

Because this is what it comes down to. This is what fans want and need. If esports receive the same kind of rights and treatment as traditional sports, clubs can pick them up and provide grassroots opportunities. Player can travel between countries without having to jump through all of those tedious visa hoops. Esports should be universally recognized as a competitive discipline and as a real job. Only then can player compete under the best of circumstances and become true, professional virtual athletes.

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