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The Free Zone: Are eSports Sports?

By Richard Aihoshi on September 16, 2014 | Columns | Comments

Are eSports Sports?

Earlier this month, John Skipper, President of ESPN, the network that, just this summer, had streamed the finals of the $10 million DOTA 2 championship tournament, The International, opined about eSports that “It's not a sport; it's a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition.” He followed up by saying “Mostly, I'm interested in doing real sports.” Was this frank, disingenuous, hypocritical or maybe just an unconsidered slip of the tongue?

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According to one of the definitions found at dictionary.com, a sport is an “athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.” If we accept this, eSports seems to fit at least as well as a couple of the examples. For instance, it can be argued that angling for certain species or on the professional circuit requires skill or physical prowess. But what about when I'm out mainly to spend time with a friend or two, mostly to talk and share some beers? And what if we know we're in a spot where even a young child could easily reel anything we might hook? That's fishing too, but I wouldn't consider it a sport.

In addition, the same site says a game is a “competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.” It seems clear enough that eSports fits this definition too. So which is it? Or is it both?

My take from this is that we can use semantics to support whatever opinion we already have, especially since we can selectively cite whichever definitions we want. So, using the dictionary won't really tell us whether it's a sport or not.  Essentially all it will do is allow either side of the issue - if indeed there is one - to be defensible.

Another thing that has been brought up is the American government's decision last summer to let League of Legends competitors apply for the P-1 class of visa, the one for athletes. However, this doesn't seem definitive either. Chess and poker players have been eligible for P-1s for at least several years now. Does this actually mean they're athletes and also that those games are sports? Or could this merely have been a bureaucratic ruling to avoid having to create a new, separate category, which might even require amending the applicable legislation?

Frankly, I have no real opinion as to whether eSports should be considered sports. Neither do I care. I very seldom watch the streams of afore-named titles or any others, primarily because I'd rather be playing (generally something else). Furthermore, it's hard to imagine circumstances where I'd be willing to pay to be a spectator, either at home or at a competition site.

But that's me, speaking personally. As an industry observer, I regard the growth of eSports as a positive thing. From this perspective, my interest in watching is immaterial. Many people clearly enjoy doing so, the numbers seem to be growing, and I see no reason to think this trend won't continue.

I do, however, wonder about the size of the potential audience. It's hard to imagine very many non-gamers or casuals becoming spectators, even if the cost is free. So, I assume eSports draws its viewers from the ranks of the relatively hardcore. In this regard, it differs from football, basketball, hockey et al in a couple of rather significant ways. One is that these sports have numerous fans who either never played or stopped long ago. The other is that huge amounts of money flow into them from companies in unrelated industries via advertising, sponsorships and promotions. 

These two things are undoubtedly related. Basically, the relatively narrow nature of the current audience means potential advertisers and sponsors that have broader targets can only get limited reach. This makes it likely that companies outside the game industry can get better bang for their bucks by spending them elsewhere.

We know that eSports has taken steps in this direction in certain Asian markets, mainly Korea and China. However, how quickly our hemisphere will follow suit is still questionable. I've seen the argument that it happened quickly in those countries and will also do so here. This scenario, while possible, does seem to be on the optimistic side.

Closing queries

  • Do you think eSports is a sport? Why or why not?
  • How interested are you in eSports? How often do you watch? Would you pay to watch, and if so, how much?
  • What kind of future do you envisage? Will eSports become widely accepted enough so tournaments are sponsored  / funded by brands with no direct connection to video games? If so, how long will it be until this happens?