The Case for eSports

Are eSports, in fact, real sports? Not according to ESPN President John Skipper. “It’s not a sport – it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.” Skipper said, according to Re/code. It’s an odd statement, to be sure. Physical skill and endurance aren’t the only measures of competition and sportsmanship, especially considering the coverage that other unconventional sports get, such as fishing, poker, golf, bowling, chess, etc.

Does a golfer use as much strength and stamina as a football player? Does a football player use as much finesse and calculation as a golf player? Does any sport rely on the healthy dose of luck that poker does? These questions can be argued and debated ad nauseum, but the simple truth of the matter is that anything that’s very popular and takes a unique skill set to participate in can be considered a sport. Just because you’re in front of a computer doesn’t mean you’re not employing a vast and varied set of skills and knowledge.

As our digital age continues to progress at this exponential rate, it was only a matter of time until the matter of eSports became a hot topic. With Starcraft tournaments being popularized and sponsored in South Korea as early as 2002, eSports have had over a decade to get rolling, and it doesn’t show any indication of slowing down. With Call of Duty, Starcraft, League of Legends, DOTA 2 leading the pack, the competition has been fierce, and the prizes have been astronomical amounts of money and corporate sponsorships. If, in no other way, eSports have copied physical sports in this way – companies sponsor players and teams, prize money is pooled and won, and side-bets are all the rage.

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Despite the immense popularity of these tournaments, there’s still the “old guard” – the group of people who grew up not playing video games, and therefore not seeing their potential. To them, video games are still synonymous with nerds, geeks, and people living in their basement, not multi-million dollar teams flying to America from China and Korea to participate in a computer game championship. The 2013 League of Legends World Championship was held in Los Angeles, California, at the Staples Center — a convention center famous for hosting the most popular musicians, sports teams, and limited events. Over 32 million people watched the tournament online, with a concurrent viewership of 8.5 million people – that is well above what most standard TV shows get on any given night! In addition to those mind-boggling numbers, the stadium itself was sold out.

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I was lucky enough to be at the Staples Center that night, and I can tell you without a doubt: eSports are a bonafide sport. We cheered, we cringed, we booed, and we communed together with the strangers sitting near us. Living in the greater Los Angeles area and having been to Dodgers and Lakers games as well, It felt as vibrant and real as those did, and sometimes even more so. Seeing a sold-out championship live, in person, will make the heart of the most jaded opponent waver a bit. Watching a team claim their $1 million prize for their skill and teamwork absolutely reinforces that they work just as hard as any other team in any other sport – though obviously not all work is physical.

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Oliver Fedtke, a German marketing professional who champions the cause of eSports being defined as a real sport, recently posted an interview on his blog with Professor Ingo Froböse. Dr. Froböse is the head of the Center for Health through Sport and Movement at the German University of Cologne. When Mr. Fedtke asked Dr. Froböse if eSports were a sport, he had this to say:

“Sport is more than visible movements you see on a sports field. In fact, this is just one component of a big puzzle that defines the term “sport”. Mental skills, strategies or training are just a few other examples of components which influence the performance. All of them can be found in Competitive Gaming. Although the visible movement may not be comparable to traditional sports like football or swimming, the motor activity component of Gaming should not be underestimated. The movements may be in a smaller range but they are usually very fast and accurate. For that reasons, Competitive Gaming can be ranked among the “normal” sports.”

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Mr. Fedtke went on to ask what eSport athletes should be doing to gain more notoriety, and Dr. Froböse’s answer was to intensify public education. Get the message out there that these games are intense, competitive, and worthy of being considered as such. Having a renowned athlete and head of a sports college make a statement like this is a huge step in the right direction for eSports. If someone like Dr. Froböse – with experience in the industry – is willing to accept gaming tournaments as a sport, there will undoubtedly be others who follow suit. The word just needs to get out.

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Thankfully, those of us residing in the United States already have a badge of pride regarding this issue – the US government, as of 2013, fully recognizes eSports athletes as professional athletes, which lets foreign nationals have much easier times entering the country. They’re now able to apply for a visa under the banner of a professional athlete, as opposed to a standard visitor, which makes the process much more streamlined for them.

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As the tournaments continue to grow in size and money, more and more companies will take note, and eSports will become a fully-fledged sport, recognized even by those who don’t and won’t play video games. Current or former athletes like Dr. Froböse will continue to recognize the merits of the athletes, and acceptance will come. I, for one, can’t wait until that day.

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