Quick, what are the first few things that come to mind when you hear the word “sport?”
- Competition, wins, and losses
- Athletic ability
- Physical activity
- Fans and entertainment; stadiums, fields, and arenas
- Practice and dedication
- College scholarships
Going a step further, you probably think of baseball, basketball, football, and the like. Some of you might say NASCAR and other forms of racing. Others might even debate things like poker and hot dog eating.
I mean, all of these things are covered by ESPN, right? It’s only the biggest sports television and entertainment company in the world.
So, then, what about playing video games? Should holding a controller in your hand and hitting buttons on that controller to direct the movement of virtual characters on your TV, computer monitor, or mobile device be considered sport?
Let’s start by throwing the idea against some of those definitive words conjured up when thinking about the meaning of “sport"—competition, entertainment, athletic ability. When you pit video games against those terms, do they match up?
(Oh, and an important piece to note. I’m a huge baseball fan, playing it and basketball for most of my life through high school. If you would have asked me back then if video games were sports, I would have laughed heartily. Today, I’m a changed person, and the absolute skyrocketing surge of popularity in video games and eSports has helped drive such a shift in mindset.)
1. Competition, wins, and losses
I’d consider this one of the easiest points to prove. The basic tenet of any sport is competition. A team or individual competes against another team or individual in hopes of achieving victory.
Competition is all around us…I mean, even Monopoly is competitive (to the point of turning friends into enemies and family members against each other!).
So, it’s not a stretch at all to say video games are competitive. With any type of video game - but especially those with players going head to head with another player - you’re going to have competition. Even if you’re alone and playing a campaign against simulated competition in the form of a computer, you’re still very much competing, right?
2. Athletic ability
What makes athletes like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson so special? Both played professional football and baseball, and were quite good at both.
My point is, there are great athletes all around us. But, a large percentage of those athletes are only good at the sport in which they’ve found professional success. Put a professional basketball player on a baseball diamond and hilarity will probably ensue.
Then, when you consider the fact that each sport – and each position within a sport, even – requires a specific athletic ability, who is to say video game playing can’t just be another set of a different type of athletic skill?
A quarterback has a tremendously different skill set than a wide receiver. Same goes for the skill of a pitcher in baseball versus that of a shortstop.
What athletic ability does a video game player have?
While playing video games doesn’t require as many abilities as other sports, it does share a big one—coordination. Just like you need coordination to catch a 90 MPH baseball in a glove, or hit one with a bat, video game players need coordination to strike at the perfect time, synching the technique they use on their controller with whatever their eyes see unfolding in front of them.
Video gaming also shares another big ability with traditional sports—stamina. Quite frequently, head to head video game battles are a true test of a gamer simply trying to outlast their opponent. First one to blink (aka, get tired, worn down, etc.), loses.
And last, but certainly not least, what about responsiveness? It’s an ability required of pretty much any fast-moving athlete, especially someone like a hockey goaltender. Successful video game players must also be able to quickly respond to a game’s changing landscape, whether it’s to counter a thrown punch from an opponent, or even getting their on-screen athlete in their favorite sports game to dodge a tackle or dribble past the other team.
Point being, an NFL lineman is considered an athlete thanks to their strength in blocking and tackling, but those abilities vary greatly from the speed and agility required of a running back.
While video game players must harness a very different type of athletic ability, it’s an athletic ability nonetheless.
3. Physical activity
Many who don’t consider video games to be sport probably haven’t really endured a marathon gaming session. Their video game experiences have probably consisted of couches or lounge chairs and a game here or there when they’re bored.
But for professional gamers, physical activity and the resulting strain is real. There is rapid button pushing and continuous joystick shifting. Is it as physically taxing as running up and down the soccer pitch for 90 minutes? Of course not. It’s a shorter burst of activity, and contained to a much smaller space or “playing field,” but again, it’s physical activity nonetheless.
4. Fans and entertainment; Stadiums, fields, and arenas
In what is typically a scene reserved for something like a Golden State Warriors basketball game, it's common to have arenas packed to the gills, full of fans who are attending to show their support of their favorite gamers.
In fact, more than 173,000 attendees gathered to watch the 2017 World Championship held in Katowice, Poland…which was 100,000 more than the group that was in attendance for the Super Bowl that same year.
Then, consider the viewing audience at home—for the event referenced above, 46 million unique online viewers were looking on. It’s also been said that on average, young gamers ages 18-25 spend 3 hours and 25 minutes online watching others play video games.
Think about that. What do you do during the week for nearly 3.5 hours? You probably watch a few hour-long TV shows, right? Or maybe you spend around 45 minutes each night reading before bed?
Last year in total, esports tournaments and live streams drew 258 million unique visitors.
5. Practice, dedication, and training
I’ve played video games. You’ve played video games. Because of that, it’s hard to think that the activity we were taking part in was in fact sport. I mean, we’ve probably done so in our pajamas, on the couch, etc.
The key is that there are multiple levels of an activity in which one can engage; different tiers of skill and proficiency, and the level you and I were engaging in would probably be considered the lowest of levels.
I mean, you wouldn’t draw one single picture and call yourself an artist, or sing one song and consider yourself a vocalist.
To become a professional gamer, one must practice and dedicate time, daily even, to their craft. The more skilled one becomes, the more like sports video games become.
And training doesn’t mean simply playing more games; there is plenty of that, sure, but there is a lot more that goes into it. In fact, many eSports athletes endure physical and strength training to avoid common eSports injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow. And of course training to improve coordination and the aforementioned responsiveness.
Proper nutrition and hydration must also be top of mind. Just as a cramp would be disastrous to any athlete mid-stride, a gamer with a cramped hand is basically useless.
6. College scholarships
You might have smirked and chuckled the first time you heard of a university fielding a competitive eSports team. I know I did.
But, that “can you believe that” attitude was quickly erased upon learning that not only are post-secondary institutions fielding teams, but they are awarding scholarships to fill those teams.
In fact, there are 81 schools making up the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE), and all but two offer scholarships.
If asked to associate sports memories with major colleges, you might recall a pretty good University of Oklahoma football team and Heisman Trophy winner, Kyler Murray, this past season, or Boise State’s epic 2007 Fiesta Bowl victory featuring a now famous Statue of Liberty play to seal the win.
There is also plenty of sports history from schools like New Mexico State, which has made the NCAA tournament in five of the last six years, and Wichita State, which is the college baseball’s highest winning team for the past 31 seasons.
Well, believe it or not, these schools and other high-profile institutions also field eSports teams. And, based on industry growth and the staggering viewership numbers mentioned above, they could very well be writing college sports history books of their own.
So, is there still a question?
I know what you’re thinking…if video games are considered sport, then what about chess and similar games? Simply, chess fails against two of the 5 points above—athletic ability and physical activity (it’s much more mental than anything, and the resulting “physical activity” is not a factor in the outcome of the match).
So, are video games a sport? Yes. Is it the only sport you can play while simultaneously devouring a pepperoni pizza? Perhaps. Although, I’ve been stuck in my fair share of baseball diamond outfields where a quick nap probably would have gone unnoticed.
Either way, the narrative is changing. For those of us who engage with video games as a hobby, they’re fun and low key. For the highly-trained gamers and millions of viewers tuning in to watch, they’re a true sport.
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