There was an interesting debate going on while I was driving home about the emergence of “ESports” and whether it’s an actual sport or not. While I never really though that wolfing down Totinos Pizza Rolls, washing it back with a Mountain Dew and clacking your greasy fingers away furiously on a keyboard was a sport, it did make me start to look at it differently.

First let’s look at the type of popularity we’re talking about here, because I don’t want anyone comparing this to Yugioh cards (or dungeons and dragons virgin orgies for you old farts). This “phenomenon” is gigantic!

SO HOW BIG is this gaming thing? Let’s start with this: Some 205 million people watched or played eSports in 2014, according to market research firm Newzoo — meaning that if the eSports nation were actually a nation, it would be the fifth largest in the world. (They’re coming for you next, Indonesia!) And while eSports have long been biggest in Asia, especially gaming-mad Korea, North America and Europe now claim 28 million eSports fans and the number is growing by 21 percent a year.

I had this long paragraph planned where I was going to mention the website twitch and then stare down my nose at you for not knowing what it is, but ESPN sums it up fairly well:

TWITCH, a video-streaming site that boasts 55 million users, is arguably the most important contributor to eSports’ recent growth. Offering streams of games and tourneys and access to gaming’s stars, it’s also where the next generation of would-be gamers post their own streams. And apparently someone’s watching.

Without delving too much into the Twitch format, you basically set up a camera in your mom’s living room, start playing your game of choice and then beg for partnership from the website or from your viewers. It’s a huge deal to the younger set, and I can promise you when you leave your little niece or nephew unattended after Thanksgiving dinner they are watching one of the newly minted celebrities from this website.

There rest of the article is worth a read because it points out some startling numbers. Numbers where ESports are actually rivaling, if not beating traditional sports for ratings. (Note: I was going to point out that traditional sports are also losing demographically by the ball and chain contracts they still lumber under with cable companies, but that’s for another time) 

So, is it a sport or not?

This is tricky to me, as I do come from the generation that believed it isn’t a sport if it doesn’t involve a ball (and I’ll really date myself by saying it wasn’t a sport if you didn’t use your hands when I was a kid). It isn’t a sport if it didn’t require some athleticism, some kind of genetic code that made you exceptional in some way. we used words like “stud” or “freak” or “savage” to describe these people that squatted down on an offensive line and left a burn trail and a crippled quarterback in their wake.

Despite these conditions I had to class things as sport-worthy or not, I still have come to the conclusion that ESports are the real deal, and here’s why:

1.) There’s a mental aspect to any game. Some sports call it “clutch,” or a “zone” used to describe the pressure and mental anguish of having success or failure on the line and it is your sheer determination, or will power that push you through to victory. Gaming certainly has this. any of you that have ever played or watched a first person shooter can easily see that there is quite a lot going on. Many game modes are team settings, and there is pressure to perform. There are statistics counted up in real time to measure your success or failure. I’ve seen people crack when it comes down to a one on one for a victory, and I’ve felt the excitement of someone strafing their way to victory from what surely looks like the jaws of defeat.

When you consider that there’s an upwards of two million dollars on the line for these competitors in tournaments, I’d say the pressure is real. I’m sure that some will say “Oh well they’re just sitting in a chair, not gathering the last of their strength for a game winning 3.” true, but in any sport there’s terms like “T.C.U.P.” or “total control under pressure” which, for any real athlete is where the game is played. Physical athletes train their bodies to perform functions, and condition themselves so they can be at peak performance for the duration of a game. How they score will depend on the strategies they either are creative enough to implement themselves or the coaching staff carves out for them to employ. So, at its base level it’s a mental game.

2.) Our society is going to have to confront whether experiences are legitimate in virtual space or if they need to be “IRL” (for lack of a better acronym) to be considered reality. I believe ESports is the first iteration of this experience. Surely, these neck bearded degenerate virgins are not physical specimens for the most part, and probably only break a sweat in heavy fat sessions between gaming, but there is an intense learning curve to these games. This is not Pong. These games are very complex and multi faceted; with a player confronted with learning HUD displays, game mechanics, expansive maps, complex control systems, and a variety of other technical aspects before you’re in the business of competing.

In my opinion, while it’s easy to mock the multitudes of hours people “waste” becoming experts at these games, whether you know it or not, it is considered dedication to many, and increasingly handsomely rewarded. Contracts for gamers range from sponsorship, ad revenue from streaming, prize winning from tournaments, etc. Hey, your dad always told you that what made being a professional sports athlete great was “getting paid a king’s ransom to play a kid’s sport.” By that measure, how could you not say Esports is legitimate? If our society is willing to accept that Gladiators exist in the digital domain, I really don’t think it’s any different than a soldier not being considered battle hardened because he/she operated a drone. Right?

3.) Lastly, it’s a sport because the public is SAYING it’s a sport. Look at those numbers in that article. It’s staggering the momentum that’s behind this. When you see these kids clicking away in their own world, you’ve got to see that they are influenced by that neck beard with cheetoh dust all over his controller who can go on an almost infinite kill streak. that guy is the new Michael Jordan.

As with many aspects of our new “participation award” society, instead of celebrating the exceptionally physically gifted, the game has been flipped and now anyone can compete in front of millions of people.  I love it.

10 comments

  1. Lastly, it’s a sport because the public is SAYING it’s a sport.

    Aye, there’s the rub. We could argue until we’re blue in the face about what constitutes a sport or an athlete. But all of that doesn’t matter if in the end people are going to watch/play the games by the millions anyway. Who cares if it’s a sport, it doesn’t make it any more or less legitimate. I don’t understand it and will probably never sit and watch someone else play a video game, but who’s to say that my enjoyment of watching grown men bend over and then plow into each other turning, their brains to mush, is any more rational?

  2. I share this view as well, but it seems to a great many that it’s not a sport without the athletic component. Why I arrived where I did about what you quoted was what I call my “crossfit” example. Crossfitters swear that competing in nonsensical exercise combinations for time is sport-worthy. And while I wouldn’t begrudge a cross fitter for lacking an athletic component, it doesn’t ave a “skill” component which leads me to believe that it’s not a sport.

    Training, athletic or otherwise, is supposed to be in preparation for another activity. Gamers certainly “train” but they’re training for a skill/endurance advantage in their sport. What are crossfitters trsining for? A zombie apocalypse? As another analogy it’s as if they are calling a “sport” the practice of mimicking Bruce Lee’s workout refining without ever actually competing in jest kun do tournaments.

  3. Well it is true that most sports is ultimately played in the head. Even if you miss the winning putt because some shithead crunched a potato chip you lost. Having played way to much WoW (the Dorito stains are pretty much gone) I know that gaming is the same thing. During a raid, when the dog nudges you to go out you can either let the dog out or let him piss on the floor right next to you. During that time of course, the raid wipes.

  4. Here’s what it comes down to – what is your definition of the word “sport”? Is it getting paid? Is it having a massive audience?

    For me, a sport is inherently physical. Even racing cars is extremely physically demanding. I don’t begrudge what’s happening in the space of video game playing. Heck, if I could figure out how to make millions by putting videos on Youtube, I’d do it tomorrow. Soon drone racing will most likely be a hugely popular “sport”.

    But for me to consider video game playing a “sport’, I’d have to also consider Chess a “sport”. It’s mentally demanding, has tens/hundreds of millions of payers/spectators, and the best of the best can make bank playing it.

  5. I kind of hit this wall too. Why isn’t monopoly a sport by my definition? So, the way I’ve rationalized it is two fold: 1.) gaming involves fast twitch responsiveness that many sports contain, and which conventional games are lacking. 2.) there is a growing voice in the community that having peak physical conditioning in real life will help your senses to be sharp for gaming.

    The types of games that have been deemed “sport” worthy are some mma’s like world of war, first person shooters, and fighting games like street fighter. Excluding the harder to defend mma’s, the latter two do require a healthy amount of hand-eye coordination and quick response time. They aren’t exactly like a chess match.

    There are a few of the more famous celebrities in the gaming community that have recognized the need for physical fitness and the benefits of it translating to the sport of video games .

  6. 1.) gaming involves fast twitch responsiveness that many sports contain, and which conventional games are lacking.

    That’s an interesting definition/take. So that would rule out Chess, and most other games. Just not sure I can mentally come to the point where I think/say, “Wow, you moved your thumb with such skill on the d-pad. You’re amazing at that sport.”

  7. To be fair to those of us that sound old, our parents and grandparents didn’t think much about what we did either.

  8. In my mind it runs parallel to your race car driver analogy. Are they doing combines for athleticism? No. Are they Atheletes? Yes. They have to stay as lean as possible and be able to operate under high temperatures in cramped conditions for long periods of time and their senses have to be at their peak because you miss a turn by a second it could be disaster.

    I believe that ability to physically map an environment and operate flawlessly in it exists in gaming. Sure, there’s no weight requirements and the environment isn’t inhospitable but quick thinking and hand eye coordination exist more in that arena than a chess match.

  9. In my mind it runs parallel to your race car driver analogy.

    I’d have to disagree with this. The average F1 driver actually has an amazing physique for one very important reason – the neck has to hold up the head during some very heavy G loads. They have to do some very intensive neck training. There are some shows I’ve watched over the years of average people trying to race cars, and after a single lap they will complain of severe neck pain – it can cause serious damage to your vertebrae if you’re not physically capable of handling the load. Somebody’s thumb on a D-pad isn’t even close.

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