Can video games be sports?

The Olympic Games are as ancient a Greek tradition as the Athenian concept of democracy. So long as there’s been human culture, sports have been an integral part of it. In their many forms and over their long history, sports have provided relief from the trudgery of daily life and a less bloody way to resolve conflicts than all-out war.

A new kind of competition has sprung up in recent years, inciting passion and fervor as sports have for centuries. However these competitions take place not on a court or a field, but inside the world of video games. So-called e-sports are growing rapidly and powerfully: the current Dota 2 tournament offers a rich purse, a huge audience, and plenty of glory for the winners. And it’s not the only one. E-sports have devoted fans and famous superstars, huge spectator numbers, and plenty of trash-talking.

Professional gaming is established and popular — but is it sports? Vlad Savov and Sam Byford debate the issue.

by Vlad Savov

A crowd of thousands erupts in rapturous cheer inside LA’s Staples Center while millions more spectate from afar via web streams and TV broadcasts. Only it’s not Kobe Bryant and the Lakers electrifying the fans, but the SK Telecom T1 team that’s just won the League of Legends (LoL) Season 3 World Championship. In total, 32 million people tuned in to watch them defeat Royal Club in a grand five-on-five battle played out in a virtual arena of mythical creatures and magical superpowers.

That LoL final lacked none of the appeal of the basketball games more commonly hosted at the venue. It offered an exhibition of skill, spectacle, and direct confrontation. It’s true that owning the competition in a video game is not as physically demanding as running a fast break, but athleticism is actually a secondary feature of sports. Their core appeal is conflict. That’s why gymnastics and weightlifting, some of the most physically intensive competitions you can engage in, are nowhere near as popular as games like baseball where the batter and pitcher can stare each other down. If sports are a metaphor for war, then e-sports are an even more suitable medium given that most of them are literally about killing the enemy.

The logical extreme of online multiplayer gaming, e-sports are simply games with a finely tuned competitive balance and a passionate group of players who over time have evolved from amateurs to professionals. The rigors of training and staying at the top of your game are identical, whether they be digital or physical.

Just like their traditional counterparts, e-sports have teams, star players, jersey sponsorships, and millions of adoring followers producing volumes of fan art. Dota 2, the other big title besides LoL that’s driving the rising popularity of e-sports, recently sold out Seattle’s KeyArena in less than an hour. The weeklong event that everyone was so eager to attend is The International 4, whose main event starts next week and will decide the winners of an astounding $10.5 million prize pool. Until now, those who consider pro gaming inferior to professional athletics could point to the gap in money and event attendance between the two. After this epic tournament is done, it’ll be hard if not impossible to distinguish between e-sports and conventional ones.

by Sam Byford

As a fan of both sports and video games, I love the concept of e-sports. I agree that athleticism shouldn't be a prerequisite to celebrating competition. The first time I went to South Korea and saw StarCraft on live TV it really did feel like the future. But the term as it stands today is nowhere close to justifying the potential of "electronic sports." Almost all of the attention is focused on MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like LoL and Dota 2 — games that have largely risen to prominence through the quirk of their free-to-play business models. I get the appeal of these games’ complexity and tactics, but it's disappointing to me that so-called e-sports don't highlight a broader range of skills. The term feels like a desperate grasp for legitimacy by associating with the diverse, inclusive world of traditional sports. Those most passionate about video games should be comfortable with the fact that they are games, not sports.

Imagine a world where every sport was a variation of snooker. Dota and snooker are both inscrutable pastimes that make little sense to the uninitiated, despite the considerable amount of physical and mental skill required. And that’s why both will remain niche, if worthy, interests. Meanwhile, billions of people are following the World Cup, the premier international competition for the most popular sport on the planet. Soccer is often called "The Beautiful Game," but there was another name when the rules were first codified that sums up much of its appeal: "The Simplest Game." Beautiful and simple — Dota is neither of these things. It has none of the history and emotion that all the greatest sports are steeped in, and none of the immediacy that makes it clear to a newcomer why the competition matters.

You call these competitions the "logical extreme of online multiplayer gaming." I agree — "e-sports" simply continue what's gone on for decades both online and off, while limiting the focus and potential audience. Meanwhile, no one has any problem talking about "a game of football." So what's in a name?

by Vlad Savov

The very legitimacy of gaming, the web, and everything you and I hold dear is at stake here. Consider the pride most parents feel when they’re able to tell their friends that their child has received an athletic scholarship to a reputable university. Well, you can now get a pro-gaming scholarship at Robert Morris University, but "my son is a gamer" is still something people confess with embarrassment rather than with the beaming joy of a gratified parent. The way we speak of things affects the way we think of them.

You are right in saying that professional gaming feels alien to many people because of the complexity of the games involved. But traditional sports aren’t all that simple either. Consider that the most popular sport in the United States — which is so entwined with the nation’s identity that it’s called American football everywhere else — has a rulebook long and complicated enough that even its own referees are not familiar with its full extent. I’ll never forget watching my first NFL game and wondering why the hell everyone chased after the ball on a punt only to stand around and watch it tumble to a stop by itself.

The lack of history for e-sports that you bemoan is the chief reason why they’re not as widely accepted. Whereas soccer’s offside rule has been passed down through generations and internalized at an early age by most, the concepts and conditions for winning in video games all have to be learned anew. The question you have to ask yourself is, if you were confronted with basketball as a brand-new thing today, would you embrace it as a sport or freak out about the odd scoring system and the arcanery of backcourt passes and traveling violations?

Simplicity is a feature of many of the most popular sports, but it’s not a necessary precondition. And it’s not like e-sport organizers aren’t taking steps to make their games more accessible. At TI4 this week, Valve is introducing a round of Newcomer’s Broadcasts that will ease people in to the basic precepts of Dota 2. Give it a chance, spectate a match for longer than a few minutes, and you too might be enchanted by the sophisticated teamwork and intricate strategy on display.

To continue to treat e-sports as some obscure and value-less vocation is to continue to treat the web — where they were spawned and fully developed — as a pale shadow of "real life." The fact is that every moment spent on the web is an inextricable part of real life. Video games are new and different, but not necessarily inferior to physical ones. All the hallmarks of mental alacrity that grass-based sports exhibit — from positioning and footwork to planning and foresight — are also present in e-sports. You play with an avatar, but the skill and the thrill of competition are still just as real.

by Sam Byford

I think it’s cool that millions of people will watch Dota players compete for millions of dollars this week. Really, I do. But to apply a label like "e-sports" is optimistic at best and specious at worst. It implies that a substantial paradigm shift has occurred, all the while ignoring the fact that serious gaming tournaments have been going on for decades — and often with games that have much more in common with actual sports than MOBAs. Let’s call Dota tournaments what they are: very well-organized video game events. Yeah, you can get a scholarship in League of Legends, if you’re good enough. But you could have made a living playing Quake in 1996.

I am into the idea that competitive gaming is a valuable pursuit. Street Fighter IV had just come out in arcades when I moved to Japan, so I often went down to local game centers just to hang out with new people. It’s an astonishing experience to watch or play against people who work a stick and six buttons with the agility of a trained touch typist.

Fighting games are a great spectator activity because they have a lot in common with one-on-one sports like boxing, tennis, or martial arts. It’s no coincidence Sega made arcade hits out of both Virtua Fighter and Virtua Tennis — both are deceptively complex battles of strategy, endurance, and dexterity. And it’s hard to imagine a more electrifying moment watching a video game than Daigo Umehara’s famous 17-hit parry and match-winning combo against Justin Wong in a Street Fighter III: Third Strike semi-final from 10 years ago. You don’t have to be a skilled Street Fighter player to know that it was something special.

This weekend sees the Evo 2014 tournament take place in Las Vegas — the largest fighting-game event in the world. It’s streamed online, with prize money and sponsorship and so on, and is now in its 18th year. But you won’t find anyone calling it an "e-sports" tournament, because much of the fighting-game community recognizes the term for what it is — a pretentious and overhyped buzzword that rings of insecurity. With its present, narrow remit, it does a disservice to the spirit of competitive video games. Why does Dota even need the cachet of games played with balls on fields?

Dota and League of Legends are nothing more or less than video game phenomenons, following on from others that have been and gone. And that’s totally okay.

by Vlad Savov

The people most deeply involved with those games would actually agree with you, Sam. They’re less concerned with how they’re classified and more focused on either developing their skills or expanding the ecosystem to include more players and fans. But that’s actually shirking some very real responsibility that comes with the prestige of hosting tournaments that are as well-funded and -attended as the big sporting championships. First among them is the point you made earlier about inclusion.

One of the unsavory parallels that exist between classic sports and their digital brethren is a strong undercurrent of segregation. Whereas athletic sports demand this through their emphasis on physical strength, e-sports can be contested between men and women on a perfectly even footing — in an arena of competitive thinking, the only body part that matters is the player’s brain. Unfortunately, that opportunity to define an even more inclusive type of sport isn’t being captured and e-sports remain stuck in the ways of the past.

A gaming tournament recently elicited a flurry of disapproval for dividing its competitions along gender lines and the atmosphere at elite gaming events is famously unwelcoming to women. But that same tournament reversed its policy in response to the universal outcry and opened its doors to all comers. Taking competitive gaming seriously is the best way to encourage the people who do it to act with the ethics appropriate to a real cultural touchstone, rather than some niche pastime.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we regard e-sports as such or not. That’s what they are. Players wear jerseys with as many sponsor names as you’ll see on a Formula 1 car. The US government is granting athletic visas to League of Legends players. Valve is handing out nearly $5 million to the best Dota 2 team. The most popular live-streaming broadcasts on the internet come from matches fought out in those two games, and their grand finals are being staged in NBA arenas and World Cup stadiums.

The competitive spirit is gradually expanding from the physical to the digital, and though resistance to this change may be natural, it will eventually be shown to have been futile.

by Sam Byford

I have no doubt you’re right in that what we know today as e-sports will only continue to expand along the present trajectory. At least as long as the games themselves remain popular, that is. And that’s another serious problem with calling something like Dota 2 a "sport" — how could anyone possibly predict its staying power? The game came out last year. Whether we consider it a sport in a 2014 vacuum or not is going to prove irrelevant.

Most modern sports were codified in the 19th century, and much of the emotion we invest in watching them gets its power from that context. Brazil’s World Cup humiliation at the hands of Germany is poignant because it could well signal the end of a soccer era. Each new athletic world record is a cumulative achievement that builds on the past efforts of humans who played by the same rules. Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory last year meant the world to the people of Britain because it ended a losing streak that had persisted for close to a century. But it’s hard to imagine many caring about Dota 2 a decade from now, never mind 10.

Again, though, I like the concept of e-sports and in no way mean to disparage those who are making something out of it. And I do believe the worlds of video games, sports, and technology will someday converge to create truly new and mainstream competitive pastimes. I just think calling League of Legends an "e-sport" is beyond premature.

Look at where video games could be headed in the future. Motion control and virtual reality technology improve by leaps and bounds every year. The social infrastructure for players to connect across continents is building up at no less rapid a pace. And the ability for indie developers to publish wonderful titles like Sportsfriends — a collection of completely original games that are informed by the principles of sports — means that there’s never been a better time for the next big thing in competitive gaming to emerge. Maybe we’ll even call it a sport.

But my personal hope is that it has a lot more in common with real sports than the "e-sports" we know today. True e-sports should be designed as such, using the potential of technology to further the possibilities of competition rather than placing existing video game genres into a tournament context. I’m not saying I know what that will look like, but I know we could do better than Dota. Going back to the core principles of mainstream sporting competition — simplicity, immediacy, beauty — would be a good start.


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