Are online eSports really ‘sports’?

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At the time of writing this article, taking place is a major eSports tournament with 16 of the world’s best teams competing for a prize pool of $250,000… for simply being good at a computer game.

But is it really that simple? Can we name professional gamers ‘athletes’, or is the world of professional gaming nothing like professional sports? The conventional reaction follows the lines of ‘no way: sport is sport, gaming is gaming’ side of things, but is there a blurred line between the two?

The first drawback for eSports in being named a legitimate sport is the fact that it doesn’t take any physical strength, or any real physical ability at all. Some pros complain of repetitive strain injuries and the likes but, ultimately, compare gaming to traditional sports and they’re obviously worlds apart – sitting at a desk will never be as physical as hammering a ball around a pitch for 90 mins. But if we presume that a sport has to have a certain level of physicality, then where do we draw the line? Having played semi-professional eSports, it is no less physical than darts, archery or shooting, which are all regarded as sports. They are, however, completely skill-based sports. This doesn’t seem any different to the majority of eSports which takes not only high levels of skill and mental strength, it also needs teamwork, tactics and experience.

In order to be a top athlete in any sport you have to train hard, so what about professional gamers – how hard do they train, and what kind of training is it? Of course, they train every day and have specific training and practice routines within their teams in order to be the best. Not all of it is gaming, lots of it comes down to cognitive tests, reaction training as well as psychological training – being able to perform under pressure and to maintain high levels of focus for hours on end isn’t easy in any sport. Some might argue that just gaming constantly is either just something to do for fun and not serious, or that constant gaming is a complete waste of time. However, sport can also be played ‘just for fun’, similarly it can be argued that it is ‘a waste of time’. It all comes down to what the individual sees as a ‘waste of time’, and whether the individual wants to do something ‘just for fun’ or competitively.

I would argue that neither sport nor eSports are a waste of time, or that they are exclusively non-competitive. Sports can be beneficial for your health, your mental state, your social life and for your general happiness. Similar benefits can be found in eSports. Of course, playing games all day and never exercising can be negative for your health, and plenty of eSports players are overweight and unfit in traditional sporting terms, but they are fit to participate in what they want to participate in, which is what is important – plenty of ‘Olympic athletes’ in shooting and archery are also overweight, as are many players of darts and snooker.

There has been extensive research into the effects of gaming on the human brain, and professional gamers are noted as having some of the highest cognitive abilities in the world thanks to the hours spent practicing and training. While Roger Federer does 10 hours of fitness training per week, alongside being on court for 40 days in a row at a time during the off season, Get_Right, who was regarded as the number 1 CS:GO player in 2013, practices in game with his team for 6 hours a day, then continues to do his own practice for another 2-3 hours per day. His team, alongside many other eSports teams, have their own ‘team house’ so that they can play and discuss their strategies better. While Federer and Get_Right are worlds apart with regards to their traditional athleticism, they both do put in a lot of time to be the best in their particular games.

Finally, looking at sports and eSports as a whole, there are some important similarities to note, the first being that they are both competitive activities that can be played either in teams or alone, dependent wholly on the type of game being played. Second, they can be played either for fun or professionally, even as a job. Third, to become a pro you need talent, hours and hours of practice, coaching – most pro eSports teams have a coach – and dedication. And fourth, both have events for different levels of skill, or simply bigger and smaller tournaments: just as tennis has four ‘Grand Slams’ or ‘majors’, CS:GO has four ‘majors’ per year, with all other events simply feeding teams into the majors.

That said, as a huge sports fan as well as a huge eSports fan, I personally still can’t place eSports and sports as being the same exact thing. They both fall under the same umbrella of sport, but a distinction must be made between sports that are played with physicality/skill, and those that are played mainly with skill. While I wouldn’t put eSports in the same arena as football or rugby, I see no reason as to why it isn’t as much of a sport as shooting, archery, snooker and the likes. No doubt as eSports get bigger, society will codify properly what eSports really is, and the whole debate will be settled.

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