Any new sport that has risen to prominence has been met with pushback to some degree. In recent years, mixed martial arts and stock car racing have been routinely mocked, but have still grown to mainstream visibility despite this.
Esports is no different.
Popular competitive titles including Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Street Fighter, and Heroes of the Storm have been aired on major television networks. For each such appearance esports makes, social media is flooded with questions like “why are children playing video games in front of a crowd” and “who would watch this?”
the Overwatch League grand finals will be on ABC national television today
SO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS
🚨ITS NOT A SPORT
🚨WHY IS THIS ON TV
🚨PUSSIFICATION OF AMERICA
🚨SLASHER HIGHLIGHTING IT ALL
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) September 29, 2019
Even among those who actually appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to become a top talent in esports, there’s a lack of consensus over one key question. Is esports actually a sport? While the short answer is a simple “yes,” the work that it takes to get to that answer isn’t nearly as simple.
The first step in determining whether esports is a sport is answering the question “what is a sport?” That’s a difficult question to answer on its own as there are many possible explanations, some of which have many inherent contradictions therein.
For fans of up-and-coming sports, the prevailing thought is often that their favorite new sport needs to win over prominent tastemakers in order to “become mainstream.” The issue with that is these gatekeepers often put their weight behind things that don’t necessarily qualify as sports. Before getting into esports, major sports networks like ESPN have broadcasted things like the World Series of Poker as a sport. The International Olympic Committee recognizes chess as a sport, but some others would say the board game doesn’t quite qualify.
Fans of sports like football or basketball that resist esports would likely do so based on the sedentary nature of esports, which has players sitting in place rather than moving around. Countering that would be a host of past and present Olympic sports such as archery, shooting, and equestrianism, as well as all forms of auto racing.
Even in the strictly literal sense, there’s conflict. The Cambridge Dictionary defines sport as “a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort” while Dictionary.com defines sport as “an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess.”
So what is a sport? Much like art, there’s a level of subjectivity at both the personal and social level in terms of what qualifies as sport. And generally speaking, that comes down to how much money is involved.
Kickball is considered a children’s game rather than a sport, but the algebra would change if it involved multi-million dollar contracts and a television deal. This isn’t a theory either, as basketball was designed for and largely played by children for decades before professional play began and the game hit the mainstream.
Fundamentally, sports are simply games that have higher stakes behind them and esports has millions of dollars up for grabs in some cases. It’s hard to argue against esports being a sport in that case.