Can Video Games Be Sports? Part 1

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I recently stumbled on an article at Bleacher Report that inarticulately defined the word “sport”; rather than actually distinguishing sports from other forms of competition, the author set boundaries based on what he wanted for the word. In a particularly dull point of journalism, the author states:

“Even if there are Video Game Championships out there, they are events, they are in no way sports because most of the competitors are people who not only have a hard time making friends with the opposite sex, a mandatory process in the circle of life, but are most likely physically weak and afraid of natural sunlight.”

As both a sports fan and a game enthusiast, I have often wondered if there is a clear distinction between being a fan for college football and being a fan of League of Legends. With the rising popularity of eSports, video games will eventually enter into mainstream culture like traditional sporting events. Right now we can draw the line between video games and sports based on how sports are played and consumed by the masses, but the landscape has been changing rapidly. The distinction between video game and sports competitions has begun to blur, which makes the definition of sport even more important.

To call major video game competitions sports right now is pushing it. I want to explore why I think that is, and determine where video game competitions need to grow in order to become a sport. There is a set list of qualities that may be prescribed to both game and sport:

 Physicality

It seems that the most natural distinction between video game competitions and sports is the physicality, but it is also one of the weaker distinctions.  There is an obsession with sport being a physical activity, but that is not what defines it. A sport is defined by the culture of hard work and conditioning surrounding a competitive activity, not the activity itself.   Sports require tremendous conditioning, attention to detail, muscle memory and mental resilience, however, all these things can be found in video game competitions as well.

Video games are a physical activity, if only technically.  It takes reaction time and hard work to develop the skills to compete for a video game championship.  Just as an athlete is judged on their measurable stats (i.e. 40 meter dash, long jump, etc.), StarCraft 2 players are judged by their actions per minute (APM) and ELO. 

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A Captive Audience

To be considered a sport, a game needs to have a millions of fan and spectators, and fans need to be able to view matches live and remotely. Online game spectating is growing worldwide. As an Economist article featuring Sundance DiGiovanni (CEO and Founder of Major League Gaming) points out, eSports have never been more popular. At their headline event in 2012 Major League Gaming received 4.7 million unique viewers.  At this rate it won’t be long until the most popular competitive video games (League of Legends and StarCraft 2) rival sports in pure viewership.

Audience matters when it comes to sports because the culture defines the sport, and sports have been designed and redesigned with spectators in mind. Fans can even influence the outcome of individual games through cheering or jeering.  Getting a captive audience is the first step in developing a sport.  If a game can obtain a captive audience, they can get sponsors.  Sponsors open up many lucrative channels including paid players and celebrities. 

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Media Attention (and Criticism)

Sports evolve at a snail’s pace and the journalism around it reflects that fact. Sports journalism focuses on the same game played hundreds of time by different teams.  Video games, on the other hand, rise and fall very quickly and as a result lack the journalistic depth and emotion that sports maintain. This is not to say that video games are absent in the news, but the media traditionally writes about new and unusual games, not the same game over and over again. If the rules of a sport were changing as quickly and as drastically as a video game, there would be no way to compare athletes across seasons, let alone across a decade of competitive play.  Competitively played video games lack the history which sports leans on to draw people together.

International gaming tournaments receive a lot of attention, but the biographical and player dramas that accumulate through long careers are important to sports and have yet to mature with video games. Riot Games does all the right things by presenting leaderboards and drawing attention to celebrity players, but it’s because they have a financial interest in the games continued play. And while professional sports have organizations that manage the system, they can also exist outside of that realm. Until very recently when third parties like MLG became a mediating force behind competitive video games, eSports were entirely dependent on the company that manages them.  As MLG gets more popular, we might start to see games journalism evolve to include and pander to competitive game spectators.

 

Next week we’ll discuss regional affiliation and rule violations