Can Video Games Be Sports? Part 2

This is a two part article – you can find the first half here.

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Regional Affiliation

Regional affiliation is one area where eSports still has room to grow.  In every major sports league and international competition, there is always regional ties and consistent teams.  Regional ties create bonds between large groups of people and strengthen local communities:  two people from Boston are likely to have one or two sports topics they can talk about, allowing them to share stories, rivalries and sports heroes.

Streaming video has been one of the best things to happen to online video game competitions, but the side effect has been a lack of physical representation.  This may not seem like a big deal, but regional affiliation gives people a reason to emotionally attach themselves to a team.  If a person moves to a Miami, suddenly they are allowed to cheer for the Heat.  In the same way, while watching the Olympics, you may know nothing about the athletes, but knowing their home country tells you a full story about their background, how likely they are to win and whether you should be cheering for them.

League of Legends and StarCraft 2 both craft teams based on country or region, helping players connect and favor a particular team over another, creating a competitive spirit and letting them have a stake in the game itself. As these forms of competition get more popular and as history starts to develop and team solidify, where a team originated will likely become emphasized. 

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Rule Violations

All competitive players make mistakes.  It’s part of competition.  The stakes are high and the adrenaline is flowing, which causes people to make errors in judgment.  However, the difference between a sport and other forms of competitive play is penalties. In every single sporting event – team-based or solo – players can somehow be penalized for breaking a rule.

There is no need for rules in video games because the game itself can control exactly what players are able to do. Any rule breaking would be the fault of the video game developer, not the player. Salen and Zimmerman acknowledge this principle in their 2004 book Rules of Play:

“There is one category of game in which rule-breaking by players and punishments for violations of the rules are an important part of the overall game structure: professional sports…it is expected, and even anticipated that these kinds of events will occur in a sports game.”

Football adds or subtracts yards from a down when players do something wrong. Basketball awards free throws when a player is fouled. Even track and field disqualifies sprinters if they move before the starting gun is fired.

Each of these sports has built in penalties that allows, but enforces rule breaking, which ultimately can change the outcome.  Video games are built around a strict set of boundaries that logically allow certain types of play.  Because the game is not physical in nature, it is possible to control all aspects of a game.  If the programmers and designers of a video game do not want to encourage or even allow certain kinds of behavior, they change the game.  This is not a criticism of video games, because it is only a lack of environmental control that prevents sports from doing the same. 

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Drawing the Line

I agree with critics who argue that a competitive video game cannot currently be considered a sport.  Nor am I proposing that we broaden the definition of sport to include video games. There might always be a barrier between physical sports and competitive video games, however, I think it is cultural perceptions that places video games in one bucket and sports in another.  There are many similarities between competitive video games and sports. While some critics might be unwilling to move beyond defining sports as a physical game, I think there are more important distinctions between competitive video games and sports that have nothing to do with physicality.

The heightened popularity competitive video games have received is no accident.  Sports are the culmination of how to grow and maintain a fan base. Sporting event companies have decades, if not hundreds, of years of experience marketing competitive games to a dedicated fan base.  We can see how competitive video games have latched on to the tactics traditional sports use to keep people engaged.

Competitive video games may never be an Olympic event, but be prepared for a new subculture that mirrors the sports business model exactly.