What Constitutes a Sport & Does Esports Count?

If you haven’t caught wind of esports from one of its 226 million supporters, or from one of our many esports articles, we have covered all you need to know in this handy beginner’s guide to esports, so you can set yourself up for a debate that’s more contentious than whether it’s spelt e-sports, esports or eSports: does esports count as a fully-fledged sport?

THE HISTORY OF ESPORTS CLASSIFICATION

As the popularity of esports has catapulted over the last decade or so, with the number of tournaments increasing tenfold from around 10 in the year 2000 to about 260 in 2010, the classification of esports as a recognised sport has been a controversial point of debate amongst gamers, panelists and business owners alike. At a 2014 technology conference, when asked about the recent buyout of Twitch, ESPN president John Skipper described esports as “not a sport - [they’re] a competition. The entire notion of classing esports as a legitimate sport has been laughed at, quite literally, as per a 2013 episode of Real Sport with Bryant Gumbel demonstrated:

Movement has, however, been made to make esports a legitimate sporting activity worldwide. In 2013, Canadian League of Legends player Danny “Shiphtur” Le became the first pro gamer to receive a United States P-1A visa, a category designed for “Internationally Recognised Athletes.” Furthermore, the French government started working to regulate and recognise esports officially in 2016, giving esports its own set of rules and regulations - much like football, for example.

WHAT IS A SPORT?

This is the question it ultimately comes down to. The first hurdle in classifying esports as a sport is what actually defines a sport? Whilst the dictionary definition may hand on the element of physical exertion:

Sport (noun): an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

Everyone has a differing opinion on the true defining features of sport. Each sporting organisation, from IOC to Sport England, all have varying categorisations that may conflict what defines a sport. Even philosophers and sociologists who have offered their own definitions of a sport, differ subtly. Essentially, we just can’t quite agree on a universal definition.

Speaking to Garry Crawford, Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Salford, it becomes apparent that the mere word ‘sports’ is so diverse, that it alludes a simple classification at all:

We encounter the same problem when we consider the related argument of ‘what is a game?’. Equally, this is a question that philosophers and academics have argued over for centuries. However, for me, it is the Austrian-born philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who comes up with the most satisfying answer here. Wittgenstein concludes that there is no one set of criteria that can be used to categorise all games, the best we can say is, that all games share a family resemblance.

So, how does Wittgenstein’s conclusion relate to the world of sports? Garry pursues the point by stating:

The same is true for sports. It is incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to draw up a set of criteria that will incorporate all the activities we typically associate with being sports; the best we can do is recognise a loose familial resemblance between them.

Rather than looking for an overarching definition of what a sport is, or entails, the correct avenue to uncovering what makes a sport a sport may be to recognise similarities between different sports. “Esports do share some familiar resemblance to (other) sports, but I think for most people (currently), they appear to be a distant cousin, at best — related.

IS ESPORTS A SPORT?

Garry, a published author on the subject of games and culture, continues to say that “the simple answer to this question is that it is a question that we can never answer.” To draw to a conclusion on this matter, it is first important to consider just why a percentage of the esports community wish to be considered part of an admissible sport. Would being considered a sport offer esports fans and players a sense of legitimacy and acceptance, perhaps help combat the doubters who don’t see esports as being something serious?

Legitimacy and acceptance come with time,” Garry cites, pointing out that esports is only, at best, a few decades old. Compared with other sports such as football, which has existed in a form that bears similarity to the modern game for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, esports is still very much in its infancy.

Although it may be an anticlimactic answer, the truth is, it’s all down to personal perspectives. Garry makes references to Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman, who suggested that most people, most of the time, know what a game is. They know when they are play fighting, or when they are fighting for real and this is what it comes down to: personal attitudes and understandings.

Esports associations can clearly demonstrate over and over again that esports meets the criteria of being a sport, as defined by a particular organisation or philosophers, but for most people outside of esports, esports still does not look or feel like a sport to them.

Those who proclaim that esports is not a viable sport may warm to the idea as the lines between mainstream sports such as football and esports begin to blur. More so than ever, sporting teams have began building relationships and partnerships with video games and esports, beit Manchester City signing its first esports player or BT Sport cementing a TV broadcast deal with Gfinity.

Though the future is always unwritten, it may well be the case that, increasingly, many traditional sports will seek to be more like video games — and there is already some evidence of this happening. Maybe one day, esports will become the model that other sports will be seeking to emulate, and not the other way around.

Garry Crawford, Professor of Sociology at University of Salford

Where do you stand on the debate? Do you believe esports should be classified as a sport, or do you just not think it cuts the mustard? Let us know your thoughts over on @FastWebMedia.

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