Is computer gaming really sport?

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1. New kids on the block

At the 2015 Winter X Games in Aspen, there will be much that is radical – snowboarders, monoskiers, slopestylers and snowmobilers, all performing remarkable feats of athleticism, strength and dexterity. Usually in mid air.

But most radical of all, there will also be men and women hunched over computers, blowing away imaginary baddies (and goodies) with imaginary machine guns, while thousands of real people watch and cheer.

What’s more, they will be handing out medals for all this imaginary carnage – just like all the other sports. Which begs the question: is computer gaming really sport at all?

2. What is esports?

esports – or electronic sports – is the umbrella term for organised, competitive computer gaming, usually between professionals. Competitive computer gaming has been around since the days of Pong in the 1970s. But that gang of youths gathered around an Atari console in some lucky bleeder’s bedroom has become 40,000 fans in a football stadium, some of them in fancy dress (image 1), all of them glued to the action on giant screens (image 2). Imagine the PDC World Darts Championship at Alexandra Palace, times it by six, take away most of the booze and you get some idea of what major esports events are like.

As with traditional sports, esports consists of many different games. But those games don’t necessarily mimic traditional sports. For example, in Aspen the game of choice is Counter-Strike, a first-person shooter in which you choose to be either a terrorist or a counter-terrorist. No, you can’t be Lionel Messi. But the most popular is League of Legends, a multi-player strategy game whose Wikipedia description sounds like it was written by the lovechild of JRR Tolkien and C-3PO. To the uninitiated, it sounds as impenetrable as cricket.

Big business - online & in arenas

But there are plenty of people who get esports, in all its forms. In 2014 there were 205m viewers, according to Newzoo, which conducts market research for the computer games industry. The 2013 League of Legends world championship attracted 32m online viewers, more than double baseball’s World Series and even trumping game seven of basketball’s NBA finals. The 2014 League of Legends world championship attracted 40,000 fans to Sangam Stadium in Seoul (image 3), which hosted a football World Cup semi-final in 2002.

But while South Korea is considered by many to be the cradle of esports, it is now doing enormous business in Europe and North America. In July 2014, 11,000 fans watched an esports event in a Seattle basketball arena. The event offered the highest esports prize pool so far – $10.9m, more than golf’s USPGA Championship – and was streamed by US broadcasting giant ESPN.

£1m salaries for top players

But esports is more normally broadcast by specialist streaming platforms such as Twitch (image 4), which was recently purchased by Amazon for almost $1bn. In 2013, Twitch had 55m visitors a month and 600,000 users generating content. Not surprisingly, many of the world’s biggest corporations have got involved. esports revenue is expected to grow from $130m in 2012 to $465m in 2017, according to Newzoo.

Top esports players (like Carlos 'Ocelote' Rodriguez - image 5) are feted all over the globe, and can earn upwards of £1m a year. But they are like traditional sportspeople in lots of other ways. They compete as part of slickly-operated teams (image 6), which in turn compete in regional leagues. They might train for 14 hours a day. They study strategy, technique, the opposition. They demonstrate remarkable reflexes and mental agility. They deal with enormous pressure, experience euphoric highs (image 7) and shattering lows.

3. Let's meet those involved

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Click on an image to hear from (left to right) a team manager, a professional gamer, a gaming journalist/event host and a gamer who retired at 22.

4. So how does it compare?

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Click or tap on the labels to discover the similarities and differences between esports and traditional sports.

5. The case FOR

Michal Blicharz, originally from Poland, is a former judoka who has fulfilled many roles in esports, from competitor to referee to coach. He now organises esports events around the world.

Despite cheerfully referring to himself and his fellow esports enthusiasts as “nerds”, Blicharz passionately believes esports is indeed sport. “I’ve sweated on the judo mat enough times to have a good opinion about it,” he says.

“Judo and esports are not that dissimilar,” he adds. “There are tournaments, you have to climb up a ladder to eventually compete with the best. In terms of training you have to put in the same amount of hours, perhaps even more in esports. You study strategy, technique and opponents. All the elements are there – the excitement, the adrenalin, players crying tears of sorrow and joy.”

Blicharz concedes physical exertion in esports is minimal, although some players do get struck down with repetitive strain injuries. But the fact that most dictionary definitions of ‘sport’ include the words ‘physical’ or ‘athletic’ hasn’t prevented darts or snooker from shielding under the sporting umbrella.

However, and in common with most people you speak to in the esports community, Blicharz doesn’t really care if people think esports is sport or not. esports is doing things its own way – and traditional sports should take note.

6. The case AGAINST

The US Government recognises esports players as professional athletes, at least where the granting of visas is concerned. But not everyone agrees. Despite ESPN dipping its toe into esports, its president John Skipper is distinctly lukewarm. “[esports] is not a sport,” he said, “it’s a competition. Mostly I’m interested in doing real sports.”

Tim Warwood is a former UK snowboarding champion who now commentates for the BBC. He agrees with Skipper that computer gaming is not a sport and believes esports should not have been included in the Winter X Games, which take place from 21-25 January.

“To have kids sitting there looking at computer screens indoors, alongside snowboarding and freestyle skiing and all the rest, it just doesn’t seem right,” he says. “When I was a kid, sport was all about getting outside, getting wet, muddy, out of breath – you’re not going to get out of breath smashing your thumbs on a controller. I just think it’s a bit weird really – but maybe I’m just getting old.”

However, Warwood remembers a time – not so long ago – when snowboarding wasn’t considered a real sport either and snowboarders were “outcasts and outsiders”. “When I started snowboarding,” he says, “my gran thought I was a professional snowballer – as in, I was throwing snowballs for a living.”

So while Warwood believes that some athletes will be irritated by the inclusion of esports in the X Games, he speculates that some snowboarders and freestyle skiers might actually view computer gamers as kindred spirits.

7. So, is esports really sport?

Now that you know more about esports, what do you think? Can it be considered a sport?

Why not?

.........

Hell yes!

esports includes many elements of traditional sport – so why should it be viewed any differently from dressage, ice dancing or billiards?

You're kidding!

.........

No way

esports is just computerised board gaming and no more sport than Dungeons & Dragons, Risk or Monopoly. It doesn’t even make you sweat.

One day..

.........

It's getting there

esports is still an unknown quantity to most people – but as the world gets more tech-savvy, more people will accept it as sport.

Who cares?

........

No point arguing

esports has earned the right to be whatever it wants to be. It doesn’t matter how people want to define it, it is simply a remarkable phenomenon.