Should Professional Gaming be Considered a Sport?


Most people outside of esports have a hard time considering professional gamers to be athletes that compete in a sport. Even some people involved in esports would hesitate to use the terms “athlete” and “sport”. This topic was easier to debate say, 10 years ago. But as gaming becomes more popular with mainstream culture, and as esports continues to gain more viewers, the argument that esports are a sport has become easier to accept.

Should professional gaming be considered a sport? Yes, professional gaming should be considered a sport. There’s growing research to support this statement and the US government has already been treating professional gamers as ‘athletes who compete in sports’ for several years, so the debate is kind of over.

I get it, even if you are a competitive gamer, you may still have some reservations with comparing esports to traditional sports, especially if you’ve also been competitive in other sports. There’s plenty of examples for why esports is very different from sports, but let’s look at some of the similarities.

ARE GAMERS ATHLETES?

Yep! Like I said, even the US government recognizes gamers as athletes, treating international players who are competing in the US like any other athlete (i.e., international players can get athlete visas when competing in US esports tournaments).

Don’t worry, there’s more to this argument. Professor Ingo Froböse has been studying esports at the German Sports University of Cologne for over five years now. In fact, Professor Ingo Froböse was the first scientist to study individuals who compete in esports. Instead of simply balking at pro gamers and thinking that it’s the furthest thing from a sport, Professor Ingo Froböse actually studied the demands placed on players who compete in esports.

Here are some interesting points found by Professor Ingo Froböse’s research:

  • esports athletes can achieve up to 400 movements on the keyboard and mouse per minute
  • various parts of the brain are being used simultaneously
  • esports athletes are exposed to physical strains similar to those of in other sports 
  • the needed hand-eye-coordination goes far beyond table tennis as both hands work asymmetrically
  • The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver
  • esports athletes have a pulse as high as 160-180 beats per minute (akin to fast running)
  • esports are just as demanding as traditional sports

Still not convinced? I’m not sure where to go beyond a scientist and Professor. Although, I’m not sure I have to convince you (the reader), as you probably didn’t make it to this site by accident.

BUT AREN’T ATHLETES SUPPOSED TO BE FIT

Well, one of the reasons I started this site is to promote fitness for gamers and esports by bringing an “esport specific training” approach to esports. Strength and conditioning for Rugby is very different than it is for long-distance running, and esports can benefit from having a specific approach to strength and conditioning for its athletes.

I think esport specific training can go beyond just making gamers healthier, it can improve performance and reduce injury rates. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in this thinking: Professor Ingo Froböse states with regard to his research findings:


“In terms of their fitness, many of our test subjects are simply average citizens, and average citizens worry me. They simply aren’t fit. For example, they fail to do exercises that would strengthen the whole support system in the shoulder and neck areas [and fail to pay attention to nutrition]. Were they to do this, this would improve their fine-motor skills in the arm area, something that is extremely important in competition […] In fact, not only would they improve their performance through a focus on training and fitness, they’d increase the length of their careers as well”.


It’s exciting to see some sport specific research targeting esports. Professor Ingo Froböse is right to warn esports athletes on the dangers of neglecting their health and fitness.

In the above points that Professor Ingo Froböse found in his research, what stood out for me was that esports athletes are exposed to physical strains similar to those of traditional athletes. If gamers are enduring high amounts of both physical and mental stress during the competition, their body needs to be able to endure it. I wouldn’t even consider it safe to take an average citizen and get them to run a marathon and yet Professor Ingo Froböse is finding that average citizens are taking part in highly intensive activities. 

So yes, athletes are supposed to be fit as it provides many advantages for performance during competition. Esports athletes and competitive gamers have a lot to gain if they explore other avenues for boosting performance outside of just playing their chosen game.

As Professor Ingo Froböse points out, proper strength and conditioning, along with better nutrition, will not only boost performance, it can extend an esports athletes career. If you’re trying to make it as a pro gamer, wouldn’t you want that to last as long as possible once it happened? I know I would.

WHAT IS CONSIDERED A SPORT?

This is where a lot of the debate is focused on. Can we really call esports a “sport” and gamers “athletes”? Well, the debate continues into how we define a sport.

Most people refer to the definition provided by the Oxford English Dictionary: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”. What most people point out is the term “physical exertion”.

Although Professor Ingo Froböse’s work is already showing physical exertion during esports, a 1994 study by Modesti, et al., showed that basal blood pressure was raised while playing a video game. I think it’s fair to say that playing esports won’t condition your body to be able to run a marathon, but the “vice versa” is true as well. Esports require a physical exertion specific to esports.

The second part of the definition, “skill”, is pretty self-explanatory for anyone within the gaming and esports community. Yes, esports and gaming require a high amount of skill. This is why it’s so exciting to watch esports, we get to see players who are able to play the game at a skill level we could never achieve.

The other part of the definition mentions competition between individuals or teams and esports covers both. Whether it’s 1-1 with Street Fighter, or 5v5 in CS:GO, esports is all about competition.

Regarding entertainment, this is subjective, but I think it’s pretty clear that esports are entertaining. Of course, it helps when you have a basic understanding of the game you’re watching.

I grew up in a house where my family didn’t watch or follow sports. I myself was into gaming and other more “niche” sports at the time like skateboarding.

For me, I don’t get much out of watching traditional sports but I understand the appeal. I find esports very entertaining, and with the addition of esports stadiums and casters over the time that I’ve been following it, it just keeps getting better.

THE NCAA DEFINITION OF A SPORT

Ok, esports passes the definition of a sport found in the Oxford English Dictionary. But what about other definitions from organizations such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The NCAA’s definition of sport is similar to the one found in the Oxford’s English Dictionary but expands to include the following:


Institutional activity involving physical exertion with the purpose of competition versus other teams or individuals within a collegiate competition structure. Furthermore, a sport includes regularly scheduled team and/or individual, head-to-head competition (at least five) within the competitive season(s); and standardized rules with rating/scoring systems ratified by official regulatory agencies and governing bodies”.


Well, if you haven’t read it yet, I did a whole post about varsity esports and scholarships. Varsity esports has really taken off over the last few years and gamers can now get scholarships and be considered an athlete on a varsity collegiate team for competing in esports. Perhaps the point about “at least five” will limit 1v1 style esports, but I would bet that if the demand is therea, the definition will be tweaked.

ARE ESPORTS GROWING?

THE EVOLUTION OF ESPORTS

Many people think esports is a brand new thing. While there is some truth to that, some would argue that esports have been around since the 1970s.

The very first video game competition can be traced back to October 19, 1972. This tournament was held at Standford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and had a little over twenty students competing. The game? Spacewar!

Spacewar! is one of the earliest digital computer games. It is a two-player game, with each player taking control of a starship and attempting to destroy the other. A star in the center of the screen pulls on both ships and requires maneuvering to avoid falling into it.

You can check out the “excitement” here:

First Video Game Tournament

The first video game competition was the above mentioned Spacewars! competition at Standford. But what about the first official tournament?

You may be surprised to know that the first video game tournament was held by Atari in 1980. This tournament featured the game Space Invaders and was a multi-city competition with over 10,000 participants.

Atari’s Space Invaders tournament was the first large-scale and “official” video game tournament. It’s grand prize? A year subscription to Rolling Stones Magazine.

Now, less than 30 years later, we have Dota 2 tournament prize amounts reaching over $25,000,000. I sure hope the athletes competing for that kind of money are taking their health, fitness and nutrition as serious as any other pro athlete.

NOW WE HAVE VARSITY ESPORTS

The National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE) is a nonprofit membership association aimed at advancing collegiate esports in the varsity space.

NACE was officially formed in July 2016. When they first formed, there were only 7 colleges/universities that had esports programs. Now, over 100 institutions have varsity esports teams. All over the US, schools are contemplating how they can create their own teams and enter esports.

I can’t wait to see collegiate esports become more popular and accessible. I competed in counter-strike 1.5 (on an amateur level) back in the early 2000s. The pro scene was extremely underground, and I would have to download HLTV demos for each player’s POV to be able to watch a pro game.

Watching live tournaments with casters has been a dream come true for 15 years old me, and thinking about cheering on a local school for esports sounds awesome.

A big league right now in collegiate esports is TESPA and they have been a big player in bringing esports to collegiate varsity teams and building the competitive scene in collegiate esports. Additionally, schools will often compete in other leagues like:

  • NACE 
  • Collegiate Star League
  • uLoL
  • American Collegiate Esports League
  • Fiest Bowl Overwatch (by TESPA)

ARE ESPORTS GOING TO BE IN THE OLYMPICS?

Short answer, maybe. The Olympic organizers are reportedly having discussions on whether or not they will include esports as a demonstration sport at the 2024 Olympic games. 

Demonstration sports have been around for a long time in the Olympics. Essentially, demonstration sports are sports that are held at the same time as the Olympic games whose competitors are not eligible for medals. 

Demonstration sports began as a way to showcase a sport or activity that was unique to the country in which the games were being held. Later, demonstration sports became more of an application, or “stepping stone”, for sports to be considered “worthy” of being in the Olympics.

Take badminton for example. Badminton was a demonstration sport during the 1972 and 1988 Olympic games. By 1992, badminton had become an official medal sport.

What does esports being considered as a demonstration sport for the Olympics mean? Well, it could mean that esports are being carefully analyzed as a potential Olympic medal sport.

Some say esports will definitely be a demonstration sport, but never a medalist sport for the Olympics. This may be true for the current time period (and the next 20-50 years). But as old generations disappear, and new generations grow up, things can really change.

In another century, we may have several generations of adults who are more interested in watching esports and the popularity may force Olympic medalist consideration.

I just want to say that there have been some really odd demonstration sports. Take the 1988 and 1992 winter Olympics demonstration sport “ski ballet” for example:

Yes, it is impressive, in its own kind of way. But remember the definition of a sport I discussed earlier? What was the last point? For entertainment. I think it’s safe to say that esports is far more entertaining than ski ballet, or many of the other weird Olympic demonstration sports.

DO YOU HAVE TO BE PRO TO BE CONSIDERED AN ESPORTS ATHLETE?

You don’t have to be on a top tier team to be considered an esports athlete. You do however have to be competing on some level.

I encountered this a lot when I went to my university gym. People would be doing the classical Olympic lifts, so they said they were “Olympic weightlifting”. Or, people would be doing the “powerlifts” (squat-bench-deadlift) so they said they were powerlifting. 

Olympic weightlifters are people who compete in Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifters are people who compete in powerlifting. Just because you play Fortnite or Starcraft for ten hours a day, doesn’t mean you are an esports athlete. 

You need to be competing in some sort of league or tournament. If this is what you have been considering, check out my post “10 Tips For Your First Competitive Gaming Tournament” and “How Do I Get Started In Esports & Competitive Gaming?” to start thinking about how you can start getting more competitive.

If you’re just a gamer but aren’t sure whether you actually care about competition, tournaments, and trying to “be the best”, check out my post on the realities of trying to be a pro gamer: “How To Become A Pro Gamer – What No One Ever Tells You” (but remember, you’ll still benefit from taking care of your health and fitness, especially if you want to be gaming recreationally for a long time).

 

gl;hf

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Stuart Cameron

I'm the owner of Cyber Athletiks. I live in Canada and began competitive gaming near the dawn of esports. I've loved watching the scene grow to where it's at today.

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