Are eSports Really Real Sports?

Image credits: Flicker; Lol eSports

For the last few years I’ve found this question be rather problematic and annoying. Doing research for this article has only made the question more annoying. It’s comical how the biggest opponents to eSports being a sport, typically have never and will never compete in a sport at a professional level like Jimmy Kimmel or Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on the view. In the backdrop of the 9th League of Legends world championship it seems a poignant time to return to this question. 

However, narrative is quickly changing with Basketball legends Rick Fox and Shaquille O’Neal both claiming that it’s a sport and the players themselves are athletes. To push the point further in order for players to move countries to play in different teams they get work visas which state they’re athletes. If the law already accepts eSports players as athletes, why don’t we? And is it time that we do?

Focusing on League of Legends often called LoL for short, is arguably the biggest eSport in the world. Last year it had more than 100 unique viewers and the viewership peaked at 44 million. To put this into perspective, that is a higher viewership than last year’s Stanley Cup, The World Series and the NBA finals. To show just how astounding that number really is if we were to combine the peak viewership of all three of those events, they still wouldn’t have a higher peak viewership than the 2018 LoL World Championship. But having a large viewership is largely irrelevant whether LoL should be considered a sport or not, the Great British Bake-off is a competition which rakes in a large number of viewers and we aren’t asking competitive baking to be named a sport. 

To put it simply LoL is two teams of five people, each team has a base and whichever team destroys the other teams base first wins. There is a wide selection of champions which players pick before each game. Similarly, to football and other team sports, a player has a position or role that they play for their team. Unlike typical sports it doesn’t take the same physical prowess, you obviously don’t need to be at peak physical fitness to use a mouse and keyboard for hours on end. This appears to be the defining factor separating eSports from real sports. Whenever arguments are brought up in favour of LoL being given sports status, we are always brought back to the Oxford English Definition of sport. ‘An activity involving physical exertion and skill, esp. (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.’

“We watch the stars of LoL for the same reasons we watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Denzel Curry, they do things that we can’t.”

It’s fair to say when we think of sports and athletes we do typically think of people at the peak of human conditioning, who could have easily been carved by Zeus. Then these demigods push their bodies to the limits achieving feats of physicality against one another to determine who is the best. Some of the best moments of sports are viewing these people take the human body to places we never knew where possible. I think back to Usain Bolt smiling into the camera as he breaks a world record or watching players who leave so much out on the field that when the game finishes, they can’t help but collapse. These lead to some of the most beautiful moments in sport and are why we watch them. But that isn’t just what sport is about. But these aren’t the only reasons we watch sports. 

When we watch the likes of Lionel Messi and Roger Federer it isn’t because they leave everything on the field, it’s because they are geniuses of their respective games. There are iconic moments in sports which make us go, ‘wow I didn’t even realise we could do that’. I think back to Roger Federer hitting the ball between his legs to score a point. Or, when Johann Cruyff did the Cruyff turn for the first time I imagine the world stood still. eSports coming into its maturity is brimming with moments of sheer talent. Watching moves like the ‘Insec’ or the ‘Shurima Shuffle’ for the first time creates moments of excitement for thousands collectively letting out an ‘ooft’. We watch the stars of LoL for the same reasons we watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Denzel Curry, they do things that we can’t. It’s hard to mention genius in eSports and not bring up the name Faker, the midlaner for SK Telecom 1, who has the same status in eSports as Pele has in football. 

I think this all leads to one thing that on an emotional level eSports and sports are no different for both the fans and the players. The spectators of LoL and other eSports watch for many of the same reasons as football fans. There is the tribalist love for their respective teams and the same level of worship is afforded to great players. For players eSports is their livelihood they want to win not just for their fans but also to prove they’re the best much like some of the greatest professional athletes. And this shows when they’re on the world stage. At the 2017 League of Legends World Championship we can see Faker crying after losing in the finals. And just two weeks ago we saw Rekkles crying after his team qualified to the quarter finals in this years World Championship. Isn’t that what sport is all about. The passion it invokes in the players and the spectators, why else watch it? 

Generally speaking, the viewers, players, esports athletes and assorted others who are involved in the industry don’t care about whether what they are doing is viewed as a sport or not. It’s perfectly fine to just be considered eSports a separate entity to sports. They aren’t real sports, that’s why a unanimous decision to add the ‘e’ in front of the word sport was made, in hopes people wouldn’t be confused and genuinely believe these gamers stand a chance in a physical bout. However, to be condescending and pretend that it’s just make-believe and pretend games is silly and ignorant. These players sacrifice a lot more than most athletes. They don’t just work week in week out, because they don’t need to exert their bodies, they play the game for upwards of ten hours a day, seven days a week. Even when they are finished training, they are expected to go home and play more on their accounts. Looking at modern day footballers like Lingard and Pogba it would be nice see them with the same work ethic and drive as these so-called make-believe athletes. 

Call it a sport or don’t it doesn’t really make a difference, in ten to fifteen years’ time, eSports will be all over the world. In the immortal words of Birdman “put some respect on the name”, because eSports are here to stay.  And maybe that’s what the question should be, not ‘are eSports real Sports?’, rather, ‘Do eSports and their players deserve the same respect that real sports and athletes get?’. The answer to that is a resounding yes.