The Cambridge Dictionary defines a sport as “a game, competition, or similar activity, done for enjoyment or as a job that takes physical effort and skill and is played or done by following particular rules.” Mainstream sports in America include baseball, football, and basketball, but how about professional gaming?
According to Forbes, “after a long back and forth with the government, the U.S. finally recognizes eSports players as professional athletes, and will grant them visas under that identifier”. Although the U.S. Government officially recognizes eSports as a sport, there are critics who still do not consider gaming a sport because of their differing factors compared to mainstream sports. The increasing reputation up to our current time, in which eSports is matching the popularity of mainstream sports, gives reason to why it should be considered a sport. Along with the popularity, the pro gamers treat their jobs similarly to mainstream athletes, with extreme and strict practice schedules.
Video games have been played competitively with one of the earliest competitions, The Space Invaders Championship of 1980, which brought over 10,000 participants in the United States. During the ’80s, eSports players and tournaments would begin to appear in newspapers, magazines, and television. Competitive gaming began its transition from console gaming to online PC gaming in the 1990s. Most of the large eSports tournaments in the ’90s would still be console-based, with Nintendo holding the Nintendo World Championships, which toured the entire United States and ended with its finals at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. Finally, in the 2000s, eSports began its significant increase in popularity with the beginnings of our current eSports tournaments including the Intel Extreme Masters, Major League Gaming, and the World Cyber Games.
Michael Cohen, a video games journalist, wrote an article titled “eSports is not a Sport”. One of the main reasons why Cohen does not believe that eSports is not a sport is “Because the game changes. The core game mechanics improve, change, and are biased towards one side or another…These varied factors help keep the game fresh, new and entertaining. It displays unlimited possibilities that surpass that of sports on a basic ruled level.” Cohen fails to recognize the evolution of mainstream sports with this statement. The transition in football from leather helmets to plastic helmets gave comfort and extra protection for the players, which gave them the ability to play more aggressively without worry of injury. The transition in tennis from wooden rackets to composite rackets gave more power and the ability to hit at more extreme angles. The transition from rubber balls to reactive resin balls allowed bowlers to hook the ball and play at more aggressive angles rather than bowling straight. If we watch different sports played in the past and compare them to how they are played now, we can see different styles and mechanics of the athletes, which is similar to how pro gamers adapt to the changing elements in their games.
Cohen also says that “the reality is that E-Sports will always be a ‘you’re either in or you’re out’ sort of pond and because most current adults have grown being out of video-games or not as competitively involved with it, most are definitely out. However, as the digital age encompasses more generations and old values start to shrink, the accessibility and acceptance of video games and potentially E-Sports is bound to expand”. Most sports are “you’re either in or you’re out” as well. Different sports have various levels of popularities in each country. When a certain country does well in a sport, media immediately jumps on it. In America, when the League of Legends World Championship finals were finished, newspapers and other media sources that do not usually report on gaming, wrote articles covering the event.
HBO’s Real Sports even hopped on the bandwagon when they interviewed an employee of Riot Games and a League of Legends pro player. The problem comes from the necessity of uninformed media to report on pro gaming events, which results in their audience of people who lack knowledge of eSports to criticize that video gaming is not a sport. The Real Sports host would throw in some insulting, stereotypical phrases in her report by calling pro gamers “nerds” and chastising them for “being in front of their computer screens all day in their fantasy world”. Mainstream media has always been covering the more popular sports, but when video gaming tries to appear alongside them, the insults appear.
Most people stereotype gamers as lazy nerds who do nothing but play games on their computer all the time. What is lazy about playing a game that requires great mechanics and focus? Amateurs in sports see themselves as inferior to professional athletes and often try to emulate them because they recognize their effort and wish to strive to their skill level. It goes with professional gaming. Gamers are always trying to practice to become better at games. I have been to both live events of pro gaming and sports such as football, tennis, and basketball, their skill puts the audience in awe. It may seem that the life of professional gaming is one to look up to because they are getting paid to play video games, but most people do not know about the extreme hours of practice they require every day.
With the other athletes, they practice in their offseason and travel from city to city for their games. All professional athletes are masters of their game and there is no difference with their practice regimes other than the different game each athlete plays. They share the same emotions of both winning and losing. They share the desire to improve themselves even though they are the elite of their game. They both even earn large sums of money depending on their level. Lee Jae-Dong, a long time professional StarCraft 2 player, earned an estimated total of $500,000 by 2013.
Professional gaming has reached the level of popularity compared to mainstream sports with its viewers of tournaments and the dedication of the pro gamers. In a Forbes interview of the Blizzard Game Director, Dustin Browder, he is asked what makes pro gamers athletes:
“These guys are athletes. There’s physical and mental conditioning to it. These guys are, in many cases, playing 12 hours a day to prepare for these matches, or even just constantly. These guys are training as hard as a regular athlete would to train for these things. They have to have the dedication and enthusiasm for it, and there’s a lot of coaching that goes on as well. A lot of these guys have coaches and are parts of teams. They create a culture of support around them so they can learn to master the game. What good are you if you can’t practice against somebody who’s great? So these guys create teams of people where they’re all really good, they practice against each other constantly, and they compete against other teams. This allows them to create this sport atmosphere where they work as hard as any regular athlete, and try as hard. They have to have the psychology and mental endurance. You see these guys when they lose a match; they are crushed, just like an Olympic hopeful would be crushed if he didn’t make it. They’ve got to have the endurance to overcome that and say, ‘Yeah, I lost the biggest match of my career, but I’m not done. I’m going to come back and overcome this,’ and sometimes they do. It’s just absolutely amazing the trials, tribulations, and challenges these guys face every day.”
Along with the athletes, the audience brings forth the popularity and community that helped pro gaming achieve its fame. The Season 3 League of Legends World Finals brought forth the biggest audience of eSports in its history: “Streaming numbers pale when compared to mainstream sporting events on TV — the broadcast of Super Bowl XLVII attracted 108.7 million viewers, for example. But 32 million viewers and 8.5 million simultaneous streamers makes a pretty clear statement to game companies and advertisers — competitive gaming should no longer be associated with geeky LAN parties, but taken seriously as a new form of entertainment”.
Video game tournaments bring in viewers from every part of the world as they share the same love for their games, similar to viewers of more popular sports. Popular companies have even seen the growing popularity of eSports and started supporting them: “Coca-Cola already inked a major partnership with Riot Games, sponsoring a new minor league of League of Legends where players can compete before going pro”. Esports has been steadily growing and the popularity now is a sign that its fame will keep rising as more and more gaming companies such as Riot Games and Blizzard work to keep improving their games and the gamers continue their support of both playing and watching the games.
My experience with eSports has been similar and even more challenging than more physical sports such as bowling and tennis. I have been playing both tennis and bowling seriously and competitively for the past nine years, and my skill level is average for tennis and advanced for bowling. With League of Legends, during the third season of the game, I ranked up to Gold tier, which consists of the top 10% of players in North America. In StarCraft 2, with two years of competitive playing, I am ranked in their Bronze tier, which is their lowest ranking. Tennis and bowling’s physical aspects cause my heart to race and muscles to strain. Yet, the same goes with League of Legends and StarCraft. After intense matches of League of Legends, I feel my heart racing after numerous moments in the game that require quick reflexes. With team-based strategies, online verbal communication and awareness of my character’s surroundings, I feel more focused playing this game than playing tennis or bowling. In StarCraft, my hands are moving all over the keyboard and I click my mouse rapidly and accurately in order to control the 200+ buildings and units individually. StarCraft measures the amount of actions a player can carry rapidly with APM [Actions Per Minute] and mine is usually 200, while the pros can average up to 400 with the highest APM calculated at 818. StarCraft requires more concentration and often leaves my heart racing faster than League of Legends due to the stress and intense focus required. Each sport requires the player to physically adapt to different situations and the skills required to accomplish victories can take years to develop.
The steady rise of eSports and the realization that the popularity of professional gaming matches mainstream sports is what keeps the motivation alive for the companies and gamers. In many aspects, pro gamers can relate to other athletes of different sports, yet people often stereotype gamers as overweight, lazy people who do not do anything else except stay in their room and play games all day. It is the uninformed society that easily judge professional gaming because they do not know of the hardships, struggle, and work ethic that pro gamers must have to become the elite of their game. People often judge pro gaming because it seems like it takes no physical effort other than hand-eye coordination, but what they do not know is the stress and mental state needed to perform at a high level.