Why the “sports” belongs in esports

Photo by Casey Gomez

Step aside, football. Soccer, take a seat. Basketball, hit the showers. No longer can traditionalists stand guard keeping “esports” out of the circle of traditionally accepted sports.

Complain all you want, e-sports is a sport, and there is no denying it. Let’s open the dictionary to page 873, and look up “sport”: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Esports certainly require physical exertion, if only on a more minute scale than traditional sports. We think of traditional sports as requiring large physical movements — the swing of a bat, the collision of a defender and wide receiver, or the swing of the leg of a soccer player — but many of these traditional sports also base much off minutiae.

Consider the light tap of a putter, the precise aim of a pool player, or the flick of the wrist of a bowler ­— each are physical exertions requiring precision movement. The only thing that separates these actions from the mouse movements and keyboard taps required for esports is how each are represented in the context of a sport.

Critics complain that e-sports is not a true sport because its results are not represented in the real world — it is easy to count how many runners cross home plate, or how far a touchdown drive must have traveled. Yet, just like video games and esports, traditional sports exist in simulated environments — touching home plate means nothing in the real world, but in the simulated environment of baseball, it has significance, in the same way that killing a player in DOTA II or capturing an objective in Overwatch has no real-world significance but significance within a simulated environment. The simulated environment of baseball is regulated by umpires, the simulated environment of DOTA II is governed by computers, but the difference is negligible.

In a physical sense, esports conform to the traditional definition of sport. But what about popularity? I might not consider Calvinball a sport for the reason that there are no professional leagues operating dedicated to playing it (though if by some miracle one pops up, I will be first in line for tryouts). But football, baseball and soccer have millions of fans around the world, rabidly following professional teams wherever they go, packing stadiums, buying merchandise, watching on television — hence, I am more inclined to refer to these games as “sports”.

However, the exact same phenomenon exists for esports as well. The Overwatch League, the highest tier of competitive Overwatch play and one of the biggest esport leagues in the world, had ten million viewers alone in its first week, with nearly five hundred thousand fans tuning in for its inaugural match — a significant figure. Considering that the Yankees, one of the largest sports teams in one of the largest markets in America, averaged only around 267,000 viewers for regionally-telecasted games in 2015, it is not hard to see how viewership and the fan growth of esports leagues compete with (and in some cases, surpass) traditional sports leagues.

Consider also The International (TI), the largest DOTA II Tournament in the world. The top prize at TI this year was over ten million dollars. For comparison, the winner of the US Open, one of the largest tennis tournaments in the world, receives approximately three-and-a-half million dollars. A team slot in the Overwatch League cost owners twenty million dollars. Esports are just as lucrative as major sports leagues, if not more so. With esports growing rapidly financially and in terms of popular appeal, it may not be long before they surpass traditional sports leagues in popularity.

To say that esports are not “real sports” is to examine sport through a dated and rigid lens — incapable of looking past the definition of sport as it existed 50 years ago. So fire up your computer, warm up the mouse and download a copy of DOTA II. Esports are the next evolution of sports, whether you like or not, and they are here to stay.