Esports as Esports

Companies involved and interested in esports need to move past the question of: “Are esports sports?”

The video game industry, and video games more broadly, have long struggled to gain recognition as a so-called “legitimate,” media. Yet some in the field of gaming and games journalism argue for advancement beyond the question of gaming’s status. Austin Walker, editor-in-chief of Waypoint (Vice Media’s gaming website), is one of these individuals. Walker has discussed on several occasions the damaging effect of the continuous conversation of how gaming should be considered. Are video games art? Is gaming for children? Are games a valuable stress reducer, or just a waste of time? In Walker’s view, these questions are fruitless and lead nowhere but back to the beginning of the argument. Rather than bicker endlessly over whether or not video games are an art form and a valuable cultural medium, Waypoint and similar publications take these as a given; moving past this argument allows for outlets to cover the more important and in-depth aspects of gaming culture- the effects of gaming on mental health, the place of gaming in American prisons, and just how well games can speak to politics, to name a few. Here, I wish to agree with Walker, and to take his logic in another, tangential, direction: the field of esports.

The International, Dota 2 World Championsip 2017. Photo from TI 2017 Flickr.

Esports is the broad, categorical term which describes the industry of competitive gaming, and the viewership of said industry. Just as baseball, soccer, and basketball fall into the category of “sports,” League of Legends, Overwatch, and Starcraft 2 are all considered to be esports. Yet for years, esports has been embroiled in an argument that revolves around how the industry should be advertised and considered: can esports be called real sports? For some, the answer is a definitive no. Sports must have some physical component to them, and the professional players must demonstrate extreme physical prowess in addition to near-perfect game understanding. For others, the answer is yes; esports require technical prowess in addition to game knowledge that far exceeds that of what an everyday player can claim. For many others, the answer is much murkier. Who gets to say what counts as a sport? ESPN, a widely known sports network, broadcast the finals of the collegiate Heroes of the Storm tournament, despite the fact that ESPN’s president has been very clear in that he does not consider esports to be “real sports.”

heroes of the storm
Heroes of the Storm on ESPN

France, in its 2024 Olympic bid, has put esports on the table as a possibility. Further, the popular Korean League of Legends pro team KT Rolster participated in the Olympic torch relay, in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. However, and this is conjecture, the inclusion of MOBAs at the Olympics would not be likely to help with how esports are perceived, when “shooting,” is one Olympic sport and games like chess are up for inclusion as well, activities not traditionally seen as sports. All of this only goes to show that there are many ways to answer the question of if esports are sports, and few of these would satisfy all sides of the question.

Now, with Walker’s argument in mind, I believe that those with prominent voices in the field of esports should stop participating in this conversation. The industry currently faces no existential threat- far from it, as esports continues to thrive with optimistic projections of future growth. The question of perception and definition need not and should not be of concern; even if financial success is not one’s primary focus (which is doubtful, given the enormous investments recently made in both Overwatch and League of Legends), and the argument is sustained through worries over being taken seriously, the growing viewership of games like DOTA 2, numbering in the hundreds of millions, should help to quell such unease.

2017 World Championship Finals Stage
League of Legends World Championship 2017. Photo from LoL Esports Flickr.

If anything, continuing the disagreement hoping for a strengthening of the industry around an agreement on a unified statement of “esports are sports,” or “esports are their own thing,” has the opposite effect. Perpetuating the question is distracting, and prevents media outlets from advancing and developing towards deeper analysis and more thoughtful coverage. Waypoint, having moved past the question of “games are/aren’t art,” has made space for itself to develop deeply reflective and interesting pieces of journalism. I believe that esports outlets would benefit from a similar evolution.

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