All sports are games, but not all games are sports. What sets sports apart from games? Athleticism. Athletes train for hours a day improving both their physical and mental abilities in order to be the best competitors in the world. Baseball players are clearly defined athletes. Same with people who play football, hockey, ping pong, and swimming. There is never an argument that these competitors aren’t athletes. There are arguments against the legitimacy of a “sport” regarding NASCAR, chess, and even golf. The brain is just as an important muscle as biceps and glutes. Mental stamina and agility are traits that can be improved upon with rigorous training. Proficient reflexes are required for NASCAR while perfect body mechanics are needed for golf, and chess is even vying for athletic legitimacy in its application to the 2020 Olympics in Japan. So, why is it so difficult for the modern era to perceive professional, competitive gaming (also known as eSports) as a sport?
There are many factors that go beyond the scope of an older generation incapable of accepting the rapid influx of modern technological advances, but that’s not the main issue. For professional gaming to be considered a legitimate sport in the modern era there needs to be one global organization, developer partnerships, and mainstream media coverage. Without these issues being addressed and resolved, professional gaming will remain an underground, underappreciated form of entertainment rather than a “legitimate” globally recognized sport like soccer.
Many people do not understand what eSports is, which is a challenge in and of itself when trying to legitimize it as a sport. Professional gaming typically consists of either individuals or teams of 5-6 playing games on a computer or console like the Xbox One or Playstation 4. Major competitions with prodigious prize pools that pave the way to the legitimacy of eSports often include brawler-style games like Super Smash Bros, Street Fighter, and Tekken, first-person shooters such as CS:GO, Overwatch, and Call of Duty, real-time strategy games like StarCraft, and multiplayer online arena games like Dota, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm. Without these games and the competitive gamers that play them, there would be no need for an organized league; however, with over 1 billion people in the world that play video games, the competitive pool is unlimited. Many gamers want to prove that they’re the best of the best, and the best way to do that is to play for a team in an organized league.
In order to first recognize professional gaming as a legitimate sport, there desperately needs to be a regulated organization modelled around the NFL, NHL, MLB or similar sports organization. One organized association must evolve from the dozens of leagues currently vying for the top slot. The market is wide open and highly competitive, but in order for eSports to really solidify a level of self-importance and entertainment value as a sport, one association must emerge. This association should become the new gold standard for eSports, setting rules and regulations, handling shareholders, teams, and competitors, and organizing venues, schedules, and events for fans.
Currently, there are two major organizations competing: PEA (Professional Esports Association) and WESA/ESL (World Esports Association). Both associations are founded by teams that are considered everyday household names to many of whom already watch eSports regularly: FNATIC, Team ENVYUS and Ninjas in Pyjamas help found WESA, while Cloud9, NRG Esports, and Team SoloMid joined the PEA. In a press release, the PEA shares with the world it’s intent on becoming “the NBA of eSports.” The press release goes on to further outline their goals, creating a new way of conducting business and sharing profits with its players: “Beyond financial benefits, PEA’s management structure will ensure that its pro players have an authoritative voice in league operations. Player representatives will sit on both a Rules Committee, which will provide guidance on all important issues, including competition format, playing rules, and prizing distribution and a Grievances Committee, which will certify that all player concerns are heard and resolved in a timely manner.” The players will be compensated for their efforts and everyone within the organization will be on the same page with identical overall goals while establishing rules, regulations, and profit-sharing. WESA and the PEA are stepping up their game in the budding new world of eSports and their level of organization and desire to work with the players, the shareholders, and the public is the first step of professional gaming being recognized as a legitimate sport. The next, and perhaps most critical step is a challenge other professional sports do not face: intellectual property rights.
No one really owns baseball, football, or soccer. Sure, someone had to come up with the ball and rules, but no one poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work into coding, design, artwork, scripts, and marketing (to name a few things) that goes into the making of a videogame. Whether a team of two or a team of 100, videogames take quite a lot of work to create. Games like Overwatch and League of Legends are someone’s intellectual property and if a professional gaming league wants to continue their climb to the top of the eSports world they’re going to have to find a way to work with the developers and the copyright laws other sports aren’t hindered by.
One solution is to negotiate profits to the developers that allow eSports to profit off of their game. Joss Wood, an online gambling guru, points at PEA’s strategy: “Splitting financial benefits 50/50 between teams and players sound great in theory, but there isn’t any percentage in there for the game developers.” The developers literally own every single aspect of their game, and while many have allowed the use of their game for competitions, without structured and regulated form of payment for the use of their property, every single competitive gaming league could be shut down in an instant.
There’s also a problem with publisher-ran leagues: players are not compensated appropriately, nor do they receive benefits for doing their job. The PEA offers healthcare and other financial benefits to every player in it’s league, much like professional footballers or basketball stars receive, which is a great incentive to join non-Publisher leagues. The easiest solution to this problem? Compensate the developers. If PEA is leading the charge with new ideas regarding profit sharing between owners and players, then one of two things need to happen: one, the league needs to split a small percentage of its profits with the developers in order continue using their game as the platform of their competitions; or, two, leagues like the PEA and WESA pay a licensing fee annually to the developer in order to secure the rights to use the game for profit. The second option seems more likely of the two, as many leagues offer competitions in multiple games owned by different developers. Once the established league has a partnership with the game developers, one final obstacle needs to conquered in order to solidify the legitimacy of professional gaming as a sport: mainstream media coverage.
It won’t be long until eSports is mentioned every evening on the six o’clock news alongside other sports. In order to further establish its legitimacy to the public, professional gaming needs the support and coverage of the mass media… and they’re already getting it. Amazon recently purchased the online game-streaming service called Twitch which has millions of viewers for live eSports competitions held internationally. YouTube, Yahoo, and now the biggest hub for sports, ESPN, is investing in eSports coverage. Already, ESPN has broadcast the championships for League of Legends and CS:GO. Why? Because, according to John Guadiosi’s article in Fortune, “the eSports industry will grow from $278 million in revenue in 2015 into a $765 million industry by 2018.” The more exposure, the more fans generated; the more fans generated, the more profit to be earned by all involved, including the press. With the media promoting and covering eSports, the more people will begin to understand the legitimacy of professional gaming, especially when people see the millions of dollars the professionals earn from winning competitions.
Without the help of mainstream media coverage, a partnership among game developers, and a unified association that oversees the entire eSports operation, professional gaming will remain an underappreciated sport despite harboring some of the most talented and strategic athletes in the world. Since the 90s, South Korea is considered to be the gold-standard of competitive gaming. The US lacks the cultural promotion that South Korea offers, and many players travel there to train. Boasting hundreds of PC bangs (a type of cyber cafe), three dedicated eSports television channels, a branch in the Korean government called KeSpa (Korean e-Sports Association), and it’s very own E-sports Stadium located in Yongsan, South Korea is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to what eSports could be for the United States and the world.
*Edited an inaccurate comment about chess in the Olympics. Chess has a Chess Olympiad that is unaffiliated with the IOC.