Can professional video gaming be a sport?

A shorter version of this piece appears in Issue 3

November 4, 2016

To the average person, video games are nothing more than a time killer, something fun to do when you have some free time, or when you want to play with friends. However, with tens of millions of dollars in prize money as well as hundreds of millions of passionate fans worldwide, it’s hard to deny the legitimacy of the growing phenomenon that is professional video gaming, better known as Esports. Here’s why I think Esports deserve to be considered a mental sport.

Now, in this article I am not saying that video games should be grouped together with other popular physical sports, (i.e. football, baseball, soccer, etc.) because there is obviously a large difference between video games and traditional, physical sports. Rather, I am talking about my belief that Esports should be grouped more similarly with games such as chess, which I will touch on later in the article as much more of a mental sport.

The Esports industry has grown exponentially in the past few years alone. According to an article by CNN, the industry is expected to smash $1 billion in revenue by 2019.  In just 2016 alone, the industry has grown to around half a billion dollars in revenue.

Sites like ESPN.com seem to recognize Esports and its status, having introduced an Esports section to their website that is frequently updated by their staff journalists that specialize in writing about the professional gaming scene.

Many major companies have taken a great interest in the Esports industry. Companies like TBS have invested vast amounts of money into promoting the industry through ELEAGUE, a biannual league broadcast every Friday night on the TBS TV channel, which features the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is a five versus five multiplayer first person shooter game that requires mass amounts of skill, game knowledge, and mental strength to play at the highest level.  Most players on the world’s best teams have been playing for years and years to improve and remain the best.

Because of leagues like ELEAGUE, Esports has been slowly creeping onto television and has been given mass amounts of attention by the media. By the end of the second season, which is currently ongoing, ELEAGUE will have given out $2.5 million in prize money to the world’s best teams and players.

That number is miniscule compared to some of the prize pools seen in the biggest tournaments of other Esports games. The International, which is the yearly world championship for the game DOTA 2, had a staggering prize pool of $20,770,460 in 2016. The winning team, Wings Gaming, was awarded $9,139,002. In DOTA 2, there are 5 players to the starting roster of a given team, meaning each player on the team are now millionaires after winning the competition.

Another title, League of Legends, recently held their world championship, Worlds. The prize pool for the tournament was $4,145,004, with over $1.5 million going to the winning team. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive had their world championship tournaments upped to $1 million per event starting in 2016, which is likely to increase as 2017 comes around due to the massive increase in the game’s popularity.

Now, there is no doubting the Esports industry is a gigantic one. The question still stands for discussion by many, are Esports able to be considered sports? I believe so, and here’s why. Merriam-Webster defines sports as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other.” The physical aspect of the sports definition is what leads many to reject the idea that competitive gaming is a sport in any capacity, mental or physical. While playing video games is by no means a physical activity, beyond movement of the mouse, keyboard, or controller, it is much more of a mental sport.

The International Olympic Committee, as well as around 100 different countries around the world, recognize the game of chess as a sport. It doesn’t require any physical activity besides movement of the pieces, so why should video games not be treated and grouped similarly? Video games, like chess, require mass amounts of mental strength and knowledge about the game. The best teams and players in the world are signed to full-time contracts, some receiving well over six-figure yearly salaries. Some teams practice as a group for up to eight hours every single day to stay on top. Many players have been playing for over a decade as professional gamers.

One of the smaller Esports tournaments this year took place at Dreamhack Austin 2016, which took place in Austin, Texas on May 6-8, 2016. The event featured a $100,000 prize pool for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, as well as eight of the best teams in North America fighting for the $50,000 grand prize. The crowd at the event was nothing short of electric, filling the Austin Convention Center with pure energy in every play. However, that’s just about as small as it gets in Esports.

Many stadiums are being used to host world-class Esports events. ESL (Electronic Sports League), will be hosting IEM Oakland 2016, featuring $300,000 for Counter-Strike, and an undetermined prize pool for League of Legends. It is likely to be similar, if not larger than the prize pool of the Counter-Strike event. The event will take place on November 19-20, 2016 in the Oracle Arena, the home of the Golden State Warriors basketball team.

Esports is beginning to be recognized by traditional sports brands as well. Recently, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired the Esports brand Team Dignitas. While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, other larger Esports brands have been offered between $5 million and $15 million for acquisition. The Esports brand Renegades was recently relocated to Detroit, Michigan from Los Angeles, California after being acquired by professional NBA player Jonas Jerebko, who plays for the Boston Celtics. Rick Fox, a retired professional basketball player, is the owner of his own Esports team, Echo Fox.

MLG Columbus 2016, the first world championship for Counter-Strike in 2016, was the first to give out $1,000,000 in prizes to the world’s best. It was held in the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, selling close to 10,000 tickets to attendees. In addition to the thousands of fans that watched from the arena, it set the record for total viewership in Counter-Strike, holding 1.6 million concurrent viewers from around the world at it’s peak.

It’s hard to deny the status of sports to the Esports industry after its exponential growth. All of these reasons are what lead me to believe that Esports deserves to be recognized as a sport, even if it isn’t a physical activity. It is not currently recognized as an official sport by any major nations, but it is only a matter of time before the title is considered, and likely awarded to competitive video gaming.

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