A Little Rational Discourse on eSports.

Before I dive into the meat of today’s article I think a little disclosure is in order so you know where my biases lie. I’m undeniably an eSports fan, watching it grow from the tenuous beginnings to the burgeoning industry that it has become today. I’m also slightly invested in the whole idea myself, even though at my current skill level I’m still a worlds away from competing seriously. Still despite my biases my inner sceptic won’t stay quiet when there’s an argument to be had that seems to be rife with emotion and misinformation, which is what has pushed me to write about this today.

So since I’ve been elbow deep in writing about other issues this week I missed a massive Internet argument over whether eSports can be classified as a sport. The origin appears to be this article on Destructoid which, like previous articles to the same effect did, sparked a debate online which inevitably turned south as both sides duked it out. The latest instalment, and the one that caught my eye, was this post from Jim Sterling which focused primarily on the community’s reaction to the post and how such a reaction showed that eSports can never be considered a real sport because of it. After reading through it all and doing some digging on the matters at hand I’ve come to a couple conclusions and believe that both sides could learn a lot from each other.

The first, and I know this is probably pointless on the Internet, is that a level of courtesy would never go astray when you’re arguing with people online. It’s really, really easy to devolve into name calling and baiting when you’re arguing with a faceless wall of text but it does nothing to help your cause when you do so. It’s for that exact reason that I tend to shy away from writing any kind of emotionally charged piece here simply because it usually removes the meaning. The problem is exacerbated when you have to confine your words to the 140 character count of Twitter, leading to sound bites like this one which can be so easily construed as meaning one thing or another.

However I also know that reasoned pieces (like this one in response to the earlier Kotaku article I linked) tend to fall by the wayside, drowned out by the vitriol and hyperbole. This is because such articles tend to attract the most page views and discussion, generating a self sustaining organism of hate that proceeds to trample around the Internet. Such behaviour gives the false impression that one side is wholly represented by this vocal minority.

But that doesn’t mean some of the grievances raised don’t have some factual basis.

The crux of the entire matter appears to centre around the idea of whether or not eSports can be counted as sports. There are good arguments on both sides so let’s have a quick look at them, starting with the supporters. For them eSports counts as a sport because on the surface they share many similar aspects with the major difference being the lack of physicality. However the IOC (which Elsa mentions in her article) includes several non-physical sports in their definition of what constitutes a sport, lending credence to the idea that not all sports need to have the physical element. This is where Elsa’s article falls down for many eSports supporters as she writes that off in favour of her own opinion instead.

However Elsa is not alone in thinking this, in fact putting this idea to my close (relatively nerdy) social circle showed that most of them supported the idea that sports require a physical element. Indeed taking it further the straight up definition of the term “sport” usually gives something like this:

A human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.

Going from this it’s easy then to make the assumption that the general public would require the physicality aspect for something to be classified as a sport. This leaves us with quite the conundrum as both sides have a solid, valid claim to their arguments even if the expression of such hasn’t been done in the most respectful way.

As we all know just because the majority believes something does not necessarily make it correct. The general idea that a sport requires some physical aspect dates back to a time before we had the capability to compete in mediums like video games and thus I would argue that the definition of sports, as it current stands, needs to be reworked for modern times. eSports tick all the boxes of the generally accept definition if you take dexterity as satisfying the “physical skill” part of it. The term sport then becomes a much broader term and realistically covers a lot of things that we don’t necessarily consider sports today.

To use a space analogy it’s much like the definition of what constitutes a planet. For the longest time it was pretty much just the large heavenly bodies we had discovered in our own solar system. However as time went by and we discovered more planetary like bodies we had to start questioning what the definition of a planet really was, formalizing the idea. The definition of sports can then be thought of in the same light as we now have new entities that call it into question. 

Sports then should be seen as a larger umbrella for skill based competition. The delineation then comes from the monikers that we then apply to the various sports in order to differentiate them from each other, although I can see many still using the generic term sports to refer to the heavily physical based variety. In reality this is just semantics that gives people an easy identifier to relate with others and should has little bearing on the larger argument.

Jim Sterling makes the point that he can’t take eSports seriously until there’s some actual debate about the topic as opposed to trolling and flame baiting. I was going to attempt to take him down on this one, saying there was a whole lot of reasonable debate to be had if he looked in the right places. Unfortunately it seems that there isn’t too much to be had out there, especially if you look at the comments on the articles in question and the various musing around on Twitter. We then seem to be at the mercy of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory where all of eSports most rabid fans are hiding behind the veil of anonymity where they can spout their vitriol to a large audience. This, I agree, does the case for eSports no good at all.

However it also does those on the opposite side of the argument no good to write something off completely because of the most vocal parts of the fan group. It is of course hard not to judge when all the evidence you have points towards the other side being full of childish twats, so hopefully this post can be the beach head into the realm of constructive discussion. I may be one small voice in the deafening choir that is the Internet but it only takes one to pave the way to a more rational debate.

These kinds of questions (are games art? can they be sport?) are a sign that games, both as an industry and a medium, are now as much a part of our society as print, movies et. al. have been before them. It’s unfortunate that such times are marred by the vocal few who so fervently support them leave their better manners at the door but that does not mean their ideas do not have merit, nor warrant further investigation. Even this rather long post barely scratches the surface of the questions that have been raised in my investigation of the topic and I’m very much looking forward to debating them openly, courteously and rationally with any who would take up the challenge, so long as they extend to me the same.

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