Yes, traditional sports fans: esports are sports, too

A camera pans over Beijing’s National Arena, and every seat is packed. The live opening concert has just ended, and fans cheer and shout with excitement as players take their positions. All over the world, 57 million people stop what they are doing and pull up live feeds on streaming websites to make sure they don’t miss a single moment. However, this isn’t what most would call a traditional sporting event. This is the World Championship for League of Legends, a video game. This is esports.

Video games, once thought to be nothing more than a hobby, have become legitimate sporting events, and deserve to be recognized and respected as such for a number of reasons.

Modern day esport professionals must be as physically and mentally fit as any other professional athlete. Also, major media outlets have already begun dedicated, mainstream coverage of esports events instead of treating them as niche story opportunities. Even federal governments and international sporting federations are taking notice and reaching out to esports organizations to find how to best integrate them into international sporting events. However, there is still a real divide that must be overcome between those who would classify an esports event as a sporting event and those still believe video games will only rot your brain.

In the past, a sport would have to involve a physical aspect. Everything from foot races to football was easily defined as a sport and accepted as such. However, modern sporting coverage also includes auto racing and poker tournaments, which rely on mental acuity and pressure under stress instead of raw physical ability. Competitions in these activities are generally accepted as sporting events by the public, due, in part, to the harsh demands put onto the athletes when they perform. Esports professionals are no different from their counterparts in this regard. This was proven in a study performed by Professor Ingo Froböse at the German Sports University measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brains of several esports athletes.

In an interview about his findings, given to German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Froböse said “The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver. This is combined with a high pulse, sometimes as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute, which is equivalent to what happend [sic] during a very fast run, almost a marathon.” While it might appear that most esports athletes simply sit at a desk and mash buttons, Froböse’s study has proven there are real physical and mental stresses put on an esport athlete’s body. To say that esports requires no physical or mental effort does a great disservice to the athletes that drive their bodies to compete at the professional level.

If esports are just games for children, as many people claim, then why then do esports events receive media attention as a sport through major sports media networks, such as ESPN? ESPN themselves have an answer to this question. editor in chief Chad Millman, in a 2016 interview with Time, had this to say when asked about esport recognition: “At the end of the day, it’s cool, it’s intense, the competition is crazy, it has million-dollar performers, it has high stakes, it has owners who are trying to steal team members from different teams, it has everything that makes sports interesting to cover.” It certainly seems that the idea of esports as a sport isn’t simply gaining traction to some parties. To them, esports are sports, and the rest of the world needs to catch up.

While ESPN has certainly cemented themselves as a forerunning authority on sports knowledge and coverage, perhaps the definition of esports as sports should come from a higher authority. Germany’s coalition government has seen fit to put the matter to rest within their own borders by agreeing to recognize esports are sports earlier this year. Legislation for doing just that is currently being drafted, and will allow esports clubs to apply for not-for-profit status among other benefits from recognition. However, Germany isn’t the only nation that recognizes esports athletes.

The United States has also accepted the validity of esports, at least on a federal level. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, now allows esports athletes to apply for a P-1A Internationally Recognized Athlete work visa to enter the United States. As per the USCIS website, “P-1 classification applies to you if you are coming to the U.S. temporarily to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, at an internationally recognized level of performance.” No where is esports mentioned in the qualifications, which only reinforces the recognition that the United States shows for esports athletes.

Even if two of the most powerful and influential countries in the world have defined esports as a sport, there is a real argument to be made that governments and politicians aren’t a foremost expert on the subject of what would define a sport. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is that expert. They have chosen their side in the debate as well. After the 6th Olympic Summit, the IOC released a statement that included their stance towards esports. “Competitive “eSports” [sic] could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports”. The IOC then took further steps to cement the legitimacy of esports by hosting the Esports Forum, which was used to “set a platform for future engagement between the esports and gaming industries and the Olympic Movement.”

The idea that esports are competitive and worthy of recognition is gaining traction at a tremendous rate. Everyone from media broadcasters, to federal governments, to the Olympics themselves recognize the hard work that esports athletes put into their passions. The perception of esports won’t change overnight, but it is changing. It is time for everyone to take a new look at how they view esports moving forward.