Is it “Sports”?

According to the London Review of Books, 2008 was the first year in which "video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK."  The author of this article claims that this represents an economic milestone in the entertainment industry, and I fully agree with him.  As much as Hollywood, Bollywood, and the RIAA would like to think otherwise, people are gravitating away from the traditional "sit down in front of the tube" passive method of being entertained and towards a new model of interactive fun: video games. 

The London Review article poses the question of whether video games are art, which is certainly a good question with its own interesting consequences.  One thing that everyone can agree on is that video games are entertainment, but as the genre becomes more refined in terms of content and player participation, the classification of certain stand-out examples becomes a little more dicey.  Just as the Review wonders whether or not a game like Spore can be considered art, many people (including myself) wonder whether competitive gaming can be considered sports.  The answer to this question has significant value, since "sports" as we know them constitute a multi-billion dollar international industry with a mostly positive reputation which would benefit gaming by association.  If competitive gaming were accepted as "sports," or at least "eSports," there would be many more opportunities for competitive gaming to attract media attention, sponsorship deals, and talented people to work in the industry.  This change would not come without its downsides, and die-hard gaming fans might object to the way competitive gaming would be forced to adapt, but there’s no doubt that the scene would grow and thrive because of it.

So can eSports be considered "sports"?  It’s a tough question because the concept of a sport is linked so closely to a misty-eyed image of wholesome young men and women running around in the fresh air improving their physical fitness and learning life lessons all at once.  The sports ideal can’t be separated from the idea that competitions of physical skill are the only competitions worth elevating to the coveted status of a "sport."  However, there are loopholes in this ideal.  There’s a difference between our images of "pure sports" and the focus of big budget sports-as-entertainment sports.  Basketball is a sport, but when we think of basketball-as-entertainment we think of the NBA, which is a business.  Spectators aren’t interested in paying to watch nameless youth run around a dirt field without jerseys and logos and team rivalries and the context of a high-stakes national/international tournament.  To illustrate further, when people think of basketball-as-entertainment, especially in countries where basketball isn’t very well-known, they think of Michael Jordan.  Michael Jordan is exceptionally talented, but he would not represent basketball in the way that he does in the minds of so many millions without the help of factors that have little or nothing to do with physical prowess per se.  If not for the international growth of the NBA and especially for his sponsorship of Nike products, Michael Jordan wouldn’t be a star.  In the grand scheme of things, sneakers and logos don’t contribute anything to how basketball is played, but they do drastically influence the way it is perceived by the public – that is, its entertainment value.  In the entertainment world, presentation matters as much as content, which is what the CGS was banking on in its showbusinessy efforts to bring eSports to mainstream television.  Sadly, the CGS folded after its second year due more to bureaucratic politics than ratings, but I’m willing to bet that the television networks involved in it will want to try something like that again in the future.

So, competitive gaming may end up slipping under the sports umbrella through sports-as-entertainment if the industry’s economic potential seems to outweigh the incredulity factor ("that’s a sport?!").  There’s an argument to be made that eSports only differs from sports in that the "mind game" prevails over the physical aspect of competition, but it’s a difficult argument to justify to most sports fans.  eSports certainly has compelling content and a large potential audience, and in Korea it’s already been catapulted to the glamor of the "sports" label.  We’ll see if eSports in the West can similarly live up to its ambitious name.



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