Are Esports Players Athletes?

By Andrew Hendricks

If you’re American, French, or Russian, the short answer is yes. According to the BBC: “The US Government recognises esports players as professional athletes, at least where the granting of visas is concerned.” Russia is set to recognise esports as a sport this month, and France is proposing a bill that recognises esports players as athletes. Case closed.

However, as you can imagine by such a click-baity headline, there are plenty who would alternatively scoff, or at least politely disagree with this assessment. Despite the fact that ESPN has begun numerous partnerships with different esports broadcasts (among other forays into esports), its president John Skipper is among those in the distinction-with-a-difference camp. “[It] is not a sport,” said Skipper, “it’s a competition.”

One can see where traditional sports enterprises such as the ESPN may be tepid in their endorsement of the burgeoning market, lest they conflate esports players with the actual athletes on their networks. However, many find the need to make this distinction somewhat nonsensical, and more than a little offensive.

Current “sports”

If you google “Is golf a sport?” over 24 million search results pop up with pages upon pages of articles arguing one way or another. Sure, some of them are arbitrary opinions like saying it’s not a sport because “you can play while injured,” but there are plenty of instances where athletes have played and finished games with broken legs, crushed fingers, a broken neck, and of course, Michael Jordan’s famous 38 point game while having the flu.

Clearly what is or isn’t a sport is not so cut and dry to the world at large, and the judgment can be quite subjective. Should it be though? By what metric is something a sport and not a competition, like a chess match? Is it reaction time? Muscle? Coordination? All three?

For those so quick to dismiss esports athletes, let’s wade into some controversial territory and explore other “sports” that may challenge our knee-jerk reaction sports requiring bulging muscles and sweating in the sun.

We’ve already mentioned golf, but what of Ultimate Frisbee? A popular pastime of college students who can’t kick a ball and don’t want to be tackled, one could argue that Ultimate Frisbee is more of a game than a sport. But it is a competitive activity that involves physical activity, that is played for entertainment, and involves a winner and a loser. You could easily argue that it is a sport.

One way to exemplify some common sentiments about what is and isn’t a sport would be to look at archery or target shooting. Both require coordination, but archery would be much more likely to be construed as a sport with its muscular requirements. If technology being involved removes the athleticism and “sport” aspect, this would be pretty damning for esports players who do consider themselves athletes. It seems an easy distinction: a competitive bicyclist is an athlete—a NASCAR driver is not. Regardless of the other overlaps, is this technological barrier really what separates the sports from the competitions? Or are we all just talking past each other with our definitions? And plenty of people vehemently (and perhaps not incorrectly) argue NASCAR is a sport, and you’re silly to question that.

Professional synchronized swimmers and figure skaters have long been at odds with some of the commonplace “definitions” of sports. “That’s just performance art!” people often say of these two “sports.” In both, “athletes” perform (albeit highly athletic) routines based on certain criteria, and they are judged by meeting their criteria. At no point are they engaged in one-on-one competition with other athletes. And unlike the shot put or long jump, there is less of a clear-cut objective standard for grading one superior performance as better than another.

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