Quick. When I say the word sports, what do you think of? If you’re a fan, it could be football, basketball or soccer. Perhaps it’s tennis or golf. For some, it might even be chess or bridge, both of which are recognized as sports by the largest international sports organization. What about competitive video gaming? Is esports a sport? What, you may ask, makes an activity a sport?

Is Esports a Sport?

As it turns out, there’s no one definitive answer. In fact, it’s an ongoing debate. One that’s been raging for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years. Even the pinnacle of sports achievement and spectacle, the Olympic Games, has included (or banned) varying “sports” since its start in the 8thcentury BC. In our particular moment, esports is at the center of the debate.

Defining Sport

Among the free online dictionaries, each offers a version of this theme: Sport is an activity that includes physical exertion, skill, competition, and entertainment. The one main variation on this theme: the degree of emphasis on the physical aspect of the sport.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a sport is an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment. Dictionary.comdownplays the physical. How athletic, after all, is hunting and fishing? 

Sport, noun.

An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, such as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

 It all comes down to one word. It’s an and/or conundrum. Physical exertion and skill. Versus, skill or physical prowess. Wikitionary.org goes for the “or” but adds the requirement of a set of rules. The American Heritage Dictionary, on the other hand, insists that both are necessary.  Merriam-Websterboils it down to bare-bones: Sport, noun. A source of diversionRECREATION.

Choose one definition and esports qualifies as a sport. Choose another, and it’s a harder sell. Sport purists tend to insist on physical athleticism. But the cultural zeitgeist is clearly skewing toward more inclusive views on sport. Should esports be considered a sport? Let’s look at what some experts have to say about the matter.

The Sports Authorities

 The Euro Sports charter defines sports as: “all forms of physical activity which, through casual or organized participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.”

At first glance, this definition seems to back the assertion that esports is not a sport. It would also limit the number of other activities often considered “sport.” Here’s a closer look at each of the components:

  1. All forms of physical activity. Sure, esports isn’t tremendously physical. But to compete well, esports athletes do need tremendous physical stamina. Consider as well that many call auto and air racing sports. These, too, require stamina more than physical prowess. Finally, there’s that “all.” Pretty all-encompassing.
  2. Casual or organized participation. More than three-quarters of U.S. teens play video games(casually). Organized competitive gaming has become a billion-dollar industry.
  3. Aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being. Many so-called sports (racing, polo, golf) can’t claim physical fitness as their main goal. Virtually all contenders for the title sport, however, improve mental wellbeing. Esports included.
  4. Forming social relationships. Many video game enthusiasts form strong social bonds with players they never meet in person.Organized esports teams take the social aspect of gaming to a new level, bringing a purely virtual experience into the physical, social realm.
  5. Obtaining results in competition at all levels. Esports tournaments offer competitive venues for high school, collegiate and pro gamers. A host of less elite leagues offer organized competitions online for gamers at virtually any level.
esports arena

Other governing bodies take a broader view of what should be considered a sport. The International Olympic Committee (through ARISF) recognizes both chess and bridge (as well as air and auto sports) as bona fide sports. The largest, most all-encompassing sport organization, the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) agrees.

The GAISF recognizes numerous non-traditional, non-physical sports. Among them: bridge, chess, and checkers (draughts). It’s members include organizations from a huge range of sporting endeavors. From the traditional, like tennis, ice hockey, and American football. To the less familiar, such as minigolf, tug of war, and sled dog sports.

The GAISF is considered the de facto representative of international sport. If recognizes sports as being primarily physical (boxing, football/soccer). Primarily of the mind (chess, bridge). Primarily based on coordination skills (darts, billiards). Predominantly motorized (air sports, motorcycle sports). Or primarily animal supported (polo). Within this worldview esports clearly has a place to dwell.

Sport vs. Other Leisure Activities

Sport is all about leisure. From couch-bound fans to local league participants. High school athletes to community club members. It’s about how we spend our free time. Pro players don’t count. Their athleticism is a job. Their spectators, absolutely do. Whether in the stands or on the couch, sports as entertainment is a break from the obligations of life.

A vast range of activities fall under the umbrella of leisure. American’s favorites? Watching TV, socializing and non-work computer use. Sport comes in a close 5th after reading. The “other” category encompasses everything from gardening to doing crossword puzzles. Most of which clearly bears no resemblance to most definitions of sport.

So what makes sports a sport? The following qualities distinguish it from gardening, reading and the like:

  • Physical athleticism and/or physical dexterity and skill
  • Structure
  • Standardized / agreed upon rules
  • Competition between two or more individuals or teams
  • Scorekeeping or other assessment to determine a winner
  • Providing entertainment for spectators

Sport vs. Competition: The ESPN Factor

Another angle in this many-faceted debate is how sports are distinguished from other competitive activities. Countless competitions are held annually across the world. Just about anything imaginable goes. Competitive eating is a thing. So is competitive wife carrying? Hoop rolling, sheep herding, and baby races can be found in the U.S and elsewhere. There’s even a rock paper scissors league.

How to decide which qualify as sport? We turn to ESPN for insight. It claims to be the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” after all. Clearly an expert in all things sport. The mega-media conglomerate holds the rights to cover sports ranging from the U.S. College Football Bowl games and Major League Baseball to the Masters Golf Tournament and Formula One racing. ESPN also broadcasts Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest, which, in 2018, earned a higher viewership than any July 4th Major League Baseball game. And it’s been covering the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1994.

We can infer then, that ESPN considers spelling and competitive eating to be a form of sport. Wife carrying, not so much. (ESPN appears to have written at least one humorous article on the topic, but has never broadcast an event.)