Are Esports Players Athletes?

14 June 2016By: Robert



Photo courtesy Razer’s You” 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 “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.


Esports may be coming to the Olympics

As hard as some may argue that esports is not a sport, there are some facts that lean heavily towards it being a sport. Esports may soon be an Olympic sport. There will be a televised ELeague, that will broadcast esports on the same scale as the NBA, or even the Super Bowl.


Many people who argue that esports may not be a sports aren’t even athletes. What are the experts saying? What do actual professional athletes think about this debate? Well, Shaq has invested in esports, as well as Rick Fox, three-time NBA champion. He actually bought his own team! So they at least support it. That counts for something.


Betting on esports being a sport

Whether you like it or not (we like it), esports will probably end up qualifying as a sport. It just has too much in common with other sports. Esports players wear uniforms. They train. Intensely. They get sponsored by brands like Red Bull, Monster, and Razer. They have teams, fans, and tournaments in massive stadiums.


These teams and players have stats you can follow. With knowledge of these stats, you can bet on your favorite team. There are websites devoted to esports betting. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if fantasy esports leagues became a thing.


APM is really damned physical

You wouldn’t normally consider someone who can type 90-100 wpm “athletic,” however a big part of competitive gaming is exactly that—the speed and accuracy with which a player can wood-peck from key to key. Just look at the hands of this pro gamer and try to tell me that there is no endurance and dexterity required. There is a reason gamers crack their knuckles more than the general public—intensive gaming is hell on the joints!


And much like their athletic peers, with fading reflexes and the rising competition from fresh blood, professional esports athletes tend not to last much longer than their mid-twenties.


So what does the science say?

When in doubt, look to science. Professor Ingo Froböse, the expert in prevention and rehabilitation at the German Sports University in Cologne, was the first scientist to study esports athletes. He found that they meet, and often surpass, the physical and mental demands that other athletes experience.


"We were particularly impressed by both the demands placed on the motor skills and their capabilities," Froböse said. "The eSports athletes achieve up to 400 movements on the keyboard and the mouse per minute, four times as much as the average person. The whole thing is asymmetrical, because both hands are being moved at the same time and various parts of the brain are also being used at the same time."


Sounds good for those in the “they are athletes camp.” Froböse drove this sentiment home even further with the evidence he and his team produced:


"The amount of cortisol produced is about the same level as that of a race-car driver," Froböse said. "This is combined with a high pulse, sometimes as high as 160 to 180 beats per minute, which is equivalent to what happened during a very fast run, almost a marathon. That's not to mention the motor skills involved. So in my opinion, eSports are just as demanding as most other types of sports, if not more demanding," he said.


Does the question even matter?

So, are esports players athletes? Hunter Hillenmeyer, former NFL linebacker, now involved in the esports industry, says they are, but with a caveat. “I think they are, but I also don't really think it matters.” We think that’s a good place to stop, for now. Yeah, esports should probably be classified as a sport, but even if it isn’t, it won’t matter. It will continue to be the huge industry that it is now, and will only grow. People arguing that it’s not a sport won’t do much to stop it; countries are changing their laws to make esports players bureaucratically indistinguishable from traditional athletes, esports players age out at about the same age as traditional athletes, and the growth in betting on esports are strong indicators that we’re seeing an evolution in what we consider an athlete.