Esports is a worldwide phenomenon – with a growing audience already estimated at over 450m, global revenues rising above USD 1bn in 2019, and live competitions and tournaments making prime time news. But, while esports is clearly a highly competitive form of videogaming and is mainly played at a professional level, does it really qualify as a sport?
This is a key question. In the Netherlands and across Europe, recognised sports enjoy legal relationships between their various stakeholders which would otherwise not exist, or at least would not apply to the same extent. Formally recognised Dutch sports federations, for example, may receive funding from the Dutch Government, and players can qualify for stipends and study exemptions. The European Union (EU) may also support Member States if the activities of the recognised sport contribute to EU objectives.
Sporting status – meeting the five tests
The Council of Europe’s definition of a sport has five core components:
- the sport is a physical activity
- it can be practised in recreational form
- it involves some form of competition
- it is generally recognised as a sport
- it takes place in an organised context.
How does esports measure up?
We believe esports passes the first test, as a physical activity. Although professional gamers sit and use a computer and mouse while playing, five-year research by Prof. dr. Dr. Ingo Frobose, Professor of Sport and Movement at the German Sports University, shows that the physical strain experienced by gamers is on a par with athletes in traditional sports. For example, during a competition, gamers register similar heart rates to those of marathon runners and have comparable amounts of the stress hormone cortisol to those seen in Formula 1 drivers.
Esports clearly meets the Council of Europe definition under the second and third components – it can be practised in recreational form, and there is some form of competition.
In our view, esports is generally recognised as a sport, satisfying the fourth test. Under the council’s definition, recognition should take account of public opinion and widely-held views in the media, the business community and others. Esports is enjoying a rising profile, and increasing public interest offers clear opportunities for sponsors and investors from the business community to reach a new and younger audience.
The last aspect of the definition is more challenging: does esports take place in an organised way (5)? For a sports organisation to gain EU recognition, “good governance” is an absolute must. This means the organisation has to be autonomous and essentially self-regulated. Good governance is assessed against the principles of transparency, democracy, checks and balances and solidarity.
There are many similarities between the organisational structure of esports and traditional sports. However, there is an essential difference in the democratic content of the ultimate beneficiary.
In traditional sports, the national or international sports association is the ultimate beneficiary with powers. Due to the structure of memberships within the association, there is a certain form of democracy in the decision-making processes. Simply put, members have a direct or indirect influence on the association’s decisions. Significantly, there are disciplinary rules and arbitration rules for non-compliance by members.
By contrast, esports stakeholders have very little influence. Players have no direct or indirect control over the sport they play, and have no say in its organisational structure. There is hardly any membership structure, if at all.
In esports, the developer is king. In most esports the economic and legal controls are exclusively in the hands of the game developer. For example, the developer determines the design and the rules of the game, and can change them at any time. Developers often run the tournaments, deciding which teams can take part in events or at least setting the rules for participation. The developer also owns all the video game’s intellectual property rights. Ultimately, when profits for a particular game start to slide, the developer may choose to withdraw it from the market. This means the professional gamer can no longer play their sport.
Minimal player input and near total developer control point to a lack of democratic content – an important principle for a sport to be recognised under the Council of Europe’s definition. Esports is vulnerable because of its dependence on the developer. This vulnerability can be partially mitigated by adjusting the governance of esports. Some steps have already been made in that direction by umbrella bodies such as the World Esports Association, which has introduced rules on arbitration and transfers, and a code of conduct for players and teams. But this type of regulation is currently not enough to tip the balance. For now, esports falls short under the principle of democracy required to prove that the sport takes place in an organised context.
Without a good governance structure – one where transparency, checks and balances and democracy are embedded in its organisation – esports cannot qualify as sport under the EU definition. Other regions in the world have different views. In Asia, for example, esports has been recognised as a sport and is now included in the Asian games. For its part, the International Olympic Committee has for the time being decided not to admit esports into the Olympic Games. As esports continues to grow, opinions on the sporting status of esports will change. For the esports phenomenon, and its claim to be a sport, it is far from game over.