If you’ve been around the Oxide office lately, you’d have heard us bantering back and forth over the difference between a competitive activity and a “sport”. For myself, I think there’s an interesting series of questions there as well as a pretty funny discussion.

  • What is the traditional definition of “sport”?
  • What, according to popular culture, is considered a sport today?
  • Which definition takes precedence (popular opinion vs. traditional)?

It’s my hope that through this brief blog post, I’ll at least challenge your perspective.

League of Legends World Championship TrophyLeague of Legends World Championship Trophy

By Definition:

It’s fairly understood that as time progresses popular opinion changes. There are a myriad of words whose definitions have changed completely or modified slightly to stay “current”. “Sport” is a word just like any other and is just as susceptible to change. But, if we’re going to use the traditional definition as found in the dictionary to determine validity, here is the current definition of Sport according to the Oxford Dictionaries.

SPORT: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

Without looking any further, this definition is too vague. There’s simply not enough clarity to have a firm stance on what is and what is not a sport. Further research is needed.

  • What is “an activity involving physical exertion”?
  • How do you quantify the level of exertion necessary to be considered a sport?

Here’s the definition for Exertion according to online Farlex Dictionary.

EXERTION (Physical): The activity of exerting your muscles in various ways to keep fit.

Awesome. With both of those definitions, one can conclude a sport is a physical activity that requires skill and enough exertion to stay fit. However, during my research, I came across a list that includes several sports that are officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee that seem to conflict with this traditional definition. These “sports” include chess, billiards, bridge, archery, and shooting.

2011 Women's World Chess Championship2011 Women’s World Chess Championship

I won’t take away from the incredible skill necessary to be professionally competitive in these activities. However, if the defining criteria for an activity being considered sport is keeping fit, I’m not sure they qualify. Thus, they’re not really “sports”.

Popular Opinion:

I, however, have a different opinion. Whether or not an activity requires a particular level of physical activity, that shouldn’t determine if something is a sport. It’s simply too limiting. Any activity that people love and can be done competitively should be able to be considered a sport. If enough people are interested and enough are passionate about it, getting caught up on terminology is archaic. Besides, without the fans, would there be sports? Much like the questioned sports earlier, the times are changing. No longer are we required to be so physical. Mental competition can be just as entertaining and require just as much skill.

Right now there’s a huge debate on whether or not poker should be considered a sport. It has a huge fanbase and following. There’s a ton of coverage on ESPN. And, frankly, how is there any difference between poker and chess or between poker and shooting – both of which are Olympic sports. The physical activity required is minimal. But, there’s a great deal of skill and technique. It’s highly competitive. So, what’s the difference?

2010 World Series of Poker2010 World Series of Poker

So, if poker can be considered a sport, what about eSports? Isn’t the most really exciting aspect of sports being able to outperform your opponent? It’s a true test of who is better.

“It’s athlete vs. clock or athlete vs. competitor’s score. The competitors take their turns, sequentially. They never face each other – I mean literally, face each other, the way a hockey forward and defenseman do, or the way two boxers or wrestlers or even tennis players do. That facing each other, that me trying to stop you and you trying to stop me, is what makes the great sports great.”

-King Kaufman, Salon

For me, I don’t really care about watching ten skiers perform the exact same run down a slope for fractions of a second difference. A real sport has two things: head-to-head competition and a fan base.

“Great sports are the ones that involve games, not just contests. Games where defense matters as much as offense.”

-Wayne Norman, This Sporting Life

With the semi-recent rise of eSports – organized video game competitions that pit world class players against each other for cash prizes, like League of Legends, Dota 2, and Starcraft – there is a generational shift in what people consider a sport. These are competitive team games that require highly developed skills and years of training, especially while learning to play together as a team.

2013 League of Legends World Championship2013 League of Legends World Championship

Millions of people across the globe follow and participate in eSports. Here are some numbers according to reports from Riot Games (the developer of League of Legends).

  • Over 67 million people play every month.
  • 27 million people play daily.
  • At any given moment, there are some 7.5 million players logged into League of Legends.
  • For the 2013 world championship, there were over 32 million viewers.

To put these numbers in perspective, the 2014 World Series averaged 15.8 million viewers. The NBA Finals series averaged 15.5 million viewers. This represents a significant shift in popular culture’s interest in competitive activities.

I don’t think I’d goes as far as calling professional gamers “athletes”, and eSports has a long way to go before it has caught up with NFL. But I maintain that eSports like League of Legends are some of the biggest and widely supported sports today.

What do you think?