It is important to mention that you will not get a definitive answer in this article, as several fundamental questions about the very nature of electronic sports are still being debated.
Note: This article is a translation. For the original article, click on Français in the menu.
In a podcast dedicated to the science side of electronic sports, The Esports Research Report (2020), the hosts, Brian McCauley and Steph Orme, often began their interviews by asking different researchers to explain their definition of “electronic sports”. There is a wide range of responses. Many would say that it is simply video games played competitively, others would emphasize certain aspects of sports (e.g. institutionalization, professional circuit, coaching, etc.), and some would emphasize the social phenomenon that transcends the simple act of playing video games.
The term sport
The use of the term “sport” to refer to video game competitions is a controversial topic, and one that can sometimes lead to heated exchanges on the Internet (Tjønndal, 2020). One of the initial issues we must overcome in determining whether the terms “electronic sports” are appropriate stems from the fact that the very definition of sport is ambiguous and will vary across time and culture (Besombes, 2016; Kane & Spradley, 2017). Having grown up in a sports environment, I can anecdotally mention that there are even biases between different types of sports (e.g. field hockey and curling or water polo and diving).
In this article, let’s take the definition of the term sport proposed by the Office québécoise de la langue française (2015): “Physical activity exercised individually or collectively in a particular form, which requires learning of technical skills, specific equipment and facilities, and which is governed by one or more organizations” (translated).
There are numerous studies evaluating the positive and negative impacts of video games on the human body, both physical and mental (e.g. Modesti, Pela, Cecioni, Gensini, Serneri, & Bartolozzi, 1994; Westecott, 2008; Green, & Bavelier 2006; Dye, Green, & Bavelier.,2009 ; Granic, Lobel & Engels, 2013; West, Konishi, Diarra, Benady-Chorney, Drisdelle, Dahmani, Sodums, Lepore,, Jolicoeur, & Bohbot, 2017). In the vast majority of electronic sports disciplines, as mentioned by Nicolas Besombes (2018), the motor performance of competitors is one factor that determines who will win. Although I do not like to make comparisons, Olympic shooting, where reaction time, accuracy, and hand-eye coordination are essential, would be the sport discipline recognized at the Olympics that would most closely approximate electronic sports in terms of the need for motor performance and energy expenditure.
From my observations and reading, the need for specific equipment and facilities per se in the definition of sport is not really something that is debated. The points that the athlete is generally sitting (sedentary) and using a joystick or keyboard/mouse are generally mentioned, not in terms of equipment and facilities itself, but rather in terms of the physical activity discussed above.
At the level of the organizations that govern electronic sports, we reach a new level of complexity. Indeed, video games are the intellectual property of video game studios. According to some critics (e.g. Dyer-Witheford, & Peuter, 2009 and International Olympic Committee, 2018), the video game industry is driven primarily by the commercial interests of companies. Conflicts are likely to arise between studios and organizations that are currently trying to implement themselves as a governing body (Jenny, Manning, Keiper, & Olrich, 2016). The situation is different compared to most traditional sports. For example, the International Olympic Committee cannot proclaim itself as the ultimate authority for electronic sports, as it did with the Olympic Movement in 1864 (Gillon, 2011).
Setting a limit?
As mentioned earlier, several researchers, as well as authors (e.g. Collis, 2020), mention that any video game played competitively can be considered as electronic sports.
The Office québécois de la langue française (2009) has proposed this definition for the term electronic sport: “Regular practice of a multiplayer video game, on the Internet or local network, via a computer or game console, which is considered a sporting activity” (translated). Here, the term multiplayer can be confusing, as even single-player games can be used in speedrun, which is a type of competition where participants try to finish a game as quickly as possible.
In an article aimed at defining the scientific stage of electronic sports psychology, Pedraza-Ramirez, Musculus, Raab and Laborde (2020) will provide this broad definition:
”Esports is the casual or organized competitive activity of playing specific video games that provide professional and/or personal development to the player. This practice is facilitated by electronic systems, either computers, consoles, tablets, or mobile phones, on which teams and individual players practice and compete online and/or in local-area-network tour- naments at the professional or amateur level. The games are established by ranking systems and competitions and are regulated by official leagues. This structure provides players a sense of being part of a community and facilitates mastering expertise in fine-motor coordination and perceptual-cognitive skills, particularly but not exclusively, at higher levels of performance.”
They then add a remark: ” So, according to our definition, not every video game is an esports game but every esports game is a video game. Video games such as Super Mario Bros., The Sims, or Grand Theft Auto can be played casually, and in some cases, there are organised tournaments. But these types of games do not have ranking systems, and competitions regulated by official leagues ” (Pedraza-Ramirez et al., 2020). The nuances brought by their definition are interesting, because it mentions that not all video games are automatically electronic sports. However, with enough effort and passionate people, we believe that all video games have some potential to be considered as electronic sports. Of course, our last statement ignores the criticism of whether all games really have a sufficient level of physical activity to be considered a sport. For example, Hearthstone is comparable to chess in the sense that the player could theoretically spend the entire game vocally expressing the actions to be done, and someone (human or machine) could do them for him. However, whether or not chess is recognized as a sport is a whole other debate in itself.
Although the debate on the sports aspect of electronic sports is still ongoing, and there are more complete answers, we will simply propose that electronic sports is the set of sports disciplines that use video games as the central element to their competition.
- Collis, W. (2020). The Book of Esports, RosettaBook, 194 pages.
- Besombes, N. (2016). Les jeux vidéo compétitifs au prisme des jeux sportifs : du sport au sport électronique. Sciences du jeu, (5).
- Besombes, N. (2018). Sport et e-sport. Une comparaison récurrente à déconstruire. Jurisport, 185, 19-23.
- Comité international olympique (2018). Communiqué du Sommet olympique, article en ligne : https://www.olympic.org/fr/news/communique-du-sommet-olympique-1 (mis en ligne le 8 décembre 2018, consulté le 23 octobre 2021)
- Dye, M. W., Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2009). Increasing Speed of Processing With Action Video Games. Current directions in psychological science, 18(6), 321–326.
- Dyer-Witheford, Nick & Peuter, Greig. (2009). Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games.
- Gillon, P. (2011). Une lecture géopolitique du système olympique, Annales de géographie, 4(4), p. 425-448.
- Granic, I., Lobel, A. & Engels, R. (2013). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), p. 66-78.
- Green, C. & Bavelier, D. (2006). The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games. Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication.
- Jenny, S. E., Manning, R. D., Keiper, M. C., & Olrich, T. W. (2016). Virtual(ly) Athletes: Where eSports fit Within the Definition of ‘Sport’. Quest, 69(1), 1-18.
- Kane, D., & Spradley, B. D. (2017). Recognizing Esports as a Sport. The Sport Journal, published online 11 May.
- Modesti PA, Pela I, Cecioni I, Gensini GF, Serneri GG, & Bartolozzi G. (1994). Changes in blood pressure reactivity and 24-hour blood pressure profile occurring at puberty. Angiology. 1994 Jun;45(6):443-50.
- Office québécois de la langue française (2009) Fiche terminologique : sport électronique. http://gdt.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/ficheOqlf.aspx?Id_Fiche=26502177 (consulté le 23 octobre 2021)
- Office québécois de la langue française (2015) Fiche terminologique : sport. http://gdt.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/ficheoqlf.aspx?id_fiche=8869772 (consulté le 23 octobre 2021)
- Pedraza-Ramirez, I., Musculus, L., Raab, M., & Laborde, S. (2020). Setting the scientific stage for esports psychology: A systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13(1), 319–352.
- The Esports Research Report (2020) https://esportsresearch.net/podcast-page/
- Tjønndal, A. (2020). “What’s Next? Calling Beer-Drinking a Sport?!”: Virtual Resistance to Considering eSport as Sport. Sport, Business and Management, published online before print
- West, G., Konishi, K., Diarra, M., Benady-Chorney, J.,Drisdelle, B. L., Dahmani, L., Sodums, D. , Lepore, F., Jolicoeur, P. et Bohbot, V. (2017). Impact of video games on plasticity of the hippocampus. Molecular Psychiatry. 23. 10.1038/mp.2017.155.
- Westecott, E. (2008). Putting the Body back into Play. the [player] conference Proceedings.