In the realm of benignly contentious conversation topics, “The Definition of Sport” is a personal favorite. People have strong opinions about it, as they do about most things categorical, and the discussion can be fairly revealing. It isn’t a stretch to say that you can plumb the depths of a person’s tolerance, even magnanimity, by asking them if some marginal competitive pursuit counts as a sport.
To sports fans, the designation of “sport” is an honorific. It’s a word that immediately brings to mind things like discipline, grace, and fairness. “Sportsmanship” is a quality anyone would be proud to be told they embody. It’s this lofty status of the word “sport” which means its use is fiercely guarded; like any descriptor, if it’s used too liberally its meaning will be diluted. The result is that people withhold the title “sport” in order to denigrate things they don’t like or don’t understand, often dismissing them as mere games, the crucial logic being that all sports are games, but not all games are sports. Games are a hell of a thing to be; they’re considered frivolous or silly, something for children. Taking a game too seriously is as shameful as not taking a sport seriously enough. In contrast to sportsmanship, “gamesmanship” is a hissed epithet.
I use a very broad definition of sport, and it’s probably down to my wanting to legitimize a lifelong passion for competitive video games. If it’s competitive and requires some physical prowess, I’m comfortable calling it a sport*, which encompasses video games nicely since competitive gaming at the highest levels requires unbelievable hand-eye coordination and reaction time, along with all the strategic thinking other sports require. In those two ways hitting a baseball and besting an opponent in my current favorite game, League of Legends, are more similar than most people think. For some the litmus test for a sport seems to involve a certain level of muscle mass or average heart rate, and things insufficiently athletic are discredited. But fine-tuned fast-twitch muscles surely count as much as bulging biceps, don’t they? And what if your heart rate is spiked from focus and pressure and not out of some aerobic necessity?
*I realized writing this that my definition must include something I find morally repugnant: competitive eating. It displays feats of human ability that beggar belief, and requires intense training, and if the capacity to ingest 70 hot dogs is a genetic gift, it’s no more one than being able to throw a baseball 95mph. Having to acknowledge professional gluttony as a sport in the name of epistemic consistency gives me heartburn.
Many of the arguments I hear against certain things being considered sports, from golf to auto racing to video games, stem from a failure to imagine the physical basis of the amazing performances on display. The level of fitness necessary for F1 drivers to endure a race would tax the leader of the peloton, and the reaction time and vision required of League of Legends pros would humble Peyton Manning.
As I’ve already argued, sheer physical difficulty isn’t the ultimate criterion for calling something a sport, but I think it can still be instructive, and one of the best ways to determine physical difficulty is by looking at a sport’s aging curve. It’s widely accepted that the human body peaks athletically in a person’s early-to-mid 20s, but for some sports the effects can be ameliorated or even negated by superior experience or knowledge. A 30-year-old pitcher may not have the raw stuff he had at 24, but he knows better how to attack a hitter and exploit their weaknesses. Likewise, a 40-year-old NASCAR driver isn’t likely to outpace their younger opponent, but experience will give them an edge in car management and see that it lasts the race.
There are sports, however, that have such severe physical demands that no amount of experience will help an older participant remain competitive against young up-and-comers. Gymnastics comes to mind, with athletes peaking in their teens, as well as sport stacking, which is essentially dominated by children. League of Legends and other competitive video games may have a similarly steep aging curve, with geriatric 24-year-olds outgunned at every turn by lightning-quick teenagers. And while it’s possible the drinking-age retirement ceremonies are the result of a sport that draws its players from an adolescent base, having played the game and seen what pros can do, I think it’s more likely a function of the incredible physical demands. I have to accept that no matter how much I practice, my advanced age of 29 leaves me with no potential for greatness.
Not that League of Legends is hurting for greatness. Four nights a week the best talent in North America and Europe is on display in a professional league, the LCS (League Championship Series) run by the game’s developer, Riot. Hundreds of thousands tune in to watch the matches, played in front of live audiences full of fans wearing their favorite team’s merchandise. Players are signed by teams, receive salaries, coaching, and live together in team houses where they practice every day. There are sponsors, ads, referees and broadcasters, player meet-and-greets with souvenir photos and autographs, and all the other trappings of professional sports. Foreign players are even granted the same US athlete visas as competitors in “real” sports.
Despite everything in professional League of Legends (and other games, like Starcraft II) that is reminiscent of mainstream sports, if you were to poll the large League of Legends fanbase on Reddit, for example, plenty of people would still insist on a distinction being made. Fans, and Riot, are comfortable with the designation “eSport”, and maybe that will always be the case. But as viewership numbers and production budgets rise, it all starts to feel like special pleading to keep competitive gaming in its own unique category. All I can say is that when I have an LCS match on one screen and an MLB game on the other, the differences to me are of degree and not type.