Sport, or not a sport…

e-Sports in action - Source: Venturebeat
I admit I bit my tongue during class when Jon brought up the matter of whether or not video games were sports. I would put sports at the top of the list of polarizing subjects, jostling for position with religion and politics; debates over contentious issues in sports are no less heated than those related to, say, sex or war. My point is that this topic is one that will not (and cannot) come to a clear resolution; things will get heated, tears will be shed and we won’t budge an inch.


Thankfully we all love a spirited discussion and this is the kind of quagmire we call home.


Inspired by Tax class, I thought I would start by taking a look at Canadian legislation and see what it had to say about sports. Surely the Canadian Physical Activity and Sport Act, of all things, would have a satisfactory definition of what a “sport” is. The act uses the word “sport” no fewer than fifty times, but does not provide a definition. Section 36 states that the Governor in Council defines the expression “sport” by regulation – Google came up empty, so I changed tack.


Next up: Sport Canada, part of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Thankfully they provide a workable definition within their Sport Funding and Accountability Framework: “Sports is a regulated form of physical activity organized as a contest between two or more participants for the purpose of determining a winner by fair and ethical means. Such contest may be in the form of a game, match, race, or other form of competitive event.”


This definition continues, stating that sport is government and sanctioned by a governing body that regulates rules of play, designating winners and awarding championships. Sport Canada has established that a sport should meet certain characteristics, including:

  • Physical interaction between participants and the environment
  • Specialized neuromuscular and cardio-vascular skills, involving large muscle groups or those which the individual has the ability to utilize, and which can be taught, learned and improved
  • An established process for long-term athletic development
  • Requires fair, ethical and effective tactics and strategies
  • Requires competitive format, sanctioned by a governing body for the sport at a national or world level, open to all participants


So, where does this get us? For one, sports should be competitive and regulated; they involve more than one person and the purpose is to determine a winner (wait – can’t you tie in soccer? – I guess I was right…). Still, as we are talking about video games, the physical requirement is the elephant in the room.



I suppose this illustrates what may already be obvious: the crux of the issue is whether or not video games are ‘physical’ activities. You can get lost down this rabbit hole – I say sports require dexterity, coordination, quick reactions; you say, so does typing or playing piano and yet neither are physical activities.


Interestingly, the International Olympic Committee’s Evaluation Criteria for Sports and Disciplines has no mention of a physical requirement for sports. Rather, the IOC’s criteria focus on the competitive structure, history and popularity of the activity. However, much to the chagrin of chess enthusiasts, the IOC excludes what it calls ‘mind sports’ from eligibility; these include “sports where the physical elements are not necessarily performed by the player in the conduct of the competition.” Funny enough, the IOC also admits that “while making reference extensively to ‘sports’, the Olympic Charter does not provide a definition of a sport” and that “there is no global definition of what constitutes a sport.” So it seems we are not the only ones confused!


Perhaps this leads us to an unsatisfying end: deciding what is and what is not a “sport” may be truly subjective. If we follow the definition from the Federal Government, video games, no matter how competitive, will likely fail on the physical exertion standard. Then again, I’m sure the World Darts Federation would have something to say about the fed’s exclusion of darts. Maybe the IOC has the right approach: not actually defining “sports” and instead classifying different species of activities – which seems like more of a cop out than anything.


For you video game evangelists, there might be hope after all. Unlike their western counterparts, the Korean government has taken a more progressive stance on the inclusion of video games as sports. In 2000, the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) was formed with approval from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. KeSPA’s mandate is to promote e-Sports as a sporting event, as its official governing body. So while the jury may be out in much of the world, the case is already closed in Korea.




3 responses to “Sport, or not a sport…”

  1. Sasa Pudar

    There is one element that is missing from video games as a sport, though I’m not certain that its absence is a fatal flaw to the argument that video games can be a sport. That element is the cultural significance of sport as exemplified in the following three ways.

    The first is that physical sports require the physical presence of the participants. Athletes, very often, must travel to compete, and as a result there is an international and ambassadorial component to many sporting events such as the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the Pan-American games, etc. Even fans are forced to interact with other fans, and those of opposing teams, when they attend matches. Online competitions would be hard pressed to create a similarly significant set of interactions because of the ease with which players could simply compete from their home, and fans could watch a live stream on their computers.

    The second is that sports celebrates physical achievement, which is and has been important to the survival of the human race. The idea of being the strongest, the fastest, or the most agile is celebrated because these skills were important to survival and were desirable to have. Though they are not necessarily needed the same way that they were in early human history, physical activity and ability is celebrated for the health and physical beauty that is attained through exercise. In much the same way, one can say that academia celebrates the best of human’s intellectual, rather than physical, achievement. What do video game victories celebrate? Teamwork (sometimes)? Hand-eye coordination? Strategy? It appears more difficult to isolate the source of achievement.

    The third way that cultural significance of sport is exemplified is through the intergenerational heritage associated with sport. While different sports have different costs associated with them, limiting the pool of participants, by and large many sports can be passed down from parent to child, along with the passion surrounding them. Video games are constantly evolving at a much more rapid pace than the rules surrounding a game such as soccer or hockey, which makes it difficult for previous generations to identify with many games played by the current generation. The heritage aspect is somewhat diluted if not lost entirely.

    Video games do provide their own cultural significance, but it differs from that derived from physical sports. I am uncertain whether this is enough to disqualify a video game competition from being considered a sporting competition, but at the very least I wanted to raise the question of why we celebrate achievement by athletes, and whether that could be duplicated by cyberathletes.

  2. Jon Festinger, Q.C.

    Can’t resist. 41:43 of the Team Archery competition at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Have a look. If this is a sport, hard to argue video gaming organized competitively isn’t.

    Italy won.


  3. Jon Festinger, Q.C.

    A newly posted video from the New York Times directly on point: “Are Video Games a Sport?”