This is a cold take. You shouldn’t read it. No one agrees with it, and honestly I’m only writing this for the clickbait headline.
Esports is not a sport.
That’s right. The esports club advisor, and someone who spends night and day supporting students’ dreams to participate in the industry, has taken a side.
And you know what? I don’t care what you think about it. You can spend all day arguing for why it is a sport. That’s cool, you do you. But I don’t care.
You know what I do care about? Creating avenues for students to compete and participate in esports.
Now you are confused. It’s okay, I was too. In the beginning of the development of the club, I would spend long periods of time trying to convince people that esports belonged in athletics, should be the next SEC sport, should get the advantages of being tagged as a club sport, should be a part of the NCAA and should be part of the Olympics. I’m still going to fight for those situations, but here’s the thing, whether any of that happens does not matter.
What matters is that students want to organize and compete. They want to wear the orange and white. They want to beat Kentucky in “Rainbow 6,” destroy Ole Miss in “Call of Duty,” smash Florida in “Super Smash Bros.” and conquer Vanderbilt in “Street Fighter V.”
The latter two — by the way — are happening Feb. 16 at the University of Central Florida; you should watch and cheer on our teams.
It doesn’t matter that the SEC doesn’t recognize esports as an official sport. We don’t need them to tell us whether or not we can create a rivalry. We don’t need the NCAA to tell us who the National Champion is. As student and university leaders, we can create our own opportunities to do all of those things. And for the most part, at the large public schools, we already have.
A few examples:
“Call of Duty” didn’t have a nationally sponsored collegiate league for their game. “League of Legends” is run by the developer of the game, but “Call of Duty” didn’t have that. So, students at various schools around the country created a league. Now they compete every spring. They divide into multiple conferences and play out a season until they decide who is the best and compete in a national championship. They didn’t wait around for the athletics conferences to call them up to start playing. They just did it. And they aren’t the only ones — nearly every one of our 14 competitive esports teams is playing in a league either run by current students or run by former student leaders.
However that doesn’t mean the traditional athletics conferences aren’t involved in esports.
The College League of Legends season — which is the primary venue for collegiate LOL and run by Riot Games — has partnered with eight traditional athletic conferences to support and coordinate league play for schools that are members of those groups. We are talking names like the Big East, Mountain West and the Big Ten. This doesn’t mean that any of those conferences have officially added esports as a sport, but it does means they have recognized the immense amount of public and collegiate interest in esports and want to support this growing industry.
Being a sport isn’t about recognition by a collective of schools. Being part of the conferences doesn’t make something a sport. Marching band isn’t a sport, and yet competition in the art form has been around for generations. Chess isn’t a sport, but you better believe it is played to the highest possible competitive standard. Poker isn’t a sport, yet it is one of the most watched things on ESPN. Obtaining the label “sport” is not why people participate in an activity. We do it because it is fun. Because competition drives us as human beings. Because it is entertaining.
Esports is a great label, and we should never stop using it to describe competitive gaming — mainly because e-gaming sounds silly. Comparing viewership ratings for esports to traditional sports like football is also helpful to see how we fit in the larger scope of the entertainment industry. Even using sports as a survey option to compare to esports when trying to describe the average esports participant or viewer is helpful. Being a sport is just another label. We could fight to be called recreational or leisure activities, but the label doesn’t define the activity itself.
The term esports already has the tendency to make it difficult for the average person to follow what is happening. As “Overwatch” struggles, the headlines read “Esports are dying.” No, just “Overwatch” is. Smash, LOL, Rocket League and even Pokemon have never been larger. Attempts to compile all competitive video gaming into a singular category will always be a struggle we have to work around.
As administrators, the breadth of the activity makes it incredibly difficult to figure out a direction for it. You can’t just turn around and say “I want to add esports as the next sport” without being asked, “Okay, which one?” by actual experts. Esports is more than one sport. It is an entire collection of gaming dropped under a singular label. Passion in one game doesn’t make you a fan of another, skill in one may not translate to skill in all. Like gymnastics or figure skating or any other sport, the breadth of the activity is massive and constantly evolving, and this is what makes it so interesting.
And so, for the sake of the many real conversations that need to happen around esports — accessibility, accountability, diversity, inclusion, toxicity, value, professional standards, security, fairness, to name a few (all of which we want to cover this semester in this column) — can we all agree that nobody cares if esports is a sport?
UTK Esports is a student organization at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, interested in competing in and promoting collegiate and professional esports. If you have questions or would like to join and compete, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow us on Twitter @utkesports.
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