Are Pro Gamers Athletes?

Esports vs Sports

There is no doubt about it — eSports is exploding.

The fastest growing entertainment medium has also led to the rise of one the fastest growing industries in the world. eSports events now have prize pools of millions of dollars, events are watched by millions online and top players earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sponsorships and competing in tournaments.

This Zerg rush of success has definitely not gone unnoticed. The U.S. government now grants international League of Legends players athletic visas and, more recently, Robert Morris University has begun offering athletic scholarships to League of Legends players. Former top NBA player Rick Fox, recently appeared on The View where he recognized pro gamers as “digital athletes.”

During this particular segment, Fox was expectedly met with differing opinions from the hosts, some who literally laughed at the idea of a video game player being an athlete. This is not unusual as there has always been debate about whether pro gamers are indeed athletes. Players of games that are not physically intensive in general, like chess or poker, still have trouble being recognized as athletes.

So are professional gamers actually athletes?

To start, let’s look at the definition of an athlete. The official Oxford American dictionary simply defines an athlete as “someone who is good at sports.” This is the simplest and most common given definition though others try to expand on it and be more specific.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.”

Many definitions for an athlete suggest that there is a physical element involved. Even most definitions for sport define it as “a game requiring physical activity.” In this case, it is tough to argue that pro gamers are athletes.

University is now offering athletic scholarships to League of Legends players.

Robert Morris University is now offering athletic scholarships to League of Legends players.

Yes, pro gamers spend hours practicing and perfecting their skills just like any other athlete, which requires stamina for sure. However, comparing Justin Wong’s physical prowess and abilities to Tim Howard’s is like comparing driving to running. No matter how you look at it, playing video games just doesn’t compare physically to playing a sport like football or basketball.

Now I am not discounting the level of skill and dedication that is needed to be a professional video game player. That is definitely not the case. Getting to top level competitor status in a video game like Starcraft II or Street Fighter IV requires an insane amount of dedication and discipline. Getting really good at a video game is just like getting good at anything else, it requires the person to put in time and work.

As mentioned before, this isn’t just an issue for video games. Chess and poker players have faced and still face this debate. In some circles, there is no question that players of these sports/games are athletes. Yet, there are still many who get offended at the idea of even placing chess players and football players on the same level.

It is difficult to overlook the physical aspect of a being an athlete. However, I would like to note that the association of athletes and sports with physical ability is a somewhat newer development and that definitions for words can change greatly overtime.

The term athlete comes from the 15th Century Latin word athleta which simply referred to a “wrestler” or “combatant.” The Greek word athletes referred to a “prize fighter” or a “contestant in games.” The Latin term athlos, which athleta originated from, simply means “contest.”

As you can see, the original meaning for athlete did not involve physical activity or even skill. It simply referred to someone who participated in some kind of contest, though admittedly contests in those times usually left the loser six feet under.

How about sports? Sport is the shortening of the 15th Century Anglo-French word disport which refers to a “pastime, game or other activity that offers amusement, relaxation, entertainment or fun.” Using sport to define a “game involving physical exercise” didn’t come about until the 1520s.

So the words athlete and sport did not always strictly involve physical activity, though that is what they have come to define now. Who is to say this won’t change again in the future. The U.S. government already seems to have expanded its definition of sports and athletes. ESPN networks televise poker, chess and even spelling bees. Maybe in the future the word athlete will mean someone who is skilled and proficient in a game, competition or contest of any kind.

There is one thing that does tie athletes, pro gamers and other players together: games. Soccer, Call of Duty, chess, poker and even a spelling bee all have something in common in that they are all games. Each requires different skills and talents and each has different rules and goals but they are all just games when you strip them down.

These two may not be as different as you think. Justin Wong (left), Tim Howard (right)

These two may not be as different as you think. Justin Wong (left), Tim Howard (right)

When you really stop to think about it, the only thing separating Justin Wong from Tim Howard is the physical ability. Both are professionals, competitors, and extremely skilled and talented at their respective games. They are also both gamers.

Don’t believe me? The word gamer, first believed to be used in the 1620s, was originally a synonym for “athlete.” The second definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary also defines a gamer as a “player who is game: especially an athlete that relishes in competition.”

Ironic? Maybe not.



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