What Defines a Sport?

In the summer of 2014, ESPN made a radical change to its programming with the goal of revolutionizing the way society views sports: they began broadcasting Esports.  ESPN hasn’t slowed down on its gambit, based on research showing tens of millions of worldwide Esports players, and instead has increased their coverage, creating a new page of ESPN.com dedicated to competitive video-game playing and frequently sharing highlight videos of matches on social media.  Despite these efforts, the mainstream has been reluctant to accept the new craze, with articles littered with comments that ESPN should focus on “real sports”.  But how do you define a sport?

For starters, the haters are wrong- ESPN isn’t restricted to whatever their definition of a sport is.  ESPN stands for Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.  Even if you don’t see gaming as a sport, it’s undeniably entertainment.  Plus, these same types of people have already made some pretty outrageous claims as to what is or isn’t a sport.  Some people don’t believe golf is a sport.  Golf requires large amounts of practice to be gain skill, physical fitness to stay in good shape on the course, and tremendous mental fortitude.  I can’t see how it’s not a sport.  As for those doubting the merits of auto racing, I don’t think you can possibly understand the physical toll of racing for hours at speeds near or above 200 miles per hour on a hot track without crashing until you’ve experienced it yourself.

Since we’re asking how to define a sport, what better place to begin than the dictionary?  According to Oxford, a sport is an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.  Using these criteria, Esports probably shouldn’t be considered sports due to a lack of physical exertion.  Sure, you can make the argument that success requires quick reactions and dexterity (which it does) but ultimately the “physical” side of Esports doesn’t hold a candle to that of more widely accepted sports.  However, I consider Oxford’s definition to be a bit outdated.

Professional gamers put in just as much work into their craft (and often more) than professional athletes.  The levels of skill and strategy required to be successful also warrant the title of sport.  I think most of the negative views of Esports stems from their unique culture.  A sports fan that doesn’t watch hockey still understands what hockey is.  Esports, on the other hand, are near impossible to understand if you haven’t played them.  Additionally, the audiences for traditional sports and Esports are polar opposites in many cases.  Many sports fans view this new wave of sports as just a bunch of nerds pretending that video games are actual sports.  It’s as simple as this: people don’t like what they don’t understand.

So how do I recommend defining sports?  This is a question I’ve thought long and hard about.  So extensively, in fact, that I had the original idea for this article over a year ago.  Finally, I’ve decided on three criteria for determining whether or not something is a sport.  First, the activity must be a competitive game of skill.  Second, the activity must have a league or governing body that sets rules and regulates competitions.  Lastly, there must be professionals who are qualified to and can profit from participating at the highest level of competitions.

The first standard is the easiest to meet.  Essentially, it just states that people must be competing under a specific set of rules with the objective of winning, and that playing can’t be a pure gamble.  The second objective is necessary to ensure that there is a clear party organizing the sport and that the rules are standardized across all competitions.  Finally, people must be able to become professionals and earn money from the sport to prevent anyone from creating a game and it automatically becoming a sport.  New games are being created all the time, and I encourage people to continue to be innovative with fresh ideas.  However, I believe a game must be established with those three criteria in order to officially become a sport.

My definition is far more lenient than most others, and intentionally so.  In tackling such a large question as what defines a sport, there are so many different nuances to look into that most people will have different views of what a sport is just based on their individual values and personal interests.  I found it important to create a definition not so wide anything can be considered a sport, but enough so to be inclusive of many different opinions.

Not all sports are the same, however, and I would additionally like to propose three categories of sports: physical sports, Esports, and mind sports.  Physical sports and Esports are pretty self-explanatory and have already been discussed.  Mind sports, which would include things such as chess and poker, contain all three qualities necessary to be a sport but are more focused on intellect and strategy.  This might be a controversial category, but one I believe should be recognized.

At the end of the day, who cares what really is a sport and what isn’t?  Why should we get bogged down in definitions instead of just enjoying our games for what they are?  I don’t see the need for debate on this issue.  People are going to disagree, but that’s only natural, and it shouldn’t matter if two people have differing beliefs.  I’ve laid out what my personal philosophy is as to what defines a sport, but I’m willing to entertain the idea of other things being sports if an argument can be made.  In fact, I’m interested what you believe defines a sport, and if there are any important considerations I’ve missed in this article.  If you’d like to share your opinions, please do so in the comments, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.  In the meantime, keep enjoying whatever it is you enjoy.

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