Whilst I sat and stared at the WordPress editing screen of a blogpost lying nascent on nostalgia, waiting for words, I began – and I don’t know why – debating with myself, in my head and quietly out loud with gestures, over whether video games should be considered sport.
In fact, maybe I do know why: I think because I had been looking at the H3 Podcast homepage on YouTube, and saw and mentally registered the thumbnail for their podcast with a professional gamer a few weeks back.
Video games are not sport. This piece is absolutely not at all a dismissal of video games; my saying video games are not sport is not derogatory. Chess is not a sport, either. These are skill-based games that, though they may involve some level of physical skill and exertion, are predominantly not centred on physicality. Something which a sport must be.
“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
“… includes all forms of competitive physical activity or games which, through casual or organised participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants, and in some cases, entertainment for spectators.”
That is what sport is, and for all their capabilities in complexity, challenge, the requirement and induction of skill, logic, and creativity, all often in a competitive, spectator setting, video games are not that.
Gymnastics. Football. Chess. Video games. These are all one kind of thing, all in one category: they are skill-based games with a competitive element added, to make it more than just hobby. Sport is found within that grouping, and in order to be a sport the game in question must be predominantly about physicality.
There is a physical element to video games. They very often require high dexterity in hands and the muscles of the forearm, good hand-eye coordination, and stamina in visual and aural focus. So, given that there is a physical element at play in the competition, when video games are played as such, why shouldn’t they qualify?
If you rest the argument over something being sport on the fact that there is some level of physical skill and exertion involved, then it leaves room for some video games to not be sport, and other activities that no-one would suggest are sport as equally qualifying.
What of a video game that involves no controller? It is certainly not far-fetched to imagine a game in the near-future that is VR-ish and hooked up to your mind and senses, so that all that which has been previously done with hands and controllers now happens without any movement needed, other than the eyes, and perhaps mouth to issue verbal commands. If video games are sport because they involve some physical skill and exertion, then surely video games will only be sport for so long as they involve the hands. And what of cookery contests? I don’t imagine anyone arguing that a cookery contest is a sports event, and yet that requires those involved to have a varied repertoire of physical skill very similar to that required by video games. That is, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, speed, stamina, accurate fine movements. Any contest over the playing of musical instruments would be sport by this argument too, as would a sculpting tournament. Darts is very narrow-focused and limited in the kind of physical skill and exertion required, but the difference is that, even though it is similar in that regard to the examples above, it is fully centred on that physicality.
What of a singing contest? Singing is all about using your body, and in fact more so than the other counter-examples I have listed already. Far more than video games, a singing contest relies upon those involved using their physicality, and meeting the definitions from the OED and Wikipedia above. If the line is to be blurred and other competitive, skill-based games and activities are to be argued as qualifying as sport, I think singing in competition would come well before video games, and before chess as well, and yet I doubt that anyone would make the case that with Eurovision they have just enjoyed one of the highlights of the sporting year.
The key is a primary focus on the physical. Gymnastics involves memorisation, learning, tactics, mastering the rules so you can creatively bend or break them – in other words, gymnastics indelibly involves the mental side of things. But it is predominantly about the physicality, about the muscle as it leads the skeleton. Video games, chess, cookery – they involve, again indelibly, some level of physicality, some muscle memory and skill, some physical exertion, but they are predominantly centred on the mental/intellectual side of things, the skill and exertion manifest in that area of an individual or team.
So, it is not enough that there be some physical aspect to the activity in question, otherwise all manner of activities would count as sport when they clearly, so intuitively are not. And if it is accepted that the activity in question is not predominantly about physicality, then it is settled: it is not sport, and there is no other case to rest it on. Sports do have mental skill and exertion, creativity, and teamwork, but that suite of things, shared with video games, is not the defining feature of sport – the defining feature is physicality. A mind sport, something chess and video games have been referred to and classified as, seems to me an oxymoron, akin to calling some piece of prose an example of ‘non-academic academic writing’, or inviting others to play some ‘outdoor indoor football’. If it is not indoors, then it is not indoor football.
Why should the fight be for video games to be considered sport? They certainly should be recognised, valued, appreciated, acknowledged, but they do not need to be classified as sport. They are not sport, sport is a category of things that they are not within and they do not need to be within that category to be taken seriously. As well as being a skill-based game and activity, video games are also art, often outstandingly so via multiple art forms all at once – the fight for them to be recognised as art is one I will side with too. Thus my arguing back on this topic and saying that they are not sport is nothing to do with being dismissive, derogatory, nor my seeing video games as simply some silly pastime. It is just plainly incorrect to classify them in that way, and I see no reason to fight for them to be considered sport.
It is not appropriate, nor necessary, that they be placed in that arena, in that category. They should be in an arena equally acknowledged, respected, and I would be on the side of the argument fighting against the dismissal of video games as not something serious, as not requiring skill or competence, individually or as teams. But they do not need to be accepted into the realm and under the label of sport for that to happen.