Photo credit: ExplorerBob via Pixabay
The Game Theorists summed it pretty well when they said, “This is a weird sport.” Imagine sitting in front of the computer for hours on end battling make-believe creatures with weapons that even the world’s strongest man likely won’t be able to lift if made real. That’s online gaming for you.
It’s really no wonder that sports “purists” don’t consider online gaming competition as real sports. But what makes a sport a sport anyway? What differentiates a “cyber-athlete” from a regular athlete?
What’s a Sport?
A sport is defined as “an activity involving physical exertion.” The dictionary meaning goes on to highlight that it also entails skill and has individuals or teams competing against each other “for entertainment.”
One hears the word “sport” and would likely think soccer or basketball. In fact, soccer counts over 4 billion fans worldwide (that’s around half the current world population). According to World Atlas, the most popular sports in the world by number of fans are:
1. Football (Soccer) – 4 billion fans
2. Cricket – 2.5 billion fans
3. Field hockey – 2 billion fans
4. Tennis – 1 billion fans
5. Volleyball – 900 million fans
6. Table Tennis – 875 million fans
7. Basketball – 825 million fans
8. Baseball – 500 million fans
9. Rugby – 475 million fans
10. Golf – 450 million fans
This is the most famous athlete in the world, according to ESPN:
We don’t even need to put a name on the pic and there’s still a very high likelihood of a non-football fan guessing his name right. Incidentally, Cristiano Ronaldo is also the second-highest paid athlete according to Forbes.
And then we have this guy:
He looks rather nondescript compared to Ronaldo, doesn’t he? This man however, is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, cyber-athlete of our time. His name is Lee Sang-Hyeok, aka “Faker”. In March 2020 alone, he pocketed US$1.2M from a competition. Not bad for someone just playing video games, no?
With stakes in the millions of dollars though, can we still claim it’s just a video game?
The Evolution of Online Gaming
Video games have long since evolved into actual professional competition, dubbed eSports. The “e” stands for electronic, of course. Simply put, it’s video gaming as a sport.
With eSports, teams compete in ranked matches. But whereas typical sports have athletes playing on the field or court, electronic sports have cyber-athletes using virtual characters and competing in virtual worlds.
The earliest eSports tournament was held in 1980, when 10,000 people got together to play Space Invaders. With the 1993 release of the game Doom 2, online gaming became even bigger. The amazing graphics coupled with multiplayer support easily hooked players around the world. Four years later, after Quake was released, the very first Cyberathlete Professional League was born.
Today, tournaments (or “disciplines,” as cyber-athletes call them) come in many different genres – from shooters to strategies and everything in between. MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, is very popular, with tournaments happening in huge arenas and professional sportscasters commenting on the games.
The availability of streaming helped push eSports to the forefront and into possibly being the “most financially lucrative” in the world. As of 2019, revenues are well over the $1B mark. The way it’s going, in as little as three years’ time, revenues will dwarf even those of Formula 1 and the UEFA Champions League.
But it still begs the question, can we even consider it as a real sport?
eSports vs “Real” Sports
To answer the question, we have to go back once more to the definition of “sports”-
To break it down:
“an activity involving physical exertion…”
Real Life Sports: Uses A LOT of muscles. Swimming, for example, utilizes almost every muscle in the body. Running wears out the hamstrings, quads, glutes and more. Even simple walking works out 200 different skeletal muscles.
eSports: Mainly uses the muscles of the head, neck, hips, arms, wrist and hand. It may sound like a lot but bear in mind gamers more often than not just sit while in-game. So it’s mostly just the hands and arms moving.
There’s no question. When it comes to physical activity, virtual gaming just doesn’t have the same amount of physicality as a real-life sport played in a real-life setup.
“… and skill…”
When it comes to skills, both IRL athletes and online gamers have them in abundance, albeit in different ways. Where a basketball player needs to have superb shooting skills and speed, a cyber-athlete may excel if he has amazing hand-eye coordination, for example.
“… one regulated by set rules and customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others.”
Regular sports always have a set of rules to determine the game play and who wins. It’s the same for eSports. They also have a governing body, the International Esports Federation based in South Korea. The IESF recognizes 54 national organizations representing eSports in their respective countries.
While still not recognized by the International Olympic Committee, many national organizations like the US Esports Federation are already working with other organizations to protect cyber-athletes competing in events.
Even adding the entertainment factor, eSports still delivers. The 2013 NBA Finals aired on ABC had 26.3 million views. The League of Legends (LoL) final on Twitch had 32 million views. The LoL World Championship in 2016 drew more than 47,000 people to the arena to watch the gameplay. It also boasted another 43,000,000 people watching online. The Super Bowl held in the same year was seen by 111 million people, but then again they also had Beyonce, Coldplay and Bruno Mars performing.
So, looking at the definition and comparing both the “real” and cybersports, it would seem they are still the same, aren’t they?
Adding to the Great Debate
“It’s not a sport. It’s a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”
· ESPN President John Skipper
When ESPN decided to broadcast the DOTA 2 tournament way back July 2015, the backlash was immense, although not very surprising. Twitterverse was up in arms declaring cyber-athletes have no place in a legitimate sporting channel. It didn’t help that the ESPN president himself was quoted to say he didn’t believe online games were a sport either.
Despite eSports fitting the bill when it comes to the dictionary definition of what makes a sport a sport, many hardcore sports fans still maintain it’s not on the same level because -
1. Online games can be destructive psychologically.
This is an age-old argument. Video games are violent. You’re always killing characters on screen. Blood is abundant. It defeats the purpose of sports - that is to promote peace, harmony, safe spaces and supportive environments.
2. Video games distort how reality is perceived.
Regular exercises are purported to develop personality and help with mental health. Anti-cyber sports pundits say eSports does the opposite.
But as in any debate, there are counter-arguments:
1. Online games help boost learning and social skills in children.
Research published by the American Psychological Association found out that video games may help in developing problem-solving skills in children. It also helped develop a range of other cognitive skills like reasoning, memory and spatial navigation.
2. Gaming has social benefits.
A study on Cyberpsychology and behavior of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) found that strong friendships and emotional relationships were built by players. Many of the people that took part in the study have made life-long friends and found partners from within the gaming community.
The virtual environment also allowed for greater range of expression not normally exhibited in real life due to inhibitions arising from appearance, gender, sexuality and age.
The fact also remains that whether in real life or cyberspace, the goal remains the same: to achieve victory. Whether in an actual field or in a PC, teams compete against each other with the goal of defeating the “enemy”. Both need strategy, tactics and coordination.
Given the above points, why wouldn’t eSports be considered real?
And if eSports is real, why shouldn’t eSports players be considered athletes?
The Life of an eSports Athlete
The US Federal Government already considers eSports players as professionals. In fact, they have started issuing a P1 US Visa for internationally-recognized e-gamers.
Cyber-athletes, much like many professional athletes, spend a lot of time practicing and honing their skills. While online games typically take just between 5-30 minutes to complete, professional players usually practice up to 14 hours every day. Scenarios change all the time in online games, so fast reaction times may make the difference between victory and defeat. It’s therefore not unheard of for professionals to do more than 300 actions per minute of gameplay.
Much like their real-life counterparts, cyber-athletes also work on their fitness outside of the sport. Dario “TLO” Wünsch, a professional StarCraft II player, employed an expert to work with him on sleeping enough, eating healthier and exercises like yoga and physiotherapy. Even the DOTA-2 team, Ninjas in Pyjamas, have a coach for their mental health.
And just like real-life athletes, e-gamers can also suffer from injuries.
Fitness and Exercise for Cyber-Athletes
It’s been established that eSports will never quite be as physical as real-life sports in-game. This does not mean cyber-athletes are free from injuries.
Majority of a cyber-athlete’s training time is spent sitting on a desk, using a keyboard and mouse and staring at the computer screen. Because of this, head, wrist and back injuries are common. They can also suffer from posture issues, flexibility problems, obesity and poor cardiovascular function.
Much like a swimmer will also train outside the pool, professional cyber-athletes know that physical exercise is needed to supplement the mental gymnastics they do in-game.
Common Cyber-Athlete Injuries and How to Address Them
1. Hand and Wrist
Culprit: Flexed position over keyboard and mouse for many hours, ulnar deviation
Result: Carpal Tunnel, general stiffness, pain and tenderness
What to do: Focus on hand- and forearm-strengthening exercises like:
§ Range of motion – bend your arm at the elbow and make a fist. Flex the hand at the wrist up and down as far and as comfortably as you can, then left to right. Do 10 reps each hand.
§ Stretch – bend arm at the elbow and make a fist. Slowly open and stretch fingers apart. Do 10 reps and repeat with other hand.
§ Prayer Stretch – while standing, put palms together with elbows bent as if in prayer. Lower the hands to the waist. Try to keep the hands pressed together and as close to the stomach as possible. Hold for 30 seconds. Do 3-5 reps.
Culprit: constant elbow flexion (bent and raised elbow)
Result: Tennis elbow, stiffness, tendinitis
What to do: Grip strength exercises will be beneficial:
§ Standing cable rows
§ Reverse curls
§ Farmer walks
3. Head and Neck
Culprit: forward head posture while staring too long at the monitor
Result: neck pain, headaches, possible sleeping and breathing issues
What to do: The following simple exercises can help alleviate stiffness and pain:
§ Neck Tilt – tilt the head down until the chin touches the chest. Hold for 5 seconds and return to the starting position. Do 5 reps.
§ Side to side neck tilt – tilt the neck towards the shoulder. Hold for 5 seconds and go back to the starting position. Do 5 reps on each side.
§ Neck Stretch – push chin forward to stretch the throat. Hold for 5 seconds and push back. Hold for another 5 seconds. Do 5 reps each.
Culprit: hunching over desks
Result: stiffness and pain in shoulders and back, tension headaches
What to do: To help increase flexibility and range of motion as well as alleviate shoulder pain, try the following-
§ Across the Chest Stretch – bring the right arm across the chest. Use the crook of the left elbow or the left hand for support. Hold for 1 minute and repeat on the other side. Do 3-5 reps.
§ Chest expansion – Stand and hold an exercise band behind the back (or use towels). Move your shoulder blades back toward each other. Then lift the chin to the ceiling and hold for 30 seconds. Do 3-5 reps.
Culprit: sitting for extended periods of time
Result: lower back pain, stiffness, general weakness
What to do: To restore proper posture, strengthen the back and glutes and ease the pain and stiffness, the following exercises help-
§ Knee lifts – lie flat on the floor. Keeping the left leg straight, lift the right knee up to the chest. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other leg. Do 10 reps each.
§ Double hip rotation – while flat on the floor, bend both knees toward the body while keeping feet flat on the floor. Rotate and lower knees to the left and toward the floor. At the same time, rotate the head to the right. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
§ Hip and lower back stretch - while flat on the floor, bend both knees toward the body while keeping feet flat on the floor. Now pull both knees towards the chest as far as is comfortable. Hold for 30 seconds. Do 5-10 reps.
On top of the above exercises, regular massage therapy also helps. If going out for a spa session or booking a therapist is not possible, one other alternative is using a massage gun like the HYDRAGUN. The benefits of massage are plenty. It improves blood flow to muscles to help with easing the pain and promote faster recovery. It also helps improve flexibility. It can also be used on every muscle group with minimal effort.
The Sports Landscape is Changing
The stereotype of an online gamer is an out-of-shape adult living in his parents’ basement. This is no longer true, at least not if we look at professional cyber-athletes. “Mind sports” like Poker and Chess are considered as real sports and enjoy widespread acceptance. Poker championships even get ESPN airtime, so why not DOTA or LoL?
As technology further evolves, eSports will likely become even more popular and enjoy a prominent role in society. Is it a true competitive athletic sport? Well, there are just too many parallels to say it is not.