While professional video game competitions have been around for some time, it is only fairly recently that competitive gamers have been dubbed as “e-athletes.” Some colleges now offer athletic scholarships to e-athletes and field sports teams that compete in games like the infamous League of Legends. As with some other college sports, these e-athletes can go pro and earn large paychecks for playing video games competitively.
While regarding video games as sports and gamers as e-athletes can be seen as harmless, there are some grounds for believing that these designations are not accurate. Intuitively, playing a video game, even competitively, is not a sport and working a keyboard or controller (even very well) does not seem to very athletic. Since I am both an athlete (college varsity in track and cross country and I still compete in races) and a gamer (I started with Pong and I currently play Destiny) I have some insight into this matter.
Before properly starting the game, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether e-athletes are considered athletes or not? Why would it matter whether video game competitions are sports or not. One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete. This is, some would say, supposed to be an earned title and not one to be appropriated by just anyone.
To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being a musician. Like athletes, musicians often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of their defining activity. It matters to them who is and is not considered a musician. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a video gamer who plays League of Legends or Starcraft is an athlete would be comparable to saying to a musician that someone who plays Rock Band or Guitar Hero is a musician just like them.
Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If e-athletes want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if people who play music video games want to think they keep company with Hendrix or Clapton, then so be it.
While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of musician also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these classifications.
Turning back to the matter of whether or not e-athletes are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.
One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and competitive video games obviously involve competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees and art shows) that are not athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who do not compete in races, although they run many miles. There are also people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.
When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete or chess player, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems to suggest a legitimate ground of distinction, though this must be discussed further.
Those who claim that video gaming is a sport and that e-athletes are athletes tend to focus on the similarities between sports and video games. One similarity is that both require certain skills and abilities.
Competitive video gaming clearly requires physical skills and abilities. Gamers need good reflexes, the ability to make tactical or strategic judgments and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by people who drive, pilot planes, and operate heavy machinery. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently, so being able to play Destiny competently should not qualify me as an athlete.
Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.
To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist; the other is just pushing a button.
It might be objected that it is the skill that makes video gamers athletes. In reply, operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.
Sticking with gaming, playing a board game like Star Fleet Battles or classic tabletop war games also requires skills and involves competition. Some games even require fast reflexes. However, when I am pushing a plastic Federation heavy cruiser around a map and rolling dice to hit Klingon D7 battle cruisers with imaginary photon torpedoes, it seems rather evident that this does not make me an athlete. Even if I am really good at it and I am competing in a tournament. Likewise, if I am pushing around a virtual warrior in a video game competition, I am not an athlete because of this. I’m a gamer.
This is not to look down on gaming—after all, I am a gamer and I take my gaming almost as seriously as I do my running. Rather, it is just to argue what seems obvious: video gaming is not an athletic activity and video gamers are not athletes. They are gamers and there seems to be no reason to come up with a new category, that of e-athlete. I do not, however, have any issue with people getting scholarships for being college gamers. I would have loved to have received a D&D or Call of Cthulhu scholarship when I went to college. I’d have worn my letter jacket with pride, too.