Updated: May 4, 2020
Will esports ever qualify as a traditional sport?
Source: Lemur Legal
Many people continue to deny esports the status of 'real' sports. Nonetheless, the growing popularity of competitive multiplayer video games cannot be overlooked, which is why esports are gradually becoming a common theme within the academic debate surrounding sports in general. Discussions most often deal with essentialist questions around the core definition of sport and its elements, and how these can be adapted to the digital world of esports.
The elements which classify an activity as a sport are, for example, careful planning, skilful execution and precise timing, all of which esports have already adapted. There is, however, an aspect of modern sports which they lack: institutionalisation. Because the demand to recognise electronic sports as real sports is growing exponentially, many countries have already begun the process of institutionalising them.
South Korea – the Mecca of esports
South Korea is at the forefront of esports and was one of the first countries to begin overcoming this final hurdle to recognition. This comes as no surprise, taking into consideration that esports are one of the most popular sports (yes, without the e in front) in the Asian nation. The crucial step came from the South Korean government, which gave the esports governing body KeSPA (the Korean eSports Association) actual powers and legitimacy. KeSPA was founded in 2000 following approval from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and is now a part of the Korean Olympic Committee and the International esports Federation. To this day, KeSPA has established several fundamental rules for Korean gamers, such as minimum salary requirements for professional players, and mandatory one-year contracts for all new team members.
Another example of their popularity in South Korea is the fact that esports have been established as an academic discipline, and are being taught in high schools and universities. Students can choose between different subjects relating to esports, such as strategy or psychology. Today over 200 colleges worldwide even offer esports scholarships and have formalised their own on-campus esports activities.
Europe is catching up
Although South Korea started its institutionalisation process earlier than any European country, Europe has nonetheless been one of the most important regions in the development of the industry. As mentioned in the article on eDoping, one of the first organisations that benefitted the status of esports on the continent was Electronic Sports League (ESL). One would expect South Korea or China to have the largest esports bodies, but ESL takes the cake due to its crucial role in helping build and shape esports from small community events to record-breaking spectacles.
One of the countries leading the way is Germany. Not only does it have a considerable number of teams, event organisers and leagues, it has also introduced an esports visa. This game changer means that there is now an easy process available for players and coaches from outside Europe in order to obtain permanent residency in the country. If other countries follow suit, esports athletes could have better access to tournaments and leagues all over the world. Most probably some further developments towards the institutionalizing of esports can be expected in Germany since Angela Merkel’s political party put esports as one of the priorities in their election manifesto a few years ago.
Similarly, Poland is considered an innovator in the industry as well. The city of Katowice has become an important esports hub since it annually hosts one of the largest tournaments in the industry. The support of president Andrzej Duda, who considers esports as a sport, has helped its development in Poland.
Another country that started institutionalisation is France. In order to facilitate the development of esports by adapting the traditional sports model to it, the French government, along with private entities (two large associations and eight founders of the French National esports Federation) set up a legal framework which has imposed a normative practice. The French approach has, however, been criticised due to its recognition of esports as more of an industry than a sport. With such an understanding, important aspects of esports are being overlooked, such as concerns surrounding the players' health, or the integration of esports into schools and universities.
All in all, Europe already has 20 national esports federations that are members of the International e-Sports Federation (IESF). In 20019, twelve of these national federations, founded an European eSports Federation (EEF) with the desire to get a unified European representation.
The struggles of esports
But why is the institutionalisation of esports proving to be such a challenge? One of the reasons is a lack of a unified source of governance. Instead, it is provided by game publishers, but only when it comes to their respective games. This means their existence does not derive from the sport itself, but from selling the games. Consequently, there is a fear that publishers could follow their own interests, which may be opposed to those of electronic sports in general and the actors within them.
Now let's imagine, for example, a world of football in which FIFA governs poorly or doesn't exist at all. There would be a decrease in legitimacy and the credibility of the sport would be compromised. Therefore, with game publishers 'in charge' of esports, no general regulations are being adopted and various other interests (than those of a unified governing body) are at the forefront of the industry.
The esports industry has experienced tremendous participation, viewership and revenue growth over the past few years. For all these reasons, institutionalising them is the next logical step as this would provide them with more legitimacy and credibility. In this process, esports are facing some problems and obstacles that need to be conquered. However, by having political support for their development, recognising where there is room for improvement, and establishing sources of unified governance, a bright future for esports can be guaranteed.