The Endless Debate: Is “eSports” a Real Sport?

The Endless Debate: Is “eSports” a Real Sport?
Disclaimer: Based on my personal experiences

Ever since the emergence of eSports over the past decade, the topic of as to whether eSports should be regarded as a ‘real competitive sport’ has been a heavily debated one.

I have been involved in sports most of life; having over 10 years of competitive experience in table tennis, canoeing/kayak-racing, and dragon boat. When I was introduced to esports, I honed my skills in a competitive team for a year before moving on to player team management.

Drawing from my own personal experience, here’s what I think are the similarities and differences between the two and how this justifies the position of esports as a proper sport.

Similarities (In no particular order)

Time Commitment

I remember having to give up whatever free time I had to attend training. As a student-athlete, I spent my days either with my face buried in books or breaking a sweat at training. The little time I had in-between was spent playing video games. While most students went out after school and enjoyed their holidays being bored with nothing to do, I was very much occupied with training for upcoming competitions. Waking up in the wee hours of the morning to travel to the reservoir, the team and I  savoured whatever daylight we had because we were not allowed to paddle in the dark. I often had to turn down my friends whenever they asked to hang out.

When I ventured into competitive esports, I saw the same challenges needed to manage my time between the different aspects of my life. Even if I had the chance to hang out with friends, I often had a curfew of sorts and had to rush home for training. It was also around that time when I entered a new phase of my life as a working adult. Juggling training sessions and a full-time job was challenging but it was rewarding. I had spent my days doing what I love with people who shared the same passion.

It was also important to note that when comparing esports and a traditional sport like canoeing or table tennis, teams couldn’t function with a member missing. When I was canoeing, I rowed in a 4-man boat. In Overwatch, I was part of was a 6-man team. The absence of anyone would render any training effectively useless. Yes, we could have substitutes, but in a team setting, synergy was of utmost importance. No one person, no matter how good he was, would be able to carry an entire team to the success. Personal responsibility was very important.

During the regular season, professional esports players often practice for more than 40 hours a week. That averages to about 5.7 hours per day. Take for example Team Liquid, an internationally known esports team, practices together for 8 hours a day, for almost every day in the week, scrimmaging against other teams. On top of that, they put in hours before and after team practice for planning and reviews for strategies and whatnot.

Coach Guidance

While in table-tennis and canoeing, I had a coach who built strong foundations blocks in me, gave me crucial feedback to improve my performance, analysed other professional team videos with me to allow me to learn their techniques and gave us a position that best suited my strength and best supplemented my team’s needs. I looked to my coaches for aid often; I respected their teaching. They are responsible for my many wins.

In esports, we did the same things. However, we were our own coach as we were a small, self-sustained team. As we played, we gave each other feedback. We also would watch past broadcasts of other competing teams to study their strategies. We also played different roles based on the needs of the teams, making sure our strengths are maximised.

In the Olympics, a coach is defined as someone who plays a key role in an athlete’s entourage. The quality of the relationship between a coach and the athlete has a crucial effect on the athlete’s satisfaction, motivation and performance. We acknowledge the role of a coach in traditional sports, but how about in esports?

In esports, League Champions Korea (LCK) was the first league in the world to take esports coaching seriously and as such, found so much success. Strategy coaches analyze games, identify a player’s strengths and flaws and plan out a direction for their players to follow.  Doesn’t this sound familiar?

Mental Training

In canoeing, my coach made us go through a mental simulation of our races: from before your race, to the time that we launch our boat, to lining up at the start-line, to the deafening sound of the horns, from start to the end of the race. Doing these mental simulations often made it easier for me to get in the zone.

These mind exercises from my earlier sporting days helped me condition myself better when I was playing esports. At an offline esports tournament, competitors play on a stage in front of an audience. My routine for getting in the zone involved music and clear personal space. I would drown out the world and focus on my own energy. When I got on the stage, I couldn’t see anyone else other than my teammates. It helped me focus better; I couldn’t hear the screaming, shouting, and clicking of the keyboard and mice. My nerves dissipated and I gave 100% concentration to my match and my intended result: A win.

Professional athletes describe being in the zone as feeling invincible; as if the game slows down, the crowd noise translates to silence as they achieve an incredible level of focus minutes before they compete.

This writer talks about their own experience when being in the zone while playing League of Legends. He states that to attain a higher rank in League of Legends, you must get in the zone and focus during the entire game.

Proneness to Injuries

I suffered my fair share of injuries whilst doing sports. In table tennis, the punishment for losing a match against your teammate was to frog-jump around the table, and boy did I lose a lot. I also had a tendency to lunge into the table to save a point. In canoeing, my back took the biggest toll. Despite being a water sport, we still had to do land training exercises which included but not limited to, weight lifting and sprints. Rowing under the mercy of the weather at the reservoir meant we were at risk of sunburn and dehydration. My current physical state reminds me of what I had to go through; my knees constantly feel weak, and my shoulders and back never feel quite right.

In esports, one does not have to do much physical movement. However, because the magnitude of actions is smaller, the consequences are also more concentrated. For example, I use my literally whole body while canoeing. That reference to ‘whole body’ includes my legs in case many would assume we only use our hands. The movements of my legs kicking into the footrest drive movement in the canoe and help with stability while my upper body is busy doing the rowing. In video gaming, only my arms and wrists are used. As such, the concentrated efforts on these areas have overall made my fingers easily tired after an hour or two of typing, and my wrists feel lazy from all the first-person shooters that I enjoy. People close to me who were competing as part of an esports organization now complain of wrist pain which affects other aspects of their lives now.

I hear of athletes who are forced to retire early due to injury. What some people fail to see is that esports players are just as susceptible to retire due to an irreparable injury. The most common injury in esports players is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. One of the causes includes repetitive motions, like moving a mouse with precision for 8 hours a day. A few players were forced to miss important matches or even renounce their title as a professional gamer, effectively retiring, after succumbing to arm and wrist injuries.

Diet

You are what you eat; a common saying that I’ve heard umpteen times. This saying runs true, no matter what you do as a profession. My days as a student-athlete were spent eating healthier options while watching my friends ate McDonald’s day in and day out. I envied them, but I also understood. The times that I spent gorging on the unhealthier options, I felt lethargic and found that I had more difficulty concentrating. The minutes I spent eating junk led to hours of regression in my training.

The same goes for life. Even before esports, I knew that food played a big role in our functionality. Junk food made me break out in acne, lethargic, gave me migraines, and made me perpetually tired. When I started eating healthier; more greens and probiotics, I found that it was easier to be a better version of me. Overall, I could concentrate better and I felt better about how I looked as well. If you don’t believe me, maybe Harvard Medical School and NHS can be of assistance.

Niche Skill-set

“But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” – Taken

Everything in this world requires practice. Professional players, both sports and esports, have been practising their chosen discipline for many years. Many of them started young, and it developed into their career.

If sports and esports didn’t take skill, I challenge you to balance in a canoe and race 1000m without capsizing. I challenge you to pick up a game like Overwatch; a first-person shooter that not only requires reflexes and skill but an understanding of characters, roles and responsibilities. Why should we discount anyone’s talents?

Differences (In no particular order)

Training Environment

Most traditional sports training take place outdoors, braving the weather as you perfect your techniques. The physical exhaustion sets in and you’re drenched in sweat. In table tennis, we were under the shade in a not-so-well ventilated lobby area. Practising my different strokes while sweat invaded my eyeballs, not so much fun. In canoeing, I braved the sun, rain, sweat, and water splashing from my teammates’ paddles. Breaks to come onto land had to be granted. Most of us didn’t have our water bottles with us in the boat as that counted for extra, unstable wobbly weight. Even going to the bathroom was troublesome; docking the boat and running to the toilet barefoot (because ain’t nobody got time to find your slippers). Drenched in sweat and the water my teammate covered me in, I was uncomfortable physically during training.

The other extreme end is esports, where I sit in the comfort of my bedroom, with the fan directed at me. I can go and get snacks and water whenever I pleased. The bathroom is less than 5 meters away as well. I can even indulge in entertainment during the short intermission between matches and maps.

Physique

While doing sports, I was physically fit. My sport forced me to exercise and gain strength in order to pull my boat across the finish line first. My physique became lean, muscular, and tanned. On the other spectrum, now that I don’t dedicate as much time to sports and instead occupy myself with esports, I am meatier, not as toned, and my pale skin shows; I even get breathless after climbing a flight of stairs (which I’m not proud of). I love both versions of myself because both versions of myself fit my lifestyle and my needs then and now.

So why do we discount the esports players? We don’t discount less physically demanding Olympic games like archery, eventing (equestrian dressage, cross-country and show jumping), fencing, golf, shooting, and skateboarding to name a few. So why the prejudice towards esports?

Ask anyone who has ever played an esports title; ask them if it’s easy to win, to be good at the game. Most find it hard, almost impossible, when comparing themselves to the likes of professional esports players. That’s because esports requires physical and mental skill. The competitiveness, the drama and the emergence of the esports scene have exploded over the past decade.

I’m Nova and I’m still a sportswoman.

Because esports is a real sport.

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