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Video Game Week: Are video games sports?

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E-sports are a national phenomenon. But are they really sports?

2019 NHL Gaming World Championship Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

Full disclaimer - I was the faculty sponsor for e-sports for two years at the high school where I work. I may be a little biased here - the tournaments my kids set up were small and local, and honestly 95% Smash Bros. They were disorganized and a hot mess sometimes, because that’s what happens when you have a bunch of teenagers planning things.

They brought the kids together, though. The tournaments helped the kids understand how to plan events, gave them an outlet for marketing creativity on open house nights, and gave them a place to hang out once a week. Unfortunately, my workload this year caused me to drop a few things so I could focus on teaching a new class, and e-sports went. It made me sad to give it up.

It was a fun club full of good kids, and I enjoyed sponsoring it. The kids got a kick out of a teacher playing video games (we’re not all ancient, guys!), and honestly I think they thought it was cool that they could shoot the shit about games with a teacher who happened to be a woman. But the best part about it was that there were leagues for them to join, and these league wide tournaments came with cash prizes in the form of actual, real-life scholarship money.

All of those years of parents telling kids that games would waste their time and rot our minds? Joke’s on you, Mom! There’s a dedicated e-sports scholarship page on Scholarships.com, and many schools with competitive e-sports leagues offer scholarships for talented gamers. Smaller colleges and universities are using leagues as a way to appeal to students and it seems to be paying off. If you check out NCSA Sports’ list of top gaming colleges, you’ll find most of them aren’t the biggest schools in the world. These schools’ programs are supported like varsity sports’ programs would be, however. Even at the high school level, governing bodies more traditionally focused on sports are testing the waters with e-sports. In Georgia, where I am, the Georgia High School Association has begun their overreach into e-sports.

And then there are the leagues and tournaments. Holy crap, the money to be had in e-sport leagues and tournaments. There’s enough money out there in live-streaming on Twitch or making let’s play videos on YouTube to make an excellent gamer a millionaire. Ninja (Tyler Blevins) and the oft-controversial PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) are millionaires because of their skills and personas. Carlos “Oceleote” Rodriguez makes nearly a million bucks a year playing League of Legends (just go on and read this list of gamers and try not to cry). E-sport companies that manage teams in different leagues are creeping close to half a billion dollars in valuation.

Outside of the skill set of making money, there’s an argument to be made for the e-sports helping hone real-world cooperative skills and non-face to face collaborative skills. Anyone who has ever had to play a game on-line with people not in the same room as them knows the difficulty in planning strategy, be it in a FPS or a sports game.

Let’s just say there’s a reason I prefer single player story driven games, and it’s not just because I’m an introvert.

So, you have the camaraderie, you have the skill sets, you have the money, you have the scholarships, and you have the governing bodies. Are e-sports sports, then?

Congrats, (mostly) guys - you have your own cheerleading. People have been railing about cheer not being a sport for years, despite checking all of the same boxes that I just rattled off above - with the addition of an actual athletic component.

Maybe e-sports are a more intense version of, say, chess club or Mathletes? Or even debate, which was briefly governed by the state athletic organization here in Georgia (thankfully, physicals weren’t required)?

Whatever comparison you draw - to sports, to cheer, to non-athletic competitions, e-sports are big money and big fun. It’s also important to know that even if you don’t consider them to be an actual sport due to a lack of physical conditioning being necessary, they’re still a legitimate competitive league and still a legitimate interest. If you have a kid or know someone who’s into leagues and on-line game broadcasting, don’t pooh-pooh it for not being a “real sport.” Some of those kids are pulling in a grand a streaming session, if not more. Students are turning it into legitimate side gigs to help pay for college or cover family expenses. What was once a fun hobby for those of us of a certain age is now a way to make thousands of bucks.

Whatever you consider e-sports to be - a glorified poker league, kids playing games, whatever - it’s here to stay. Maybe think twice the next time you fuss at your kid for being on Call of Duty for too long.