How Professional Gaming Works

Yes, but is it a sport?

Guest commenter William 'Blitz' Lee speaks at the 2014 International Dota 2 Championships in Seattle, Washington.
Guest commenter William 'Blitz' Lee speaks at the 2014 International Dota 2 Championships in Seattle, Washington.
Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic

What makes a sport? Every time the Olympic Games include one or two "fringe" events, like trampoline, someone asks the same question. And even if video games are considered a sport, who would want to watch them?

You know they televise golf, right?

If one takes a wider view of the subject, then eSports clearly qualify: Success, as in any sport, requires a specific skillset, practice, devotion and standout talent. The games require a head for tactics and strategy, the coolheaded know-how to make high-risk calls and the guts to follow through on them. Players must know their teammates' (and opponents') rhythms and styles, and sense when to seize the initiative and when to set up a teammate for the big play. These aren't games of inches or yards, but contests in which mere milliseconds and paltry pixels mark the difference between victory and defeat.

As in other sports, the highlight-reel moments of eSports rely on positioning and timing. Pro basketball players know when to shift from a man-to-man to a zone defense. "Dota 2" players know when to shift a solo hero away from the mid-lane to set up a 3-on-2 "gank."

As in other sports, pro games swing on momentum shifts, but arguably much harsher ones than occur during an NHL power play or a 10-point swing in the NBA. In eSports, momentum swings occur in a matter of seconds and provide some of the greatest delight for the viewer. Because they often add insult to injury — simultaneously punishing one side's mistakes while rewarding the other side's success streaks — they set up both failure feedbacks and gob-smacking comebacks. They promise Cinderella stories, too, as when the Swedish team Alliance won the 2013 "Dota 2" tournament less than a year after they first formed, and during that year won nine different "Dota 2" tournaments.

Beyond these remain the intangibles that mark any sport, such as the dense lingo, the shadow cast by major corporate sponsors (keen to reach that ever more elusive 18-to-35-year-old male demo), and the gaming groupies who follow their favorite teams around like boy bands. And there's the ugly side, too: The rookies who choke when they get to the big show, the players who are traded like creased bubblegum cards and the gymnast-like career spans. The median age of gamers is 22, and by their mid-20s they're already considered old — possibly thanks to age-related cognitive-motor decline in reaction times, but some say interest in competition also drops off as many gamers get older [sources: All Work All Play, Thompson et al.].

Those breaks and burdens only build over time. As the business side of eSports comes more and more into focus, we'll likely see an expansion of college programs and scholarships, like the ones already offered by at least five colleges, and color commentary and coverage will continue its move from companies like ESL to big dogs like ESPN, which has already begun to dip its toe into the data steam [sources: All Work All Play, Mueller].