Videogames are a sport, but it may never be an Olympic-level one

Can videogames be a sport?  There’s an article about the subject at The Verge that’s so-so reading, but this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.  In my younger days, I was a decent Virtua Fighter player, having won a national tournament in the US.  (That sounds better than it actually is, because the best US players are merely average in Japan and Korea, the meccas of Virtua Fighter players.)

I argue that videogames can and should be considered sports; but there are also fundamental reasons why it may never be an Olympic-worthy one.

Arguments For

Not all videogames can be considered sports.  Single player games like Super Mario don’t qualify; only competitive games like Street Fighter or Halo or DOTA.  SportAccord also specifies that a sport should “not rely on any luck element specifically designed into the sport.”  So games with randomness built in like power-ups also probably do not qualify.

So when we argue games can be a sport, we mean competitive games with defined rules and where luck is not a factor; like Virtua Fighter.

The most popular criticism is that sports should have physical component to it, which videogames surely lack and therefore cannot qualify.  That’s not true.  You may not need muscles per se to excel in videogames, but you need great physical dexterity, stamina and mental focus.  Performing certain moves and combos in real-time against an opponent can be just as difficult — if not more so — than hitting a ball with a racket.  The best players invest tens of thousand of hours practicing.  The depth is not as accessible as traditional sports, like Tiger Woods hitting a crazy drive, but it’s there.  To be good in a sport, you must have physical talent and you must practice; so it is with competitive videogames.

Competitive players study guides and frame stats to improve

The reason US players are almost never as good as Japanese or Korean players in Virtua Fighter is because elite players in the latter play almost everyday against the best competition.  I’m not joking.  I’ve gone on a week-long “Virtua Fighter holiday” before to Tokyo where my primary objective is to play everyday that I’m there, and you literally see the same people at a certain arcade day after day.  Many of these guys (and girls) aren’t successful in their jobs because they view Virtua Fighter as their main occupation; jobs are simply a means to finance their passion.  To be great at Virtua Fighter, not only do you need to invest the time and have talent, but you also need to play a lot.  In the US, there aren’t enough good players to train against to become elite while in Japan there is a critical mass.

Most don’t question NASCAR or Formula 1 as sports; but the kind of physical dexterity required to be the best at certain videogames like Virtua Fighter is comparable to that in professional racing.  You laugh at the notion, but I’m deadly serious.

Last word on the physical aspect of sports: if the International Olympic Committee can recognize both chess and bridge “as bona fide sports” according to Wikipedia, then surely one day it can videogames too.

The less cited criticism of videogames as sport is that it’s not entertaining to watch.  That’s true to a degree for those who don’t understand it — but that’s also true for any sport.  There are many people who don’t get golf for example and find it boring to watch on TV.  Yet, as Twitch’s 45 million users imply, there is a growing audience for watching other people play videogames.

Game tournaments draw huge crowds

By comparison, last year’s Game 7 of the NBA finals between the Heat and Spurs drew 26 million viewers.  True, that’s only one game compared to a whole year of Twitch, but it does give a broad sense of audience size.

There’s also the criticism that videogames lack history and tradition; that’s rubbish.  All things need a beginning.  Or that prize money must be involved.  It already is, and that will only grow with popularity.

I’ll close the argument for videogames as a sport with one of the most memorable moments in competitive videogames — this occurred in the semi-finals of a major tournament, so the stakes were high and Daigo, a famous Japanese player, was near death.  The video encapsulates everything we argued above: the amazing skill and talent both players possess that took years of training to achieve; and the thrill of competition shared by the hundreds at the tournament.

Arguments Against

Now you must be thinking that A) I’m a nerd — guilty as charged — and that B) I believe videogames will be in the Olympics some day.

But I’m actually not so sure.

There are two big problems with competitive videogames as a de facto sport.  The first is balance.  Take Virtua Fighter, for example, widely considered to be one of the most balanced fighting games.  It means that you can choose any character in Virtua Fighter and theoretically win.  But that’s not perfectly true: some characters are simply better than others.

A great character in Virtua Fighter 5 Version A might be a lousy character in a Version B update; it’s all at the mercy of how game designers tweak the rules.  Can videogames ever be a great sport when the quality of its competitiveness is so dependent on its creator?

You could argue that Formula 1 has a similar problem; where it’s as much about the car as it is about the driver.  But at least in Formula 1 there is an anchor to the game — that anchor is the track and who can finish it first.  That is a reality that cannot be changed.  There is no such reality in videogames; everything can be changed.  This whimsy may disqualify videogames from ever becoming a great sport.

The second problem is bigger: videogames don’t endure.  There is Virtua Fighter, and then there’s Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter 3, Virtua Fighter 3: Team Battle, Virtua Fighter 4: Evolution, Virtua Fighter 4: Final Tuned, Virtua Fighter 5, Virtua Fighter 5: R and finally Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown.

Each of these games is different.  A champion in one doesn’t equate to a champion in the next.  An offensively minded player will do better in Virtua Fighter 2 than in Virtua Fighter 3 for example.  How can videogames ever be an Olympic sport when the game itself, rules and therefore qualities required to win are constantly changing?  Games don’t even look the same within a single franchise!

Virtua Fighter 1…

…versus Virtua Fighter 5

The rules of basketball do change from time to time, but it is largely enduring.  Michael Jordan would have been a great player even if he was born 20 years earlier or later.  Basketball 20 years ago is pretty much basketball today.  Not so with videogames; Virtua Fighter 5 is vastly different to Virtua Fighter 1.

This is a big issue and I don’t think videogames can ever be an Olympic-level sport until it’s solved.  An Olympic-worthy videogame will have to stay the same so there can be a consistent standard to compare players across different generations.  So we can compile stats, play what-if games, establish a hall of fame and kids grow up wanting to be just like that champion.  Players can invest years training for a game without fearing their expertise will become obsolete; a real possibility for Virtua Fighter players because there may never be a Virtua Fighter 6, and most have moved on to newer fighting games after playing essentially the same game for seven years.

The constantly changing nature of videogames won’t be solved any time soon because technology is always advancing and gamers want better graphics and fresh gameplay experiences.  Game companies are happy to oblige and make money.  There are new games to play every year so it’s difficult if not impossible for any one videogame to elevate itself into an enduring sport.

Until that equation changes, videogames will remain a sport in just the academic sense.

One thought on “Videogames are a sport, but it may never be an Olympic-level one

  1. So what about a game like Melee? It hasn’t been changed in years, and it draws in larger, and larger crowds each year. The competitive community has continued to grow, as has the prize money, and yet, the gameplay has never been tweaked by the developers (aside from 1.0, 1.01, 1.02, but you’d be hard pressed to find a version below 1.02 out in the wild), and people continue to play it 14 years after it was released.

    I feel like this is an example of a game that balks previous arguments. And I can imagine there are others as well.


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