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Video Games on ESPN? It's Time to Stop Pretending eSports Are 'Real' Sports.

There's a lot to like about pro gaming. But it has a serious identity problem.

Blizzard / Heroes of the Storm

Yesterday, ESPN 2 aired a live broadcast of a video game. A bunch of people on the Internet did not like what they saw.

That alone is not news. A similar thing happened last year when the channel promoted the championship of a different video game, DOTA 2, which — like the game that was broadcast this weekend, Heroes of the Storm — is near-unwatchable unless you’ve played it, or games like it. For most channel-surfing viewers, it’s an easy invitation to yell, “Nerds!” and then keep clicking.

This is an ongoing problem with professional competitive video games, commonly known as eSports. They get little respect from non-players, and even sometimes from ESPN management, even though they command tens of millions of fans around the world and have been known to pack stadiums full of diehards who want to watch top players square off.

“It’s not a sport — it’s a competition,” ESPN president John Skipper said at Code/Media: New York last year. “Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition. Mostly, I’m interested in doing real sports.”

This is not an indictment of gaming’s ability to entertain, or of the depth of these games. It’s an identity problem.

It’s time to stop forcing games to be “sports.” Jamming them into that label and pushing them onto platforms like ESPN only invites direct comparisons to the traditional sports that more people already know. That comparison inevitably surfaces what pro gaming lacks, such as easily intelligible physical prowess, and does nothing to highlight its many unique merits.

Calling these games “sports” is like calling YouTube videos “TV shows.” All are entertaining, but they’re different in important ways, and it’s to the benefit of eSports to recognize those differences. If Google had trained the world to expect TV-style production values on YouTube, the site would be far less creative and interesting.

In a talk at last week’s Games for Change Festival, NYU professor Frank Lantz described how unexpected physical feats in games like basketball can carry transcendent meaning for their viewers, and argued that eSports were “similar enough” to merit the same respect. The core of his case was that eSports are more meaningful than other video games, specifically modern single-player games that let players try over and over again until they win.

“This endlessly elastic version of experience can sometimes feel cloying, clammy, a rubbery toy version of reality,” Lantz said. “In eSports, every match is made up of unique and irreplaceable moments. Mistakes are real and permanent, and you’re put into situations where you get one chance and one chance only.”

He’s right — but that doesn’t make eSports the same as “real” sports. Rather, Lantz’s talk illustrated how artificial and novel it is to play a game by yourself without any human competition.

The thing that really sets eSports apart from traditional sports is that they are, to borrow a phrase from Lantz’s talk, “created out of Internet-based folk culture.” All players are starting from exactly equal footing, the same piece of software, and over time games and meta-games have emerged from the online societies those players built around these games.

It’s all well and good that big companies like Blizzard, Valve and Riot are trying to turn this ground-up phenomenon into something bigger. But the ongoing inferiority complex of “look, we can be on ESPN, too!” isn’t so good. It only persists because comparing eSports to “real” sports is an easier sell to advertisers.

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