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Should Competitive Video Games be Considered Sports?

They’re obsessively focused on maintaining their physical strength and endurance, spending hours a day training. They carefully manage their diets to maintain their performance, and meet with trainers regularly to make sure they stay on the right track. They even meet with psychologists to discuss how they can maximize their focus and concentration and leverage their emotions in service of achieving peak performance. You may think I’m describing an elite baseball, football, or basketball team. But in reality, this description applies to the thousands of professional video game players who compete in tournaments, viewed by millions, for enormous cash prizes.

In fact, the first-place prizes at many of these events exceed the prizes at events for more traditional sports: recently, the team OG won Valve’s The International Dota 2 tournament, taking home $15.6 million. Split evenly among the team’s members, that works out to $3.1 million per player; for context, Tiger Woods won $2.07 at the 2019 Masters. These remarkable prizes are funded by a variety of sources: ticket sales at the auditoriums where the competitions take place, online advertising to the millions of eSports fans who view the events live on platforms such as Twitch; and sponsors, who proudly display their logos on the teams’ uniforms and equipment.

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The popularity of eSports shows no signs of slowing down, and in fact, recent developments point to an even greater expansion of the industry: the 2017 League of Legends tournament attracted over 80 million viewers, and ESPN and Disney XD have secured the exclusive broadcasting rights to the Overwatch League, in which players of the popular first-person shooter game Overwatch compete at a high level. The functioning and organization of eSports teams is similar to that of traditional sports teams, with the NBA even holding a draft to recruit players of the NBA 2K series of video games. Colleges are even starting varsity eSports programs, governed by the National Association of Collegiate eSports.

While eSports involves highly talented players, rabid fanbases, and official bodies and governing organizations in much the same way traditional sports does, there are some key differences between the two. For one, players of eSports tend to have shorter careers and skew towards the younger side; this is because in the fast-paced action games popular in eSports, reaction time and quick thinking are of the utmost importance, and these skills are most pronounced in people in their teenage years and early 20’s. Additionally, players of eSports tend to be subject to more dramatic emotional swings during their game relative to players of traditional sports, perhaps owing to the intense psychological focus required at high-level competitive play. Just like in traditional sports, though, the problem of performance-enhancing drug use is widespread, with many players reported as using Adderall and other drugs in order to maintain their energy during hours-long gaming sessions; however, the burgeoning eSports industry is not as regulated as traditional sports, so the issue of drug use tends to go unchecked.

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While prominence in eSports has lead to success for many hardcore video game players, experts caution against the health risks that come from excessive video game playing, and warn that many teenagers and young adults are susceptible to developing video game addiction. Doctors note that whereas young players of traditional sports will naturally take breaks after a while due to getting tired, video game players are able to continue playing for extended periods of time. Signs of video game addiction include irritability, issues with school or work, tiredness, and social isolation. Professional eSports players stress the importance of having hobbies, interests, and a social life outside of video games, as it’s important for a player’s overall health to be able to take a break from their game of choice from time to time.