The debate rages on

Esports vs traditional sports – how much alike are they?

Gaming
overwatch esports player looking at screen

Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Few industries have seen the sort of explosive growth that esports has in the last decade or so. From a fringe basement hobby, esports has worked its way up to a worldwide phenomenon. A global phenomenon at that – the esports scene is popular around the entire world. But how similar is it to traditional sports?

Traditional sports vs esports – a comparison

Despite the term “esports” being derived as a shortening of “electronic sports”, the most popular esports titles have little in common with traditional sports – at first glance, at the very least. It’s easy to assume that only games like FIFA or F1 Racing are like sports but that isn’t true.

By definition, a sport requires competition, skill, physical exertion, and the purpose of fun – and all that is present even in MOBAs. At a professional level, there are several more parallels between esports and traditional sports.

A day in the life of a pro

Pro athletes don’t have it easy – not in traditional sports, and certainly not in esports. Incredibly strict training schedules, meal plans, 14 hours of training per day – that’s the reality of esports athletes. Add in the short careers and peak ages of 17-22 and you might as well be talking about most traditional sports.

Some flavors of esports show even more similarities – Overwatch, for example, is modeled after the city franchise model used by sports like football, baseball, basketball, and similar games. Pro teams are associated with a city, and like in traditional sports, they have team colors, logos, and merch available for purchase.

Not a carbon copy

a traditional sports football field showing

A standard football match.

Despite the similarities, however, there are some pretty big differences between the two as well.

The biggest one is related to the rules – in traditional sports, they rarely change, if at all. Football now is much like football from ten or twenty years ago – the only changes are usually related to individual events, and even then, they are minimal – for example, a dress code.

In esports, on the other hand, things change all the time. Games like Overwatch see new heroes and maps added, while MOBAs often see balance changes that significantly alter how useful a character is.

Another change is the way competitions happen – naturally, esports events take place in a game, while traditional sports happen in person. With the exception of chess, traditional sports require the presence of all players in one place – which is not so with esports.

A popularity contest?

When it comes to viewership numbers, it’s easy to see the esports vs traditional sports story as one of competition – this isn’t quite true. Several types of esports see overlaps in fans – especially those that are associated with a “real” sports league.

Nevertheless, esports viewership is steadily rising, and many traditional sports leagues see a decline in numbers instead. This isn’t due to a direct rivalry, though – it’s more because of different audiences. The global phenomenon that is esports mainly (though not exclusively) attracts younger audiences while other pro sports tend to have somewhat older fans.

An example of this is the Olympics – for years, the global athletics competition has seen declining ratings and viewership numbers. Esports events, on the other hand, regularly break the mark of tens of millions of unique viewers, with a trend for continuous growth.

Divided opinions – is esports even a sport?

Naturally, overall opinions on whether esports is a sport at all are divided. There are some very vocal critics – for example, the Minister for Sports in Hessen Peter Beuth had this to say:

“Esports are as little sport as knitting and recorder play. We must not allow the e-gaming industry to collect these sports assets. The idea that the E-gaming industry is vying for funding, I think is absurd."

Of course, many esports fans feel differently – and actively advocate for both esports and traditional sports to be viewed in the same light. However, there are still significant legal differences. It’s difficult, for example, for esports pros to acquire visas for international competitions – at least in most places. Also, how do you view a game as a sport when it’s owned by a company such as Blizzard or Valve, and not free to use by everyone?

Regardless of their similarities, esports and traditional sports are not treated the same way anywhere – not even in countries like the US and South Korea, where esports is extremely popular. Trends are certainly pointing towards this changing in the future – but actual equality is still far off.

Melanie Hawthorne

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