The Implications of Classifying Esports as a Sport

The Arcade 2.0™: Video Game Law Blog

Braxton Padgett
Tuesday, 09 January 2018

Due in part to the rise of online streaming platforms, competitive gaming, commonly called esports, has exploded over the past decade. The emergence of the industry has roused debate about whether esports should be considered a sport. Particularly those heavily involved in the industry believe that esports have much in common with traditional sports and should be classified as such. Those on the other side of the argument often point to the lack of physical exertion as a reason to avoid classifying esports as a sport. While it can make for lively conversation to discuss the rightful classification of esports, debaters on either side of the issue tend to overlook the implications of defining esports either way.

Most definitions of the word “sport” include a physical exertion component, though not everyone is in agreement as to the importance of this.

In order to properly consider whether esports should be classified as a sport, its first worth considering what a sport even is. Webster’s dictionary describes a sport as “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other.” Turning to legal sources for a definition, the Sports Bribery Act of 1964 provides a rather circular definition of “sporting contest,” defining the term as “any contest in any sport, between individual contestants or teams of contestants (without regard to the amateur or professional status of the contestants therein), the occurrence of which is publicly announced before its occurrence.”

Courts around the country have also struggled to define the term. In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida defined sport as a “physical activity engaged in for pleasure.” Volusia Cnty. Cattlemen’s Assoc., Inc. v. Western World Ins. Co., 218 F. Supp. 3d 1343, 1350 (M.D. Fla. 2016). Many other courts have similarly focused on the physicality of the acts or required some form of exertion. See Zurich Reinsurance (London) v. Westville Riding Club, Inc., 82 F. Supp. 2d 1254 (E.D. 1999).

Most definitions of the word sport–but certainly not all–include at least some reference to the activity being physical. This “physical exertion” component has by far been the most significant barrier to having esports classified as a sport. Proponents of classifying esports as a sport tend to focus on the mental exertion that accompanies esport events, the physical input of the players, and the elevated levels of stress players can experience during a match. This, they argue, satisfies the physical exertion component. Others argue that physical exertion is unnecessary and that it’s the competitive, team-based nature of many esports competitions that qualify them as a sport. Those who argue against classifying esports as a sport often contrast the low physicality of esports against the significant physical exertion required by most traditional sports. For them, it’s this physical exertion that moves something from being a game to a sport.

Classifying esports as a sport would have real-world consequences on both a legal and societal level.

If esports were classified as a sport there would be some very real-world consequences. In the United States, there are certain laws on both the state and federal level that apply only to sporting contests. The Sports Bribery Act of 1964 prohibits using bribery to fix a sporting match or influence the outcome. There are other laws, such as the Wire Act of 1961, that regulate gambling on sporting events. These laws would suddenly become relevant in the context of esports. Also, whether an activity qualifies as a sport is something that could be pivotal when determining insurance coverage under certain policies.

In a non-legal sense, reclassifying esports as a sport could benefit the industry by promoting acceptance of esports as a valid form of competition. Already, we are seeing massive movement towards esports becoming more accepted mainstream. Over the last several years, ESPN has broadcast a number of esports competitions on its various sports networks. The 2022 Asian Games will include esports competitions and the 2024 Paris Olympics is considering doing the same. No matter where you fall in the debate, there’s no denying that esports is here to stay.

If you’re an esports team owner or professional player and have questions about the law, or you’re facing potential litigation, please Contact Us.

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