The Sport of Defining ‘Sport’

The cover story of the most recent edition of ESPN magazine is most peculiar for what it lacks:  a profile of an actual sport.

Gracing the cover of a publication increasingly more wedded to TMZ-style coverage instead is the smug headshot of “Ninja,” the current e-gaming, self-monikered godfather who has ushered e-gaming full-bore into the mainstream, frosted tips and all. The article presents a pictorial of Ninja’s existence, dogged with multiple computer monitors, half-empties of processed snacks and energy drinks, and his family, the latter being the oddest duck for this presumed modern-day sports icon.

But e-gaming is not a sport. Not even within the most elastic analytical framework can e-gaming be considered without making a mockery of the enduring competitions worthier of the title, and which are central to maintaining the veneer of civilization without its citizens resorting to their baser instincts. (Jonathan Gottschall’s The Professor in the Cage (Penguin P, 2015) provides an eloquent account of sanctioned violence’s place in American civilization upon its very birth as a sovereign nation.)

E-gaming is, like bodybuilding, chess, or competitive cheer, only a competition, itself not the sole criterion for what validly constitutes a sport, whose legitimacy transcends strict classifications and instead spans a more relativistic spectrum—a hierarchy situated by sports’ tumultuous histories and enduring legacies, not one of which is wholly dependent on electricity to even commence. Whereas near-perfect hand-eye coordination is just one of many numerous features in a traditional sport’s physical repertoire, it is the only defining feature in a gamer’s agility that separates mediocrity from mastery.

E-gaming rests well below the current threshold of sport. And I doubt any incarnation of e-gaming will suffice beyond its current realization, even with the free-market sanctioning powers of the American college, which has recently spawned partnerships with the electronics gaming giant, EA Games, which funds for these schools numerous scholarships, sanctioned tourneys, and delusions of accomplishment, with many such testimonials baked right into a college’s promotional materials: “Students who represent their schools say [e-gaming] teaches them lessons in strategy, teamwork and time management, and it offers camaraderie with other gamers on campus.”


At best, e-gaming’s sanctioned adoption into collegiate activities is marketing tactic to buoy decreasing enrollments nationwide. A recent profile reveals how lucrative this movement has become lately, thus providing many institutions—notably public community colleges that are experiencing the greatest enrollment declines—with a relatively untapped market to bullishly pursue.

But despite this novelty’s means to generate necessary revenue through much-needed higher enrollments, these institutions are split on whether it qualifies as a legitimate sport under the governance of athletics. About half of those institutions place it under the purview of student affairs as something akin to a student club. And this designation does matter:  Title IX federal legislation would apply to e-gaming if it were to be officially recognized as an athletic sport, complete with funding and the litany of federal policies and protocols in need of full compliance. Federal courts will inevitably decide on this matter, and soon, and any decision not to the advantage of participating colleges would leverage away significant revenue. And considering how financially strapped many colleges currently are due to downturns in enrollment and general aide, I doubt courts will issue a countervailing ruling.

I am not an e-gaming teetotaler, per se. I will always acknowledge its limited or supplemental catalytic benefits:  its influence in increasing socialization among like-minded adolescents and its causal link to improvements in physical or cognitive impairments, including progressive diseases of the latter. The U.S. military’s various UAV programs enlist persons with considerable hand-eye coordination as a result of e-gaming (although verification is debatable). And various private industries, including medicine, criminal justice, and some trades, employ virtual reality for training simulations whose skillsets are analogous to e-gaming.

But I speculate many college students obsessed with e-gaming are not pursuing programs or fields that reward the coordination and cognitive benefits of electronic gaming. If they are, numerous struggle to balance their habit with their academics; they fail to prioritize their lives, namely their education, as I have often personally witnessed in my classrooms over the past several years. Their inability to focus on matters that are neither animated nor automatically rewarded come into sharp relief in the classroom. Directions become unmanageable, deadlines pass without notice, and dignity in work that is submitted is non-existent. Some have even failed to maintain basic hygiene standards to the point that the campus nurse had to intervene. And in the lives of 18-year-old adults, allegedly. (The darker side of e-gaming’s effects on adolescents is brilliantly profiled in a 2010 PBS Frontline episode, Digital Nation.)

These effects only echo the poor self-management skills that prevent many from being able to acclimate to and socialize in the reality that matters—the one with which we are currently graced, without restarts or do-overs, and sometimes with as many opportunities as the single life it determines.

Unfortunately, this demographic believes virtually otherwise.

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Contrarian to the Common

Former college educator with 15 years’ experience split between public community college and public four-year state college. My commentaries address matters germane to higher education, sometimes beyond.