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Does eSports need ESPN before the mainstream accepts it?

League of Legends fans are looking to South Korea as a center of action this month, with Riot Games' annual World Championship well underway  A multi-million dollar eSports event that takes its cues from the pomp and circumstance of "real" sporting events, of Super Bowls and World Series'.

Taking place at Sangam Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, this year's League of Legends World Championship has an audience of 45,000 attendees not including the millions of users viewing online. At stake is a prize pool of $2,130,000 which will be spread among teams from fourth to first place.

'It's not a sport - it's a competition.' - ESPN's John Skipper

But in the face of Riot's fervent attempts to bring a similar level of legitimacy to its eSport, there is still a question of whether digital competitions carry the same significance as physical sport? After all, is League of Legends even a sport at all? The idea that pro-gamers can be categorized under the same umbrella that defines professional football and baseball players as "athletes" was challenged earlier this month by ESPN boss John Skipper.

"It's not a sport  it's a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition," Skipper said at the Code/Media Series: New York conference. Skipper had been asked to comment on Amazon's $1 billion acquisition of Twitch.

Is eSports really the digital equivalent to Checkers?

"The issue of what is or isn't a sport isn't really a question of opinion," Razer's eSports associate manager Drew Holt-Kentwell tells Polygon. "According to Merriam Webster, a 'sport' is 'a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other, eSports is a competition, absolutely. Moreover, gaming athletes have to train bodily and mentally to be competitive or they lose. eSports requires extraordinary coordination, hyper-fast reflex responses, teamwork, and physical and mental dexterity and endurance  often for extended periods of time under the pressure of strictly enforced game rules."

Razer's Holt-Kentwell told me the legitimacy of a sport really comes down to its cultural impact, adding that professional gamers are already recognized for work visa purposes for competitive events just like real-world athletes.

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"An equally important benchmark is the cultural context of sports in terms of extrinsic and intrinsic values," said Holt-Kentwell. "Consider that professional teams and competitive eSports events around the world attract live crowds of upwards of 45,000 fans and broadcast audiences in the tens of millions. Consider that eSports is in the X-Games, and that the U.S. State Department recognizes eSports athletes for work visa purposes shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of basketball players and Olympic track-and-field competitors.

"The athletes of eSports are organized, sponsored, highly compensated for winning, and adored by fans. It seems the world actively embraces eSports like a sport-one that is competitive, entertaining, lucrative and otherwise worthy enough to watch like any other sport. The players certainly treat it as such. Horse racing, table tennis, sharpshooting, archery, golf, bowling and motorsports may not be on par with soccer or basketball to some; but they, along with eSports, are as legitimate and aspirational as any other sport on the planet. You don't have to watch it, support it, do it or like it, but you can't deny it. eSports is sport."

Breaking away from tradition

Intriguingly, despite comments regarding the rightful use of "sport," ESPN broadcasts poker tournaments with regularity  a game that isn't currently recognized as a sport, and is instead described by the International Federation of Poker as a "mind sport" or game of skill that emphasizes use a mental component. As pointed out by StarCraft 2 player Chris Loranger this is indicative of a grey area in the term. While eSports doesn't have the physicality of football, says Loranger, it is still more physically demanding than poker.

"I grew up playing football all my life and loved it, my favorite sport of all time," Loranger tells us. "My favorite dreams even now that I haven't played in years are of playing football. Do I think StarCraft 2 or esports in general are on the same level as football or other traditional sports as far as being a physical sport? Of course not.

"But I've also played a decent amount of poker which has been common on ESPN for many years now, and I definitely consider esports more of a 'sport' than poker; it's less luck dependent and more physically demanding. I could make many comparisons to other things that have shown up on ESPN over the years but I'm sure the majority of people can connect the dots here."

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Likewise, despite Skipper's rejection of chess as a sport, it is recognized as one by the International Olympic Committee and has even been shown on the popular television network  one notable event was the famous game that pit Chess champion Garry Kasparov against the chess playing computer program X3D Fritz; a far cry from the tradition of on-the-field activities that the sport often depicts.

"eSports embodies everything that is valued and expressed in sports, athletic or not," eSports commentator Michael Cohen tells us. "Is eSports an athletic sport? No and when previous generations refer to traditional sports, they are referring to typically athletic ones.

'The idea of eSports not being a sport is an opinion that focuses on a dotted line that has been evolving throughout generations'

"However, the idea of eSports not being a sport is an opinion that focuses on a dotted line that has been evolving throughout generations. The International Olympic Committee recognizes Chess as a sport despite the part of the general public deeming it a game or, simply, a competition. Gymnastics is referred to as both a competition because of its points system, but it has many physical demands on the body and reflects a lot of what many traditional sports athletes undertake when competing."

Michel Blicharz, the director of pro-gaming at professional gaming league ESL, likewise maintains the digital nature of eSports does not preclude it from being physical. Blicharz was a Judo athlete at a national level and referee for 10 years after that, he tells us. "I worked hard, sweat in training and got bruised like anyone else Mr. Skipper would call an athlete," he says, "and competitive video gaming is a sport to me."

"eSports in its current form is backed by millions of athletes worldwide," ESL managing director Ralf Reichert adds. "Most on an amateur level, some on a professional level. The younger generation will not even ask this question, for them it's a sport, regardless what older generations think, pretty comparable to the question discussed in the last decade if video games as an entertainment form will be generally accepted."

Does eSports need ESPN or is it the other way around?

Earlier this year it was announced that ESPN is partnering with Valve to begin streaming Dota 2 tournaments for the first time in its history, bringing the hugely successful game to ESPN3  the online branch of the network. This isn't the first the network has rubbed shoulders with professional gaming. In June, Major League Gaming players competed in ESPN's X-Games event in Austin, Texas. This begs the question of what kind of relationship ESPN will have with the world of eSports in the future?

"I'm not sure of the Head of ESPN made these comments to appease complaints or actually believes them but either way its an ignorant comment if you are going to consider everything on ESPN as a sport," Loranger continues. "Either way eSports is going to continue to grow and become as big as traditional sports some day, whether the head of ESPN wants to admit that or not. Would it be cool if ESPN had eSports on sooner rather than later? Sure. But does eSports need ESPN? No."