Putting the eSports dispute to rest

Graphic by Evan Tremblay

Recently the Manitoban republished a pair of articles from the Ubyssey, the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia (UBC), that argued over whether competitive gaming, also known as eSports, should technically be considered sports, and therefore whether the UBC eSports Association should be recognized as an official Thunderbirds team.

One group argued that since competitive gaming involves rigorous training, popular spectator events, and large amounts of prize money, it ought to be considered a sport. The other group conceded these similarities, but argued that a competitive spectator event cannot be considered a sport without the presence of physical athleticism.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein discussed a very similar sort of argument in his Philosophical Investigations when he analyzed the category of things called “games” – “board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on.” Wittgenstein asked what is common to all members of this category. “If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all,” he wrote, “but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.”

We could easily replace the word “games” with “sports” without distorting the meaning. Membership in the category “sports” is not a binary matter of fulfilling certain necessary and sufficient conditions (competition, athleticism, spectacle), but a much more quicksilvery thing.

There may be two sports that are totally unlike each other and are considered members of the same category not due to their sharing some definitive quality, but on account of their mutual similarity to some third sport.

The word “sports” is not a neatly carved-out block in conceptual space, but a complex web of relationships where not every node is connected to every other one. As Wittgenstein puts it, “we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.”

Clearly there are aspects of competitive gaming that are sport-like (competition, spectacle, prizes, training). Just as clearly there are many aspects that are less sport-like (non-physicality). I think both sides of the discussion would have to concede that if competitive gaming is a sport, it’s an unusual one.

But the philosophically sophisticated answer to the question of whether eSports are sports is another, much more interesting question: why should we want them to be?

I can’t help but notice that this debate feels awfully familiar. It was not many years ago that film critic Roger Ebert’s declaration that games could not be art sent hordes of inadequately bearded man-children off to read their Croce and Collingwood. I’m not convinced that Ebert knew what he was talking about, but there was at least one thing he was right about: it’s not clear that there’s anything to be gained by hitching games to the category “art.”

We can tie ourselves in aesthetic knots trying to decide just where the boundary of art versus non-art can be found, but eventually we have to decide whether this is a worthwhile endeavour. Clearly games are a cultural phenomenon of some sort, and if they are going to be taken seriously by anyone it will most likely be cultural studies types – people who are not especially concerned with what is and isn’t art.

Old-fashioned aestheticians are not just unlikely to take games seriously, they have an aesthetic framework that is of no use to people interested in analyzing video games.

Games have artsy and decidedly non-artsy qualities – the question is which ones to play up. But the definition of “art” has never been more fraught with problems than it is right now, and demanding that games be taken seriously as art would be trading a lifetime of aesthetic headaches for a little temporary prestige among people whose opinions don’t matter.

To bring the topic back to sports, the question of whether the UBC eSports Association should be considered an official UBC Thunderbirds team is a complicated one. The club and the university will have to determine whether their respective interests are in fact served by such a union. But this is a question of practicality and strategy. There is no logically necessary answer.

Games are not art. Games are not sports. Games are games. They’re their own thing, and all this arguing over what else they might be betrays a secret anxiety as to whether they’re a pursuit worth spending time on. Private inferiority complexes don’t make a good foundation for aesthetic debates.

If games as games are going to be taken seriously, then serious gamers are going to have to stop having these discussions and focus instead on doing what they do as well as possible.