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Is there real sport in esports?

We hear more and more often that esports are expanding globally, a growing number of countries around the world recognize or, at least, look at esports as a real sport, and there have even been prior discussions about including esports in the Asian Games in 2022. In addition, in order to increase the credibility, legitimacy and prestige of esports, a new international esports federation, apart from IESF, was incorporated in the winter of 2019, namely the Global Esports Federation, based in Singapore. Currently, a national FIFA team already exists in Romania, recognized by the Romanian Football Federation.

But what are esports?

It appears that there is no unanimously accepted idea of what the concept of esports represents. That is why it continues to oscillate between a simple video gaming activity and a traditional sport. Essentially, e-sports can be regarded as a form of sports competition through video games. If initially there was no distinction among video game players, at the moment, those who practice esports are mainly professional players (esportsmen or Pro-Gamers), whose activity is similar in several respects to that of an athlete.

Who are the professional players?

In order to be part of the Pro-Gamers category, those who practice esports must possess both an important set of physical qualities, such as reaction speed, coordination, dexterity, endurance, and mental qualities, for example, a good understanding of the game, the ability to create a tactic in a short period of time and the ability to anticipate. Just like a professional sports player, a Pro-Gamer can have a personal trainer with whom he/she can train up to 12 hours of training per day, often under the supervision of a physiotherapist. In addition, special attention is placed on a healthy diet and physical fitness for professional esports players. Such players are usually organized into teams, they participate in tournaments, competitions and contests, being watched by fans through dedicated media channels or platforms or live before spectators in auditoriums and venues.

Professional players conclude agreements based on which they carry out their activity, in general for determined periods of time (e.g. for the purpose of participating in a certain tournament), agreements that are designed to establish the working conditions and obligations of the players (e.g. the number of working hours, the salary, the percentage of prizes amount belonging to the organization if the team to which the player belongs wins a tournament). There is no uniform regulation regarding the obligation to conclude such an agreement, given that esports are not yet themselves fully regulated.

What is sport?

Physical education and sport represent “all forms of physical activity meant, through organized or independent participation, to express or improve physical condition and spiritual comfort, to establish civilized social relations and to lead to results in competitions of any level”, pursuant to the provisions of Law on physical education and sport no. 69/2000 (“Law no. 69/2000“). According to the scope of application of the law, the essential feature of the sport is the physical activity carried out. But how much of activity does physical activity mean? What is too little to be considered a physical activity?

» esports vs chess

Esports are not currently among the list of recognized national sports and are not included in any educational plan or school program. But the same thing cannot be said about chess which, for example, is subject to Law no. 69/2000, being considered the sport of the mind. Chess is based on the player’s mental abilities, his physical activity being substantially reduced compared to any of the other recognized sports. Given that chess is indeed recognized as a sport, it is automatically considered a physical activity, according to the legal provisions. Considering that an esports player normally employs as little physical activity as a chess player does, during a tournament, why would both activities not be considered to meet the criteria provided by law in order to be included within the category of sports?

» esports vs football

Football is without a doubt a recognized sport not only at the national level. But should it be analyzed whether this a consequence of the physical activity carried out by the football players exclusively during a competition or does it also matter in this particular context the continuous training and development of such athletes throughout the period preceding a certain competition? Physical training, for example, is an integral part of every sportsmen’s life, being even a necessary condition in order to be able to participate in any kind of sports competitions. At the same time, professional esports players undergo similar training to (not only) football players, in order to participate in gaming tournaments. Thus, it appears that the difference between the two types of players is mostly reflected in the way they actually perform their activity (and whether they make a physical effort or not) during a competition, and not in the physical activity that these players carry out outside the actual competition. In this situation, can we assume it is enough that an esports player employs less physical effort during a tournament than a football player, in order to conclude that esports do not represent a physical activity and therefore are not a real sport, according to the provisions of Law no. 69/2000?

Legal framework

Given the similarities between the activity of an esports – person and that of an athlete (e.g. football player, chess player), applying the same legal provisions to both types of activities could be, in certain situations, considered a natural consequence.

For example, as regards the anti-doping regulations, in esports, ESL has introduced a couple of years ago a list of substances that Pro-Gamers are prohibited from using, considering mainly the high amount of Adderall consumption among these players. Most leagues do not fully prohibit, or test players for, Adderall or similar substances. Although anti-doping rules in esports are still being developed, compared to those already applicable in sports, esportsmen who are being caught within a tournament under the influence of drugs, alcohol or other performance enhancers may be sanctioned by the prohibition to participate in future competitions, thus the effect being similar to that applicable to athletes.

Also, it is no longer a surprise that non-endemic brands (e.g. Nike, Coca-Cola) are entering more and more into the esports environment. Brands are looking at esports players as real athletes, due to their popularity and ability to influence audiences, due to activities, program, behaviour and the fact that they are more and more aware of what they eat, drink and how they train. If an esports player partners with a brand or becomes a brand itself, then the protection against reputational damage for business advertisers, sponsors and player could apply similarly to the situation of an athlete.

Conclusion

Currently, there is no clear set of rules in Romania regarding the inclusion of esports in the category of traditional sports, regardless of the similarities between both types of activities. Consequently, in the absence of such classification, it may be a real challenge to accurately apply the legal provisions in any situation we come across esports. At the moment, it only remains to be seen whether esports will be recognized, assimilated or at least regarded as real sports and not as mere video games activities and whether professional players will be subject to similar legal provisions as athletes.

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