A Philosopher's Blog

Are E-Athletes Really Athletes?

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on December 1, 2014

While professional video game competitions have been around for some time, it is only fairly recently that competitive gamers have been dubbed as “e-athletes.” Some colleges now offer athletic scholarships to e-athletes and field sports teams that compete in games like the infamous League of Legends. As with some other college sports, these e-athletes can go pro and earn large paychecks for playing video games competitively.

While regarding video games as sports and gamers as e-athletes can be seen as harmless, there are some grounds for believing that these designations are not accurate. Intuitively, playing a video game, even competitively, is not a sport and working a keyboard or controller (even very well) does not seem to very athletic. Since I am both an athlete (college varsity in track and cross country and I still compete in races) and a gamer (I started with Pong and I currently play Destiny) I have some insight into this matter.

Before properly starting the game, there is the question of why this matter is even worth considering. After all, why should anyone care whether e-athletes are considered athletes or not? Why would it matter whether video game competitions are sports or not. One reason (which might not be a good one) is a matter of pride. Athletes often tend to regard being athletes as a point of pride and see it as being an accomplishment that sets them apart from others in this area. As such, they tend to be concerned about what counts as being an athlete. This is, some would say, supposed to be an earned title and not one to be appropriated by just anyone.

To use an obvious analogy, consider the matter of being a musician. Like athletes, musicians often take pride in being set apart from others on the basis of their defining activity. It matters to them who is and is not considered a musician. Sticking with the analogy, to many athletes the idea that a video gamer who plays League of Legends or Starcraft is an athlete would be comparable to saying to a musician that someone who plays Rock Band or Guitar Hero is a musician just like them.

Naturally it could be argued that this is all just a matter of vanity and that such distinctions have no real significance. If e-athletes want to think of themselves in the same category as Jessie Owens or if people who play music video games want to think they keep company with Hendrix or Clapton, then so be it.

While that sort of egalitarianism has a certain appeal, there is also the matter of the usefulness of categories. On the face of it, the category of athlete does seem to be a useful and meaningful category, just as the category of musician also seems useful and meaningful. As such, it seems worth maintaining some distinctions in regards to these classifications.

Turning back to the matter of whether or not e-athletes are athletes, the obvious point of concern is determining the conditions under which a person is (and is not) an athlete. This will, I believe, prove to be far trickier to sort out than it would first appear.

One obvious starting point is the matter of competition. Athletes typically compete and competitive video games obviously involve competition. However, being involved in competition does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for being an athlete. After all, there are many competitions (such as spelling bees and art shows) that are not athletic in nature. Also, there are people who clearly seem to be athletes who do not compete. For example, I have known and know many runners who do not compete in races, although they run many miles. There are also people who practice martial arts, bike, swim and so on and never compete. However, they seem to be athletes. As such, this factor does not settle the matter. However, the discussion does seem to indicate that being an athlete is a physical sort of thing, which does raise another factor.

When distinguishing an athlete from, for example, a mathlete or chess player, the key difference seems to lie in the nature of the activity. Athletics is primarily physical in nature (although the mental is very significant) while being something like a mathlete or chess player is primarily mental. This seems to suggest a legitimate ground of distinction, though this must be discussed further.

Those who claim that video gaming is a sport and that e-athletes are athletes tend to focus on the similarities between sports and video games. One similarity is that both require certain skills and abilities.

Competitive video gaming clearly requires physical skills and abilities. Gamers need good reflexes, the ability to make tactical or strategic judgments and so on. These are skills that are also possessed by paradigm cases of athletes, such as tennis players and baseball players. However, they are also skills and abilities that are possessed by non-athletes. For example, these skills are used by people who drive, pilot planes, and operate heavy machinery. Intuitively, I am not an athlete because I am able to drive my truck competently, so being able to play Destiny competently should not qualify me as an athlete.

Specifying the exact difference is rather difficult, but a reasonable suggestion is that in the case of athletics the application of skill involves a more substantial aspect of the physical body than does driving a car or playing a video game. A nice illustration of this is comparing a tennis video game with the real thing. The tennis video game requires many of the reflex skills of real tennis, but a key difference is that in the real tennis the player is fully engaged in body rather than merely pushing buttons. That is, the real tennis player has to run, swing, backpedal and so on for real. The video game player has all this done for her at the push of a button. This seems to be an important difference.

To use an analogy, consider the difference between a person who creates a drawing from a photo and someone who merely uses a Photoshop filter to transform a photo into what looks like a drawing. One person is acting as an artist; the other is just pushing a button.

It might be objected that it is the skill that makes video gamers athletes. In reply, operating complex industrial equipment, programming a computer or other such things also require skills, but I would not call a programmer an athlete. Nor would I call a surgeon an athlete, despite the skill required and the challenges she faces trying to save lives.

Sticking with gaming, playing a board game like Star Fleet Battles or classic tabletop war games also requires skills and involves competition. Some games even require fast reflexes. However, when I am pushing a plastic Federation heavy cruiser around a map and rolling dice to hit Klingon D7 battle cruisers with imaginary photon torpedoes, it seems rather evident that this does not make me an athlete. Even if I am really good at it and I am competing in a tournament. Likewise, if I am pushing around a virtual warrior in a video game competition, I am not an athlete because of this. I’m a gamer.

This is not to look down on gaming—after all, I am a gamer and I take my gaming almost as seriously as I do my running. Rather, it is just to argue what seems obvious: video gaming is not an athletic activity and video gamers are not athletes. They are gamers and there seems to be no reason to come up with a new category, that of e-athlete. I do not, however, have any issue with people getting scholarships for being college gamers. I would have loved to have received a D&D or Call of Cthulhu scholarship when I went to college. I’d have worn my letter jacket with pride, too.

 

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10 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on December 1, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Isn’t calling them “e-athletes” already distinguishing them from “athletes”?

    Is there anybody who actually claims video gamers are true athletes? Or is even calling them “e-athletes” going too far?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

      True, that could be enough.

      Actually, yes. As I mentioned, some schools offer them athletic scholarships and the teams are under the auspices of the athletic department.

      • T. J. Babson said, on December 1, 2014 at 12:49 pm

        “Melcher is associate athletic director at Robert Morris University, a Chicago-based university that gives out 1,400 athletic and activity scholarships across its 10 Illinois campuses as a way of recruiting and retaining students.”

        Technically they are “athletic and activity” scholarships.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 3, 2014 at 12:22 pm

          They should replace the “and” with “or” otherwise the scholarship would be both athletic and activity.🙂

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 1, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    This reminds me of the on-going controversy within the mountain biking community over e-bikes, and whether or not they should be allowed on (non-motorized vehicles only) multi-use trails.

    It would seem to go without saying that, since e-bikes have electric motors, they should be considered motorized, and not allowed on trails that prohibit motorized vehicles.

    But this is not the case. The e-bike enthusiasts, mountain biking magazines, manufacturers, and even mountain bike riders are saying they should be allowed on the trails… although many (most) riders are crying foul, including me.

    It seems obvious, to me, that an e-bicycle is not a bicycle… and that, at best, it is a motorized bicycle.

    It’s the same with the e-athlete: they are not athletes, they are something else, like gamers.

    I’m afraid our society gave up on the meanings of words long ago; hence the confusion regarding many things, including, abortion, marriage, athletes, and mountain bikes.

    Words today mean only what powerful groups of people want them to mean. Whoever has the most power determines the meaning.

    Logic, common sense, and traditional meanings be damned.

    The dictionary — and appeals to it — are worthless.

    We’re entering a new world, which should be obvious, when schools are giving athletic scholarships to gamers.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 3, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      On the one hand, I’d agree. An e-bike is a powered vehicle and hence should not be allowed in bike areas limited to non-powered vehicles. On the other hand, some versions just provide an assist to the person pedaling and they present no more hazards to others than a normal bike. These sorts of bikes allow people who have reduced ability to still bike (in a way). So I’d be fine with allowing them. But, folks just zipping along on electric bikes could be a problem.

      Also, as you note, there are the purists who regard a powered bike as not being a proper bicycle.

      • ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm

        A lot of people say they’re okay with e-bikes if and when they’re used by people who have, as you say: reduced abilities. My response to these people is to ask them this question: When are we going to level and pave the Appalachian Trail so as to make it accessible to everyone? My point being that not all people will be able to enjoy all physical activities, and we shouldn’t dumb down activities for people who otherwise can’t engage in them. They can find something else to do. Imagine people who can’t run being allowed to wear electric roller skates in marathons?😛

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 6, 2014 at 7:04 pm

          I agree with you about the trail and the marathons, although I am fine with people racing in wheelchairs (assuming they cannot use their legs).

          But, I’m fine with people using the e-bikes in bike lanes, provided that the bikes just provide assistance and are not in the scooter/moped range. Those vehicles have to be in the actual road.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on December 1, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    They are “activity” scholarships, guys, and there is nothing new here. Don’t be fooled by the headline.


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