Should eSports be considered as sports?

video game arena

eSports have emerged as a professional activity attracting plenty of funding and audience.  As an example, the League of Legends World Championship, an annual professional League of Legends world championship tournament, offers a US$1 million championship prize and its 2017 final series were watched by 60 million people. In comparison, game 5 of the 2017 NBA finals series, the most watched NBA Finals series since 1998, had a total live audience of 25 million viewers (ESPN). Researchers estimate that for the current year total eSports revenues will reach $906 million and have an aggregate audience of 380 million people.

Despite their growing popularity, the legitimacy of eSports as a sports competition remains in question. Some academics agree that they satisfy the components that characterize traditional sport. Moreover, they have been featured alongside traditional sports in multinational events, and the International Olympic Committee has explored incorporating them into future Olympic events. Yet the official recognition of eSports as a sport remains pending.

In their Barcelona GSE Working Paper 1059, eSports: Profile of Participants, Complementarity with Sports and its Perception as Sport. Evidence from Sports Video Games,” Jaume Garcia-Villar and Carles Murillo explore the growing industry of eSports with an econometric analysis using the Survey on Sports Habits in Spain (2015), which is produced by the National Sports Council and the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. For the first time this survey includes a question related to playing videogames, which allows the author to perform the analysis on eSports using that variable as a proxy.

First, Garcia-Villar and Murillo extend the previous descriptive analyses of the profile of eSports participants by using econometric models controlling for the correlation among potential covariates to be used to characterize this profile and distinguish between participation and the intensity of participation. Secondly, they make a first approximation to the issue of the degree of complementarity or substitutability between eSports and traditional sports. Lastly, they provide new evidence about eSports as sport, not in terms of an official or a definitional recognition, but in terms of whether people recognize eSports as a sport activity.

Profile of participants in eSports

To characterize the profile of participation in playing eSports and the intensity of participation, Garcia-Villar and Murillo estimate a two-part model where both participation and intensity variables are modeled separately. This econometric model allows to measure the effect of specific variables on decision to participate or not, separately of their effect on intensity of participation. The authors quantify the model separately for both males and females. The first result is that both age and education have a negative effect on both the participation and intensity of interest in videogames. Interestingly, in the case of males, education has a different effect on participation than on intensity. In terms of intensity, education has a negative effect while for females has an inverted U-shape. Those with either the lowest or highest educational level have a smaller intensity. The labor status seems to have a quite heterogeneous effect on the profile of videogames players. Finally, the probability of participation and the intensity are lower in small municipalities.

Complementarity between eSports and traditional sports activities

Garcia-Villar and Murillo assess to what extent eSports can be considered as a complementary or a substitutive for traditional sports. To do so, they provide means and correlations between participation and intensity of interest in videogames and interest in traditional sports. Moreover, they use a two-part model as in the previous section but adding interest in each particular traditional sport. The main result is that traditional sports activities affect positively both on participation and intensity in playing videogames. Thus, eSports can be considered as a complementary activity with respect to traditional sports.

Perception of eSports as a sport

One of the open questions in the eSport industry is whether this activity is considered as a sport or not by the overall population. Using regression models estimated by OLS, Garcia-Villar and Murillo evaluate how interests in different activities associated to sport affect the overall interest in sports. They find that interest in practicing sports seem to matter more for videogamers and especially for the younger generations. The other conclusion is that young people take into account eSports when showing interest in sports in general and this is expected to consolidate in the coming years for the whole population.

eSports are a growing industry, and the analysis by Garcia-Villar and Murillo provides important lessons for the field. First, the information they provide about the participation in eSports could be used by firms in order to define marketing and brand investment strategies. Secondly, the estimated complementarity between eSports and traditional sports should influence how the actual stakeholders in traditional sports define future strategies to favor the growth of both industries. Finally, the fact that eSports is increasingly perceived as a sport should have an influence in the collection of data on sport habits and in the way these activities are regulated in the organization of multi-sport events, like the Olympic Games.

Photo source: Lol Esports