The Difference Between a Game and a Sport

Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Late last year, a University of Kansas professor discovered what is likely the only audio recording of Dr. James Naismith, basketball’s proprietary designer. The interview was conducted in New York on January 31st, 1939, and Naismith was asked about the genesis of what is now one of the most popular sports in the world:

“It was in the winter of 1891, when I was physical instructor for Springfield College in Massachusetts. We had a real New England blizzard. For days, the students couldn’t go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet . . . One day, I had an idea. I called the boys to the gym, and divided them up into teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball. I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began.”

One look a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena — home court for the Cleveland Cavaliers, reigning champs of the National Basketball Association — makes it easy to forget that basketball began as nothing more than a Canadian P.E. teacher’s invention. Boiled down to its basics, the sport is just two opposing teams and a map with strict dimensions, but at some point, whether it was Russell & Wilt or Magic & Bird that cracked the ceiling to its constitutive evolution, a simple P.E. game became basketball. Its reputation elevated until it lost its inherent lightness and ‘professional play’ became necessary to withhold its rapidly increasing sense of seriousness. It would be misleading to say Dr. Naismith created a sport. He did not. He designed a game to placate young East-Coast male aggression, yet over time its gameplay became so sharp its ancestor would have found it uncanny. So how did a game become a sport?

League of Legends

In 2009 Riot Games released League of Legends, and in a few years it became the most played video game in the world. It has transcended the industry’s home-consumer model, and is now the face of a genre coined “eSports.” The term has come to symbolize competitive video games that are somewhat confusing in a constitutive sense. They are obviously video games, unplayable without an electronic display and human input, but they also intersect with a lot of the same skills demanded by traditional sports: quick reflexes, physical dexterity, macro strategy, etc.

Sport — noun
: a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other
(as defined by the Merriam-Webster English dictionary)

“certain physical activities”

We have two lenses with which to examine the “people that do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules.” The first is in-game. It is the most presentable, and often the most immediately impressive. In an essay titled “The Heresy of Zone Defense” Dave Hickey touches on the most iconic play of legendary basketball player Dr. J’s storied career:

“Just the celestial athleticism of it is stunning, but the tenacity and purposefulness of it, the fluid stream of instantaneous micro-decisions that go into [Julius] Erving’s completing it… Well, it just breaks your heart. It’s everything you want to do by way of finishing under pressure, beyond the point of no return, faced with adversity, and I am still amazed when I think of it.”

The textural quality of that layup — the heartbreaking sense that you just witnessed someone do the impossible — is essential to defining an athlete. But do those moments have to be physically astonishing in the traditional sense? In the 2013 North American League Championship Series, CLG player Doublelift made a play that is, on some levels, as surreal for the average person as Dr. J’s famous up-and-under layup was. Doublelift managed to “kite” the attacks of four opposing players, dodging shots like a weaving prize fighter, and scored a clean ace in a position that should have spelled his obvious doom. He did not, however, have to jump very high or even break a sweat. Its intellectual prowess is easy to argue for; Doublelift had to perform very quick, subconscious calculations about where he could position his in-game avatar without being slain. But there remains disagreement on how much physicality a competitive contest needs to be considered a sport. While physical prowess is not featured in eSports, there are actual measurables: aim, reaction time, tiny fast-twitch movements. That might not seem like enough to call someone an elite athlete, but it’s worth wondering if our ideas of peak athleticism are influenced by the sports we watch, and not the other way around. Would Dr. J have been considered superhuman if Golf was the most popular sport in the world? Maybe. Would Doublelift be an elite athlete if we all agreed League of Legends is a sport? Without a doubt.


“a specific set of rules”

Our second lens with which we can examine and define an athlete is their practice habits, a lifestyle state totally primed to optimize performance. We seem to agree that to be an athlete you must implement a training regimen that regular persons would find unreasonable. Compare these two statements, one from a basketball player, the other from an eSports athlete.

1: “We just want to get better, and the only way of actually getting better is becoming more competitive . . . there’s no option for silliness, it’s 100 percent.”
2: “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through s — .”

The first selection is from an unnamed DOTA player in a study on eSports athletes published by ScienceDirect. The second quote? Kobe Bryant talking about Shaquille O’Neal. The gravitas hanging over both statements is identical. Kobe muses at the fallacy of being an inconsistent athlete; for him, it doesn’t exist. He preaches the doctrine of playing a simple game very seriously as the distinguishing factor between “gaming” and “athletics.” There are no breaks, only rest geared towards work. The aspiring DOTA player, on the other side, is learning the same concept. They’re not playing. They’re training.

A very corny Under Armour commercial starring quarterback Tom Brady.

Every sport has a different set of rules, but the law that athletes must train or they are not athletes is the unifying rule for all sports. It defines them. It is the wide-reaching magnetic force that snaps Tennis together with Baseball, but repels Roger Federer from the sweaty guy with the $40 Wilson racket at the YMCA.

Twitch.tv & TNT

UFC Flyweight Champion & part-time video game streamer Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson

What about the spectators? The Merriam-Webster definition skimps on them entirely, but they’re a vital strand in the DNA of sports. Game 2 of last season’s NBA Finals matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors drew in a record 18.8 million unique viewers, per NBA.com’s official report. Last year’s League of Legends World Championship matchup between SKT and the Koo Tiger’s drew in a high of 14 million unique viewers, according to lolesports.com’s official report. Without an arena a match is reduced to a closed-door competition, and a closed-door competition is not a sport. We need divisions, championships, TNT, Twitch tv, series breakdowns, and fantasy leagues. Without spectators, basketball might not have made it past Dr. Naismith’s gym class.

While a sport does not require a certain number of eyes, it does necessitate a specific mode of consumption. In 1958, anthropologist Clifford Geertz embedded himself in Bali, and came away with an examination of Balinese cockfighting culture (which is not really a sport, but is for sport):

“As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”

While athletes are not Balinese chickens, they both share a similar relationship with their respective audiences insofar as their deification. Sports, in essence, require not just watchers but fanatics to make lions (or cocks) of men. Geertz took note of this too:

“What sets the cockfight apart from the ordinary course of life, lifts it from the realm of everyday practical affairs, and surrounds it with an aura of enlarged importance is not, as functionalist sociology would have it, that it reinforces status discriminations, but that it provides a metasocial commentary upon the whole matter of assorting human beings into fixed hierarchical ranks and then organizing the major part of collective existence around that assortment.”

There are NBA fans that have gotten into actual fistfights over petty, meaningless disputes (“Kevin Durant is a traitor!” vs “Kevin Durant exercised his right as a free agent!”), and there are contentious League of Legends forums in which fans debate eerily similar topics (the League of Legends subreddit hosts these on a daily basis). On the other hand, there are gamers that are vocal about their own preferences (“Skyrim over Bioshock!”), but there seems to be a key difference. Sports fans are fanatical about human beings playing games; the game is secondary. Gamers are fanatical about the game itself. The two can overlap, but they are distinctive.

OKC fans burning Kevin Durant’s jersey after he left the team in free agency.

Does it really matter what we call them?

The semantics here have a real influence on the future of eSports. Graeme Kirkpatrick, in his paper “Constitutive Tensions of Gaming’s Field: UK gaming magazines and the formation of gaming culture 1981–1995,” references a reflection of Pierre Bourdeiu on such implications:

“According to Bourdieu, art has an illusio at its core: the activities of appraising, esteeming and valuing artworks are essential pre-requisites for the existence of things like artworks. That we engage in those activities is what explains the appeal of the artwork. There seems to be a hint of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ about this but actually it is a way of giving social substance and ‘reality’ to art and its effects: the illusio gains weight because art’s objects are entangled in social structures that are consequential. We recognize art and its value because we have learned to do so but we give it its social status and confer values on it by living out what we have learned.”

When NBA analyst and former player Kenny “The Jet” Smith laments on Inside the NBA that he doesn’t know if he can call eSports a sport, it signifies a bittersweet landmark for eSports’ legitimacy. On one hand, they’re being discussed at the same table as basketball, an achievement unto itself. On the other hand, they’re still being dismissed at that same table, and a denial of eSports by the constitutive conglomerate of sports discourse means it must find a home on its own. It cannot be featured on ESPN, SportsCenter, the last page of the LA Times, or any of the infrastructure already set in place for “sports.” While ESPN has recently invested into an eSports section, with a full staff and a plethora of content, it remains under “Little League World Series” in a dropdown menu on the home page navigation. Considering the peach-basket beginnings of one of the sports featured front and center on ESPN, it’s only a matter of time before eSports is accepted into the big picture. However, until further notice, it continues to sport its modifier — an unhyphenated “e” segregating the court from the Rift.