Authors: Daniel Kane, Brandon D. Spradley

Affiliations: United States Sports Academy

Corresponding Author:
Daniel Kane

Daniel Kane is a doctoral student at the United States Sports Academy pursuing his degree in sports management.

The commentary is a theoretical framework that builds on the concept that eSports should be considered a sport. The first part of the paper analyzes the definition of a sport and determines that competitive video games should apply to the meaning. The second part of the paper discusses how eSports should be recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In addition, the application of Title IX is applied to have eSports listed as an emerging sport for women.

Keywords: eSports, NCAA, Title IX, video games

Recognizing ESports as a Sport
Sitting in front of a computer and playing video games is not the image that comes to mind when a person thinks of an athlete. Instead, an image of someone who may not be physically fit and lacks athletic abilities is usually the stereotype that is associated. In some cases, people would refer to a gamer as a nerd or associate it with nerd culture (Kendall, 2011). The term gamer can be used to classify many different types of people. The most popular classification are people that play board games, collectible card games, and video games. For the purpose of this paper, the term gamer will be used to describe individuals that participate in competitive video gaming. With the advance of technology, competitive video gamers are starting to demonstrate the same athletic properties as traditional sports athlete. The concept of video games has also changed. Instead of playing video games recreationally, people are starting to play video games competitively in tournaments that closely resemble sports competition. This review paper will attempt to build the theoretical framework that eSports should be considered a sport and be recognized by The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

ESports Is a Sport
The first video game competition can be traced back to October 19, 1972, at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in which about two dozen students competed playing Spacewar (Li, 2016). One of the first recognized competitive tournaments in video games was when Atari held a multi-city competition that offered 10,000 participants a chance to become a world champion in Space Invaders (“Players Guide”, 1982). Since then the way video games have been played has changed. The evolution of eSports is now known as competitive video gaming (Li, 2016). For the purpose of this review paper, eSports will be a general term that includes all the various eSports leagues from around the world. Each league could be compared to a different sports league that plays the same sport such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Bellator and Invicta Fighting Championship. The various eSports leagues have different rules, play different games, rank professionals differently and host tournaments and competitions. The consistent aspect throughout the leagues is that the competitors play video games and the athletes that win matches consistently could progress to a professional level.

One of the biggest debates concerning eSports is whether competitive video gaming can be defined as a sport. The definition of sport has been attempted many times, and a universal definition has not been determined (Perks, 1999). Rather than a definitive academic definition, people refer to the Oxford English Dictionary (n.d.) definition, “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment” (para. 1). The definition of sport needs to be discussed to ensure that eSports can be defined as a sport.

The first term to analyze is physical exertion. Aadahl, Kjaer, and Jørgensen (2007) state that absolute intensity can be used to determine the intensity of exercise, by analyzing the multiple of an individual’s basal metabolic rate (MET). Since the MET could be used to determine exertion, a connection could be made via how the MET is affected when playing video games. Additionally, the oxygen levels (VO2) can be used; a moderate physical activity would have a 40%-60% VO2 reserve and/or 4-6 MET’s (Stroud, Amonette, & Dupler, 2010). In a study performed by Bronner, Pinsker, and Noah, (2013) male and female participants MET’s raised between 4-9 while participating in video games that involved dancing. Stroud et al., (2010) was able to get their participants VO2 and MET at a low to moderate activity level by standing and shaking Nintendo Wii controllers while playing Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. This shows physical exertion being demonstrated during the playing of video games.

Multiple links can be observed between physical exertion and video games. Modesti, et al., (1994) conducted a study that showed the basal blood pressure is raised while playing a video game. Also, physical exertion could also be considered perceived exertion. Two ways to measure perceived exertion is using the 15-point Borg Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) or the 10-point Borg category ratio (CR10) (Borg, 1998). Using RPE and CR10, a participant looks at the scale and determines how strenuous the activity feels. Heart rate can also be used to gauge perceived exertion, as the RPE scale is structured from 6-20 to represent heart rates. During video game competitions and training, many eSports athletes exhibited signs that could be considered physical exertion to keep up with the routine of being a professional video gamer (Li, 2016; Rodriguez, et al., 2016).

The second part of the definition to analyze is skill. To become a professional gamer, a player must learn different skills and techniques to get better. Researchers have used video games as a way to understand how a person develops skills (Boot, Sumner, Towne, Rodriguez, & Ericsson, 2016). Green and Bavelier (2015) conducted a study that showed people learn skills from playing action video games. Bavelier, Green, Pouget, and Schrater, (2012) conclude that not one skill but many skills are obtained playing action video games. In competitive gaming, the skilled players dominate people that play for fun (Li, 2016). In eSports, there is a clear divide in win – loss record between players that are considered professionals and those that are not.

The final part of the definition deals with a person or team that competes against another person or team for entertainment. Playing video games as a hobby has evolved into competitions and tournaments with cash prizes. Depending on the game being played, a person can enter a contest solo in the cases of fighting games such as Street Fighter, or join with a team, playing games such as Counter-Strike or League of Legends. ESports are broadcasted on ESPN in the United States and various networks around the world. Special eSports arenas have been constructed to host the events.

Countries have begun to recognize professional gamers as athletes. In the United States, professional gamers can obtain P-1 visas, which are given to athletes (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, n.d.). In 2013, professional gamer Danny “Shiphtur” Le was the first to receive a P-1 visa for eSports (Dave, 2013). In South Korea, the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) is recognized by the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KeSPA, n.d.). KeSPA regulates athlete’s amateur and professional status (Li, 2016). The recognition of professional gamers grew in South Korea that the South Korean Air Force had an eSports team when professional gamers had to do mandatory military service (Li, 2016). Using the examples provided, eSports should be recognized as a sport.

ESports in the NCAA
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a member-based organization that has set the standard for college athletics in the United States (Masteralexis, Barr, & Hums, 2015). In 1989, a poll was administered in the United States that discovered 78% of Americans thought college sports was out of control (Masteralexis, Barr, & Hums, 2015). Since then, the NCAA has become the recognized authority over collegiate athletics. The NCAA has 1,121 college members with nearly half a million college athletes, competing in 24 sports among three divisions (The National Collegiate Athletic Association, n.d.). For eSports to be taken seriously as a sport at the collegiate level, the NCAA will need to recognize eSports as a sport. For that to happen, the sport must go through an extensive review process.

NCAA Definition of Sport
The first step for eSports to become recognized as a collegiate sport is to meet the NCAA’s definition of sport. The NCAA (n.d.) has a similar definition in the Oxford English Dictionary but expands on the sport being played at the collegiate level. Definition of a sport: For purposes of reviewing proposals, a sport shall be defined as an institutional activity involving physical exertion with the purpose of competition versus other teams or individuals within a collegiate competition structure. Furthermore, a sport includes regularly scheduled team and/or individual, head-to-head competition (at least five) within the competitive season(s); and standardized rules with rating/scoring systems ratified by official regulatory agencies and governing bodies. (para. 6)

As discussed earlier, eSports falls into the definition of a sport and is already being recognized and organized by several college campuses (Wingfield, 2014). ESports also has an advantage to being acknowledged as a collegiate sport, since no defined gender is required to play competitive video games. Women and men can play together without an imbalance being created by gender differences. Since women can start a women-only team or participate with men, the recognition of eSports in the NCAA could fall under the emerging sports for women list.

Emerging Sports for Women
A common misconception is that video games are just for men. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 48% of women play video games in the United States (Duggan, 2015). The Entertainment Software Association (2016) has discovered, women over the age of 18 represent a larger portion of the gaming community than boys 18 years and under in age. The number of women that are playing video games continues to rise, according to Newzoo, female gamers increased 70% from 2011-2014, 18 million to 30.3 million (Harwell, 2014). There is a lack of data to account for the number of women that are currently participating in eSports, but women are starting to make an impact on the sport. Intel has begun to sponsor and nurture female only competitive teams in hopes to raise the number of female competitors (Buck, 2015).

With women creating female-only teams or being able to play with men in eSports, the ability for the NCAA to recognize eSports could fall under Title IX. The creation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C §§ 1681 et seq., was enacted to end discrimination on the basis of gender (Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 1972). The original text was vague and made it difficult to decipher what sports would be covered under the original amendment. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) which oversees Title IX released a letter in 2008 that helps try to define how a sport will be recognized under Title IX (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008). OCR’s definition will help determine if eSports should be covered by Title IX.

To determine eSports as a Title IX sport, Robert Morris University (RMU) in Chicago, Illinois will be used as a primary example. Although RMU is not a NCAA member, the University is a member of a comparable organization, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and currently has eSports listed as a sport under the athletics department (Robert Morris University, n.d.). RMU treats eSports as a sport and the participants as athletes.

In the letter distributed by OCR, two main categories are reviewed. The first category that OCR uses to make the determination is to analyze the program structure and administration (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008). This review has two parts, the first part is to check “whether the operating budget, support services (including academic, sports medicine and strength and conditioning support) and coaching staff are administered by the athletics department or another entity, and are provided in a manner consistent with established varsity sports” (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008, para. 11). In 2014, Kurt Melcher brought eSports to RMU under the athletic department, with an operating budget that included hiring coaches and building an arena (Ruby, 2004). Initially, to comply with being consistent with varsity sports, 35 scholarships were provided to varsity and junior varsity players (Ruby, 2004).

The second part of the first category requirement questions if participants are recruited and receive scholarships compared to other varsity sports (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008). When the eSports program was just beginning at RMU, the recruitment mimicked other sports. Top amateurs were being contacted as well as the program was being marketed. The university received over 7,000 people who showed interest in joining the team and was able to secure amateurs who turned down going pro to play at RMU (Ruby, 2004). The university now grants around half a million dollars in scholarships for the eSports teams (TEDx Talks, 2016). The program structure and administration of RMU’s eSports closely resembles the structure of other athletic departments.

The second category that needs to be reviewed by OCR is team preparation and condition (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008). This category analyzes four different parts of the team to ensure that the teams are being treated like other sports, and that the sport itself can be compared to other sports. The review will look at eSports in the same way a sport like football will be examined, including the schedule, practices, equipment and competitions.

In the first subsection of category two states, “Whether the practice opportunities (e.g., number, length, and quality) are available in a manner consistent with established varsity sports in the institution’s athletics program” (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008, para. 14). RMU created an eSports arena that cost the athletic budget $100,000 (Ruby, 2004). The arena could be compared to stadiums or arenas that universities build for athletic teams, and the arena is sponsored by iBUYPOWER. The iBUYPOWER eSports arena is different than computer labs found on other campuses. At some colleges, computer labs are created using student association fees which allow any student at the university to use the computers. The eSports arena is only for eSports athletes to be used for practice and competitions (TEDx Talks, 2016). Regarding practice, eSports at RMU are operated and scheduled in the same manner as other sports.

The second subsection of category two analyzes regular season competitions compared to other varsity sports. “Whether the regular season competitive opportunities differ quantitatively and/or qualitatively from established varsity sports; whether the team competes against intercollegiate or interscholastic varsity opponents in a manner consistent with established varsity sports” (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008, para. 15). The Collegiate Starleague (CSL) has become an organization that oversees college eSports athletics. Colleges can enroll in the league as either casual or competitive teams. The CSL is compared to the NCAA for eSports, the CSL oversees eight different leagues, has three divisions, sets rules, schedules, rankings and tournaments (Collegiate Starleague, n.d.).

The third subsection of category two raises the question of preseason and postseason compared to varsity sports. The CSL has a structured postseason playoff system and championship. Also, regarding having a championship, CSL tournaments also offer prize amounts for winning that are applied to scholarships. The ability for eSports athletes to win scholarship money would help subsidize the athletes that only receive partial scholarships at his/her college.

The fourth subsection of category two, “Whether the primary purpose of the activity is to provide athletic competition at the intercollegiate or interscholastic varsity levels rather than to support or promote other athletic activities” (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008, para. 21). ESports has an advantage in this category versus other athletic activities. The concept and actions in playing in an eSports league are unique and would be difficult to compare to other athletic activities. The primary purpose of having an eSports team would be to provide the student athletes with the ability to be able to compete at the collegiate level.

A difficulty that eSports would have with gaining Title IX compliance is the first factor under the fourth subsection of category two. “Whether the activity is governed by a specific set of rules of play adopted by a state, national, or conference organization and/or consistent with established varsity sports, which include objective, standardized criteria by which competition must be judged (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2008, para. 23). As previously mentioned, eSports is currently compared to the organizational structure of mixed martial arts (MMA) as there are many different professional leagues. Although the CSL is considered the main collegiate league, universities can still participate in eSports tournaments ran by other organizations. By participating in other leagues and not having membership to only one would alter how varsity sports currently structure their competitions. Once eSports would be deemed different from varsity sports, the sport would not be in compliance with Title IX.

To ensure that eSports are recognized under Title IX the sport needs a national governing body. The NCAA created the Gender Equity Task Force that will oversee a sports compliance with Title IX and help gain Division 1 recognition (Stafford, 2004). The Gender Equity Task Force helped create the emerging sports for women in the NCAA. For a sport to be determined as an emerging sport, the NCAA definition of sport is used with the addition that female-student-athletes will have additional opportunities (The National Collegiate Athletic Association, n.d.).

Since eSports provides females with a fair opportunity to compete against men on teams that are only female or mixed, the sport should be listed as an emerging sport. During the review process, the sport will be listed on the emerging sports for women’s list. The sport then has ten years to gain championship status at a minimum of 40 NCAA universities or continue to show growth towards that goal (The National Collegiate Athletic Association, n.d.). The benefit of being on the emerging sports list is universities can count eSports towards their Title IX compliance regarding how many female sports they offer.

Benefits of Having ESports in the NCAA
There are numerous advantages for the NCAA recognizing and becoming the national governing body of eSports at the collegiate level. The first is the discussion listed above that eSports would provide an additional female sport for universities and help the university stay in Title IX compliance. Universities can sometimes find it difficult to remain in compliance based on the Title IX proportional requirement since the number of teams needs to be proportionate to the number of students based on gender (Yuracko, 2002). With women being able to form female-only teams or play on a team with men, the opportunities to increase female participation in sports could expand.

Universities can also benefit from the cost of starting up an eSports team compared to other collegiate sports. The iBUYPOWER arena cost RMU $100,000 to start up (Ruby, 2004). The amount included renovations to the location and all of the equipment. The average college football stadium construction requires around $400 million in capital investments (Maxcy & Larson, 2015). The University of Michigan facility expenses cost around $8 million in 2008, for repairs, utilities, supplies and equipment, and other expenses (Rosner & Shropshire, 2011). The operation budget is going to be cheaper than other sports. Once the location is built, the team needs a small budget for jerseys, travel and if repairs will be required in the future. In some cases, travel, may not be necessary since competitions take place online and judges from the event can monitor the computers from a remote satellite location. The operational cost is in contrast to that of traditional sports. NCAA Division 1 baseball teams can cost a university an average of $900,000 and the average Division 1 baseball team loses the university around $700,000 a year (Wolverton, 2009). Also, varsity lacrosse and track average more than $500,000 in losses for a university (Wolverton, 2009).

Another advantage eSports has over varsity sports is the number of viewers that watch eSports and the ability to watch via the internet. In June 2011, started broadcasting video games and created a social platform for gamers on the internet (Twitch, n.d.). The platform has 9.7 million active users, who watch an average of 106 minutes a day, with over 2 million people streaming (Twitch, n.d.). The ability to watch eSports competitions is not limited to having to go to a stadium. People can look at a team compete anywhere in the world. In 2013, 32 million people watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship, that is more viewers than the Major League Baseball World Series (14.9 million), NCAA Basketball Final Four (15.7 million), National Basketball Association Finals Game 7 (26.3 million) and the Bowl Championship Series (26.4 million) (TEDx Talks, 2016). People are not only interested in viewing the competitions online, but also visit arenas and stadiums to observe. The League of Legends World Championship in 2013 sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles in one hour, and in 2014 filled up a former Fédération Internationale de Football Association stadium with 40,000 people (TEDx Talks, 2016).

The benefits of having an eSports team is not limited to saving a university money as a low-cost sport; ESports can generate money for their athletes. As discussed earlier, if the eSports athletes win tournaments in the CSL, that money is applied towards that student’s scholarship. The subsidized money will save the university, as other scholarship money can be allocated to other student athletes. The university also has an ability to gain sponsorship money from the many different companies that do not usually sponsor sports. RMU was able to secure four sponsors when bringing eSports to their university (Ruby, 2004).

The eSports model will also easily fit into the NCAA structure of Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3. Each university can provide different games and structure different teams based on the athlete’s ability level. The CSL already has a divisional system structure amongst the teams and universities that participate. Designation of the various divisional teams will also help control the budget for athlete’s scholarships, following the NCAA’s protocols that are already in place for division scholarship requirements.

This review paper is a theoretical framework that explains why eSports is a sport and why the NCAA should recognize the sport. The topic of eSports has limited academic research, and limited data is available on the subject. Future researchers should consider issues that were discussed in the paper to help build a foundation for additional studies.

The first topic that needs more study is women in eSports. The data is limited as to how many women play competitive video games. One website using public data was able to show that around 364 women have placed in the money in eSports tournaments, with the top female winning around $170,000 (E-sports Earnings, n.d.). By starting to collect data on the number of women playing competitive e-sports, the data could be used to determine future papers on the topic. Women in eSports could create a change in people’s perspective on women and video games.

Another topic to consider is the lack of gender identification needed within the eSports community. Playing video games does not require a specific gender or label to participate. A cultural divide still exists between men and women concerning video games and who should be playing them. The topic could be looked at from various disciplines in hopes to arrive at an equality amongst gamers.

The third topic that requires additional research is the comparison of eSports to MMA as a business. MMA competitions and leagues have been around for years. In the early 1990’s the UFC was able to change their image from street brawls to the leading organization in MMA (Watanabe, 2015). The same concept is happening to eSports currently. The stigma that only nerds play video games is still currently active as well as the many different leagues that have not been able to become the premier organization. Both sports can be compared and contrasted to attempt to answer how eSports can grow like the UFC did within a stigmatized sport.

The fourth topic that could be investigated is the definition of amateur and professional in the e-sports environment. Unlike many traditional sports, age is not a factor when playing competitive video games. The competition structure for eSports compares to the pro-am structure of different sports tournaments. Having amateurs play with professionals allows younger age participants to move up to a professional title at a younger age. The third top-earning male athlete Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan was recruited to a team as a professional at the age of 15 years old (E-sports Earnings, n.d.). A problem will arise when eSports competitors want to participate in collegiate eSports athletics. Currently, the NCAA has set strict rules on amateurism and restrictions on collegiate athletes gaining money from competitions before entering college (Rosner & Shropshire, 2011). ESports has already found a way to allow college students to compete for cash prizes as long as the winnings are applied to scholarships. As for students who already have full scholarships, the money could be used to offset various living costs such as a stipend or larger meal plan.


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