Are esports really sports?

Lots of similarities, but there’s no consensus

OVER LABOR DAY WEEKEND, fans gathered at TD Garden to witness a spectacle unlike any previously hosted at the venue. The stage and venue configuration were similar to what one would find at a professional wrestling match, except that the competitors battled each other at computers instead of in a ring.

An estimated 12,000 people viewed the Sunday finale of the North American League of Legends Championship Series, the culmination of a six-month season of competition between 10 teams. The league usually broadcasts matches online to hundreds of thousands of viewers every week from its home base in Los Angeles, but at the end of every season Riot Games, the League of Legends publisher, takes the show on the road. With Delaware North’s recent interest in esports and the return of Boston’s student population to bolster the attendance numbers, TD Garden was chosen to host the games.

Crowds cheered, commentators provided color and insight, and players competed for thousands of dollars in prize money. It looked a lot like a professional sports contest, but was it?

“I don’t think it’ll ever be the same as traditional sports, but I do think it’s very similar in the way that we train,” said Trevor Hayes, a professional player who competed in the league’s third-place match. A 20-year-old Arizona native, Hayes doesn’t view esports as a sport in the traditional sense. “It’s just a completely different culture,” he said. “With sports, you have like, jock culture and then esports is like, nerd culture – more nerdy people play games and stuff.”

Aaron Mickunas, a staff writer at Dot Esports, doesn’t quite buy the sports analogy. “I don’t think it’s a traditional sport and I don’t think it needs to be treated like one,” he said. “I think at its core, the only thing that is similar to professional sports is that it’s a competition and that there are professional competitors.”

Tim Nicholas, a fan from Milford who attended the finals, said esports are the same as other sports. “The players are considered athletes in that they have to practice and train just as much as a traditional athlete,” he said.

Hayes said he trains very seriously. “I wake up at 8 a.m. and go to the gym everyday,” said Hayes. “Then we come back, have a morning meeting, and talk about what we want to practice that day during our scrimmages.” In general, the professional teams competing in North America have two, three-hour-scrimmage blocks each day where they practice against other professional teams. For Hayes, the scrimmages run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour break in between. “Then, after practice, you usually play for a few hours by yourself and work on individual improvement.”

Former NBA player Rick Fox, who owns Echo Fox, a team that competes in the North American League of Legends Championship Series but did not make it to the finals in Boston, said he treats his players as if they were professional athletes. “That’s what they are,” he said in a February op-ed featured in The Players’ Tribune. “We monitor all aspects of their training and preparation, all the way down to their nutrition, fitness, and sleep.”

Marty Strenczewilk, co-founder and CEO of Splyce, the esports team affiliated with Delaware North, said esports and traditional sports are very similar. “Fan affinity for their favorite team or game, the way fandom is expressed, monetization streams, and even the viewing experience are very similar,” he said.

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Strenczewilk said the two industries can learn a lot from each other. “Esports can learn about the ways traditional sports have already tackled complex problems in monetization, player welfare, long-term sustainability, and integrity,” he said. “And esports has a lot to teach about reaching a new generation, becoming more naturally digital, and breaking the TV mold of traditional sports.”

Aaron van Leesten is a student at Emerson College and the digital media associate at MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth.