Esports for development?
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While esports cannot replace traditional sports, they can provide an opportunity to look creatively at sport (and development) in the 21st century.

At the recent ENGSO European Sport Platform in Budapest, a subject of debate was esports and its place in the future of European sport clubs. Many at the event were reluctant to acknowledge esports as part of the sports realm, while others advocated for its recognition as an enabler of social connection and wellbeing. So how do esports fit into development efforts, if at all?

Defining esports

Hans Jagnow, President of German Esports Federation, argues for complete political and societal recognition of esports as a sport. This begins by first distinguishing what it’s not:

Gaming is playing every kind of video game, […] but esport is a very specific sub-section of that.”

According to Jagnow, esport refers to direct competition under ‘self-proclaimed rules’ between human players. This means that while the mechanics are created by the game developers, the rules are set by the community. “You cannot talk about esports just referring to one kind of game,” Jagnow explained. “You have a big community grouping up all those games into one common part of sports.”

Esports, referred to broadly, describes many types of games including sport simulations, strategy games, ‘battle royale’, shooter games and many more. Above all else, esport behaves like a sport—clubs include practice, tournaments, coaching and establishing social bonds.

A digital grassroots movement

The community aspect is central to esports. Martin Fritzen is an Esport Project Manager at DGI, a Danish non-profit organisation which promotes esport activities in sports clubs. He spoke about the importance for players to be part of a meaningful group: “It’s not about gaming. It’s about being with your friends.” 

Jagnow also brought up the unique role of community in esports, especially as the players themselves help create the games and interact with game developers. “The community is a digital community. It is a grassroots movement that functions outside of what we understand as organised grassroots right now.”

Breaking barriers

One big discussion in esports centres on gender representation. Fruzsina Eszenyi spoke on the difficulties of being a female gamer, and how it requires confronting stereotypes from fellow male gamers: “We are a community, not just girls and boys.” Other panellists focused on the inclusive nature of esports in that there are no gendered teams, as is the norm in traditional sports.

Esports also create opportunities to engage with new audiences and players around the world, breaking barriers of geography, language and physical limitations. Questions remain, however, about the accessibility of technology, how to engage more girls and women, and the violent nature of some games.

One of the biggest questions in the esports debate is whether they promote inactivity. While professional players often incorporate physical training into their practice, esport itself does not always promote exercise. Some believe that esports will never be considered a ‘health sport’.

But gender, community, inclusion and friendship – some of the arguments promoted by the proponents of esports mirror those made by sport and development organisations to justify the value of their work. Instead of shutting out esports, it is useful to keep an open mind. It’s worth reflecting on their potential to break barriers and reach new audiences. Esports definitely have their drawbacks but they are here to stay. Working with, rather than against them, may even help engage young people in sport.