Content uploaded by Jim Parry
All content in this area was uploaded by Jim Parry on Jul 16, 2018
Content may be subject to copyright.
Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at
Sport, Ethics and Philosophy
ISSN: 1751-1321 (Print) 1751-133X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rsep20
E-sports are Not Sports
To cite this article: Jim Parry (2018): E-sports are Not Sports, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2018.1489419
Published online: 12 Jul 2018.
Submit your article to this journal
View Crossmark data
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY, 2018
E-sports are Not Sports
aFaculty of Physical Education and Sport, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic; bFaculty of Physical
Culture, Palacky University, Olomouc, Czech Republic
The conclusion of this paper will be that e-sports are not sports. I begin
by oering a stipulation and a denition. I stipulate that what I have
in mind, when thinking about the concept of sport, is ‘Olympic’ sport.
And I dene an Olympic Sport as an institutionalised, rule-governed
contest of human physical skill. The justication for the stipulation lies
partly in that it is uncontroversial. Whatever else people might think
of as sport, no-one denies that Olympic Sport is sport. This seeks to
ensure that those who might wish to dispute my conclusion might
stay with the argument at least for as long as possible. Secondly,
the justication for the stipulation lies partly in its normativity—I
have chosen an Olympic conception of sport just because it seems
to me to oer some kind of desirable version of what sport is and
might become. Thirdly, I give examples which show how prominent
promoters of e-sports agree with my stipulation, as evidenced by their
strenuous attempts to comply with it in order to join the Olympic
club. The justication for the denition lies in the conceptual analysis
oered—an ‘exhibition-analysis’ which claries the concept of sport
by oering ‘construals’ of the six rst-level terms. The conclusion is that
e-sports are not sports because they are inadequately ‘human’; they
lack direct physicality; they fail to employ decisive whole-body control
and whole-body skills, and cannot contribute to the development of
the whole human; and because their patterns of creation, production,
ownership and promotion place serious constraints on the emergence
of the kind of stable and persisting institutions characteristic of sports
governance. Competitive computer games do not qualify as sports,
no matter what ‘resemblances’ may be claimed. Computer games
are just that—games.
You can call your health promotion programme a health education programme, if you like;
but the naming of it does not make it into an educational programme. To assess your health
promotion programme, we would need a concept of education against which to test whether
it really is a health education programme. Similarly, you can call computer games e-sports
if you like, but we really should test this usage, to see if e-sports really are sports. For this,
we will need a concept of sport.
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Computer games; e-sports;
CONTACT Jim Parry firstname.lastname@example.org
2 J. PARRY
Let me begin by oering a stipulation and a denition. I shall stipulate that what I have
in mind, when thinking about the concept of sport, is Olympic Sport.1 And I shall dene an
Olympic Sport as an institutionalised, rule-governed contest of human physical skill.
The justication for the stipulation lies partly in that it is uncontroversial. Whatever else
people might think of as sport, no-one denies that Olympic Sport is sport.2 This seeks to
ensure that those who might wish to dispute my conclusion might stay with my argument
at least for as long as possible. Secondly, the justication for the stipulation lies partly in its
normativity—I have chosen an Olympic conception of sport just because it seems to me to
oer some kind of desirable version of what sport is and might become. I make no apology
for this—indeed I claim credit for being up-front and explicit about the basis of my account,
and I give examples which show how prominent promoters of e-sports agree with this basis,
as evidenced by their strenuous attempts to join the Olympic club.
The justication for the denition lies in the conceptual analysis oered—an ‘exhibition
analysis’ which claries the concept of sport by oering ‘construals’ of the six rst-level terms.
The conclusion is that competitive computer games do not qualify as sports, no matter what
‘resemblances’ may be claimed.
2. Conceptual Methodology
People use the word ‘sport’ to refer to all sorts of things. Hunting, shooting and shing are
‘eld sports’; bull-ghting is a ‘blood sport’; jogging is a ‘recreational sport’; chess and bridge
are ‘mind sports’; dance wants to be dance-sport; yoga wants to be yoga-sport. Our question
is: are all these things really sports? Does anything count as a sport, if someone wants to call
it a sport? Does e-sport count as a sport, just because someone wants to call it a sport?
To address these questions, we need a methodology, and I shall employ the technique
of conceptual analysis, which involves the search for ‘logically necessary conditions’ for the
use of a word. I shall suggest six such logically necessary conditions for ‘sports’. To begin
with, they are all human activities. Animals might play, but they don’t have sport. Secondly,
they are physical activities—by which I mean that the physical element is crucial to direct
engagement in the activity, and to its outcome, and thirdly it is physical skill that is at issue.
Fourthly, all sports are contests (competitions) and, fthly, they are governed by rules. Finally,
sports are institutionalised, with national and international federations administering their
If we put these six ‘criteria’ together, we arrive at a simple denition of sports, as: institu-
tionalised rule-governed contests of human physical skill. As well as providing dening
features (characteristics) of sport, they also provide a ‘demarcation criterion’ (that is, they
also tell you what sport is not). This is illustrated as follows:
human (not animals)
physical (not chess)
skill (not jogging)
contest (not mountaineering)
rule-governed (not ‘eld sports’)
institutionalised (not hula-hooping)
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 3
An objection to this project might suggest that the motivation to provide such an account
(a conceptual analysis) arises merely from a kind of academic tidiness—harmless enough,
but useless—allied to a barely concealed penchant for conceptual prescription (which, of
course, assumes what it purports to demonstrate). If this were true, it would apply not only
to me, but to everyone else: for anyone who wishes to talk about (or do research about) any
other kind of sport—such as recreation sport, exercise sport, sport training, blood sports,
outdoor sports, dance-sport, yoga-sport, board-games sport, card-games sport, etc.—owes
us just such a conceptual analysis. For research purposes, for example, the researcher stands
in need of an operational denition of the kind of sport he or she intends to research—and
this will involve at least an element of conceptual analysis and stipulation. No-one can
research ‘sport’ simpliciter. The term applies across so many dierent kinds of activity, that
we shall stand in need of some kind of specication, or qualication.
Sometimes those seeking a value-neutral analysis might attempt to clarify the meaning
of a concept through investigating its etymology, taking the view that a denition should
not provide an account of what a word should mean, but what it actually has meant, and in
this way hoping to avoid the introduction of prescriptive elements. However, this version of
the ‘genetic fallacy’ will not do the job required of it, since it commits the very oence against
which it seeks to alert us: it asserts that what a word actually has meant is what it should
mean. Notoriously, then, here is a normative activity dressed in value-neutral clothing.
Another way of escaping the requirement upon any researcher to oer their own account
of their central concept(s), together with an explanation and justication of their preferred
analysis, is to rely upon some authority. This is the route chosen, for example, by Jenny et al.
(2017) and Llorens (2017), who both settle on two authoritative pronouncements regarding
the denition of sport, those of Guttmann (1978) and Suits (1988 or 2007). Their tactic is a
simple one: rst rehearse the authoritative version of what counts as ‘sport’, together with
some announced denitional criteria; then show that e-sports conform in some way to this
version. However, it is open to the following objections: rstly, neither of these accounts
(from the history of the sociology of sport, and the history of the philosophy of sport) has
been justied by the authors who use it – each is simply accepted as an authoritative account
of the concept of sport. It is therefore vulnerable to any successful objection to the account,
which would collapse the argument built upon it. Secondly, any (re-)application of any one
of the ‘authoritative’ criteria stands in need of construal and explanation—not just any sense
of ‘physical’, for example, will do.
A further objection to this project queries the stipulation. It can always be asked: why did
you start here? I shall try to answer by describing perhaps the most outstanding example
of this sort of enquiry - that of Flew (1954), Baier (1955) and Benn (1958), amongst others,
into the concept of ‘punishment’, resulting in Hart’s widely accepted summary (1962, 4–6).
It might be objected that the philosophers of punishment mentioned above were all working
in a commonly-accepted and very well understood normative context which took for granted
that the concept of punishment under investigation was a jurisprudential concept. They
were all talking about ‘punishment’ under the law. This enabled them to sidestep many
usages of the word that are perfectly acceptable in extra-judicial contexts (ve of which are
mentioned by Hart on his p. 6), but that become confusing when trying to meet the lawyers’
So they had a very particular starting-point. When concentrating on xing their normative
jurisprudential usage, these philosophers were overlooking the many ‘ordinary language’
conceptions of punishment, which seem to us perfectly acceptable in non-judicial contexts.
4 J. PARRY
This is because their interest lay in discovering a justiable and useful concept for their
I shall be doing something similar in this essay, where I insist upon xing a particular
concept of sport, and showing the consequences that ow from it. This involves distinguish-
ing ‘Olympic’ sport from activities sometimes called sport, such as blood sports, outdoor
sports, mind-sports, etc. I regard the exercise as one of explication—of clarication—of
making clearer to oneself (and to others) what one is talking about by providing a conceptual
‘map of the logical terrain’ by using the Wittgensteinian method which Stephan Körner
Exhibition-analysis consists in making indicative or normative propositions which are more
or less implicitly accepted by a person or a group of persons fully explicit. (Körner 1990, 130)
So I take it as my rst task here to make fully explicit what ‘Olympic sport’ means, as it is
more or less implicitly understood and accepted by those who accept that Olympic sport
is, paradigmatically, sport, and I shall begin this task in the next section. As a nal preliminary
we should, however, point out some limitations of the technique of exhibition analysis, and
anticipate some objections:
(1) It cannot yield an analysis of the concept of sport
It can only yield an analysis of a concept of sport. We are all situated in time and place.
‘Sport’ in eighteenth century England might have meant ‘killing animals in the country-
side’. In sixteenth century England it might have meant ‘an amusement’. In contemporary
Russia, the word might mean, ambiguously, ‘sport and game’. Since I am situated in
Europe in the twenty-rst century, I am aiming at an analysis of the meaning of sport,
here and now, without prejudice to what it might have meant historically, or what it
might mean elsewhere.
(2) It is also a conditional exercise
If you are not prepared to go along with my initial stipulation, and to grant me your
patience whilst I exhibit (what seem to me to be) its consequences, then this paper
will have little to oer you. Remember, however, that you must perform just such an
exercise for yourself (and for others) if we are to learn anything from you—if we are to
be able to discern what would be the consequences of adopting your alternative view.
(3) It is also a necessarily incomplete exercise
This is because one concept, sport, can only be explicated in terms of other concepts—
and I suggest six: sports are institutionalised, rule-governed contests of human physical
skill. However, each one of these second-level explanatory components is itself a con-
cept, standing in need of its own explication, which can only be achieved via a further
conceptual analysis, and a third-level explanation. This exercise could plainly proceed
ad innitum, although in practice we usually settle for much less. The point is: each
second-level concept (e.g. ‘physical’, or ‘contest’, as a component of ‘sport’) requires
construal. Not just any interpretation of ‘physical’ will do, as an adequate specication
what is required to secure the meaning of ‘sport’.
(4) There will always be ‘borderline’ issues
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 5
Birds y and lay eggs, whereas mammals are land-living and vivaporous. But the ostrich
doesn’t y, the platypus lays eggs, and dolphins live in the sea like sh. The desire to
classify inevitably throws up hard cases such as these, which require second-level expla-
nations, and sub-categories (for example, dolphins are ‘marine mammals’). And if we
must provide an account of ‘sport’ (which national funding bodies must do, in order
to determine who is and is not eligible to receive funding) then we give ourselves bor-
derline issues. Why is ice-dance sport, if ballet is not? Why is darts (which is like small-
javelin-throwing) not sport, whereas javelin is? Football and chess are both games—why
should one receive funding, and not the other? At the borderlines, some categorisa-
tion decisions must be (to some extent) ‘arbitrary’. However, the existence of a certain
arbitrariness at the borderlines does not vitiate the whole exercise. We still know (by
and large) a bird from a mammal from a sh. What we are trying to do it to nd good
reasons, where good reasons are possible, and to reduce arbitrariness to a minimum.
(5) Some object to conceptual imperialism
I reject the accusation that I am trying to force everyone to acknowledge my own pre-
ferred concept of sport. I claim merely to be mapping the logical geography of Olympic
sport, which I think most people nowadays would agree to be archetypically sport.
I concur with Waismann, who argued that ‘… the ideal of correctness is a deadening
one, it is vain to set up a language police to stem living developments’. (1968, 186) I
am not (per impossibile) railing against the historical development of the concept of
sport; but that does not mean that any suggested development is a sensible one. In
the present case, I will be arguing against the idea that computer gaming is sensibly to
be described as sport.
(6) This essay is not ‘against’ computer games
Finally, it is most important to point out that this essay is not ‘against’ computer games.
Let a thousand owers bloom. This essay simply argues that competitive computer
games should not be confused with sports. Whether or not computer games are in
some sense ‘desirable’ pursuits is a separate question.
The Concept of (Olympic) Sport
‘Sport’ means (and moreover has meant) many things to many people, across time and space
– in history and geography. It is possible to nd some similarity or connection between
something that someone at one time or place had wanted to call sport, and whatever it is
that you might want to call ‘sport’ in the here and now.
Dictionary denitions give sport (as a noun) as diversion, recreation, pleasant pastime,
jest, fun, mirth, pleasantry, mockery, ridicule, derision, and more. Also (as a verb): to amuse
oneself; to play, frolic, or gambol; to trie or treat lightly; to sport (as with another’s emotions);
to mock, sco, or tease. And this is without even mentioning the question of translatability
across languages. We might even be tempted to say that one could call almost anything
All this is nothing to do with us. We are interested only in what sport means now—in that
meaning, also found in dictionaries, that begins to be captured as ‘an athletic activity
6 J. PARRY
requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature’. This begins to rule
some activities out, as non-sport. For example, we do something like sport when we take
physical recreation (walking the dog, or jogging in the park), or when we exercise (mountain
biking with friends on Sundays), or when we are being trained/coached for sport (involving
perhaps a small-sided conditioned game of football). But none of these is sport. They are
recreation, exercise and training.
Notice, also, that a particular activity (e.g. football, tennis, netball, running, etc.) might be
the occasion for any of these – recreation, exercise, or training. If I take a ball into my garden,
and juggle it for a while, alone on the lawn, there is a sense in which I am playing football.
Or a football event might be simply a kick-about amongst the family—not even football in
its game-form. Or it might be an informal game of football in the park, with four coats as
‘posts’, 4 players against 5, and some ad hoc rules to suit circumstances. Or it might be
Manchester United vs Manchester City in the Premiership. All four are examples of ‘football’;
but only the last is an example of football played as a sport.
However, the above assertions must be justied, and to attempt this, I shall propose six
logically necessary conditions for the use of the word ‘sport’ (understood as ‘Olympic sport’).
Sport is a human enterprise. Whilst it is true that many animals (as well as human animals)
frolic, gambol and play, other animals do not organise sports for themselves. And whilst it
is true that animals sometimes participate in sport, they do so always and only at the behest
of humans. The same is true of machines: where they are part of sport, they are always and
only under the control of humans.
There is also an issue regarding the degree of human control, or the signicant contribution
of animal or machine involvement. Equestrian events are part of Olympic sport, but not grey-
hound racing or hare coursing. One reason for this is that in equestrian events the horse is always
under the direction of the human, whereas in the latter events the animal is ‘let o the leash’.
Olympic sport does not include motor sport. It includes sailing, but not motor-boating.
Amongst other reasons, this is because the ‘motor’ element might be seen as making too
signicant a contribution to the result, whereas sailing (even though it does include tech-
nologies to enhance wind assistance) remains to a greater extent in the hands of the human.
This observation is reinforced by the practice, in Formula 1 car racing, of showing separately
the outcomes of two competitions: the drivers’ championship and the constructors’ cham-
pionship. This is an admission of equally important contributions, which detracts from the
human, as illustrated by the inevitable debates about whether the champion driver is the
best driver, or merely the driver of the best car. This is motor sport, not (Olympic) sport.
In Robot Wars,
a BBC TV show, teams of contestants build a robot within strict Build Rules,
which give detailed information on the specications of robot design, including weight,
power, weapons and ‘drive-train’. Then they ght a remote-controlled battle to the ‘death’—
the aim being to disable (and, preferably, destroy) the opposition. This makes for exciting and
entertaining TV, but it is not sport. The main reason is that the contest is between machines,
not between humans. To be sure, the humans controlling the movements of their robots
have been highly involved in the creation and operation of these machines, and experience
the intense emotions of battle (as do the spectators and viewers, such as me). But they are
not, huddled as they are behind their controls in their sealed and bullet-proof enclosure,
direct competitors. They are distanced remote-controllers, not allowed to touch their robots
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 7
during the contest. This is not sport (although, I suppose, you could call it robot-sport, if you
wanted to), because the contest is only indirectly, and therefore inadequately, ‘human’.4
Later, I will consider the contribution of the concept of the ‘athlete’ to the idea of sport,
but we can already see its emergence in this required sense of ‘human’.
Just as we had to construe the idea of the human, in order to explain its signicance for our
concept of sport, so we must construe the idea of the ‘physical’. In what sense is sport phys-
ical? If I say that chess is not a sport, because it is not physical, an objection might run as
follows: when I move a chess piece, I must make a physical movement, and the physical
movement might be more extended (or more gross) than that required for squeezing a rie’s
trigger. My response would be, rstly, that the physical movement is not necessary (since I
might alternatively simply tell someone else where to move a piece on my behalf) and,
secondly, that even if I moved it myself, the actual movement is irrelevant to the outcome
of the game.5,6
To take another example, in a recent case, Sport England refused to recognise duplicate
bridge as a sport, and the English Bridge Union appealed. The judge, Mr .Justice Mostyn,
granted permission for the Union to bring a judicial review against Sport England’s decision.
The judge, who is himself a bridge player, is reported to have said, ‘You are doing more
physical activity playing bridge, with all that dealing and playing, than in rie shooting’. (New
Law Journal 2015a). I refer the reader to my comments above.
There is more physical activity
in gardening than in bridge, but that doesn’t make competitive gardening a sport, either.8
Sport is physical just in the sense that the actual physical movement produces the out-
come, as in shooting.9 Furthermore, in regard to shooting, it is false that the required move-
ment involves merely squeezing a trigger. This fails to take into account the total-body control
required of a shooter, including balance, stance, rie hold, controlled breathing, etc., all of
which contribute directly to the outcome.
Let us briey consider an intensely ‘physical’ competitive event: the speed-eating con-
test10, in which (for example) contestants consume as many hamburgers as they can in a
specied time period, under rules that regulate chip-munking (holding food in the mouth
in the nal moments of an event), dunking (softening food in liquid) debris (requiring a clean
eating surface) and vomiting. Is this a sport? Speed-eating might be seen to be meet the
human, institutionalised, rule-governed and contest criteria of sport, but the spirit quails at
the acceptance of the physical and skill elements. As intensely (even disgustingly) ‘physical’
as it might seem, this is not physicality (in the required sporting sense), because speed-eating
is not a physical movement activity - its primary aim is consumption.
All sports require the development and exercise of human physical skill. This rules out those
many activities that exercise human physicality, without demanding any signicant level of
skill learning from the participant. Examples would include walking (not race-walking, which
does require the learning of a prescribed and very specic set of skills), jogging, exercise-
cycling, speed-eating, basic training routines, etc. Some might like to say that their daily
dog-walking, or thrice-weekly jogging are their ‘sport’—but I think most of them could be
persuaded that this is more like their exercise than their Olympic ‘sport’, since a mere exercise
routine does not require a signicant skill component, and neither does it require the next
8 J. PARRY
All sports are contests. They are constructed as essentially contested activities. In sport, there
is no pong without ping.11 This rules out activities such as mountaineering, which is a chal-
lenge (or test12), rather than a contest. There is no answer to the question: if I make this or
that move, what will the mountain do next? It is not contesting with me. ‘It’ (or, rather, pos-
sibly, the weather conditions) may set challenges for me, but that’s dierent. I think that this
rules out not just mountaineering, but many other ‘Outdoor Activities’ or ‘Outdoor Pursuits’.
In fact, they are so called just because participants wish explicitly to deny that they are
‘sports’, given their ethos which rejects competitiveness, regulation and institutionalisation.
As Krein remarks, regarding ‘nature sports’:
… I argue that adapting nature sports to t into formal competitive frameworks is problematic
because, when we do so, the focus shifts from athletes interacting with natural features to
athletes using natural features to outdo other athletes. (2015, 271)
It also rules out dance, which is not an essentially contested activity. A tango might be
performed as a ritual, a display, a celebration, or as part of a social event, without its being
compared to, or judged against, any other performance (indeed, this is most usually the
case). Such a non-contest instance of dance might be performed identically to a competition
performance, when various performances are judged one against another in a dance contest.
This shows that dance is not an essentially contested activity.
Of course, you can make a contest out of anything, including dance. Piano playing is not
essentially contested, but the famous Leeds International Piano Competition13 has demon-
strated that music competitions are both possible and desirable. However, despite the high
levels of human physical skill (of a kind) being contested, no-one would dream of calling this
‘sport’.14 The International Olympic Committee held art competitions at the Olympic Games
between 1912 and 1948, awarding gold, silver and bronze medals.15 This does not mean that
art was considered to be sport. There were sporting events and separate art competitions,
consisting of ve disciplines: architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. Art was
recognised as an important cultural companion to sport, but the two were not confused.
I assume that it is uncontroversial that all sports are rule-governed (although this is of the
rst importance both for the concept of sport and for the normative status of sport). If so,
this rules out all those activities which do not require rule specications to determine the
outcomes. Field sports, for example, are a matter of going out of the house and killing ani-
mals. How you do that is up to you.16 Jogging can be done as and when the spirit takes
you—no rules apply. Resisting the imposition of rule structures upon surng is at the heart
of the ‘soul surng’ versus ‘competitive surng’ debate.
The (counterculture discourse) holds on to an ethos of informality, and even an anti-establish-
ment ‘rebel’ identity ... the ocean and its ecology forge a spiritual experience. Others refer to
surng as creative expression, an art. Others still just see it as something fun to do. The vast
majority of surfers have no interest in surng as sport. (Evers 2016)
In rejecting the idea of surng as a sport, surfers had to deny one or more of the logically
necessary conditions suggested in this article. Surfers reject rules and the institutions that
claim to represent surfers and surng.
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 9
Sports are those rule-governed contests of human physical skill that have achieved institu-
tionalised status. Again, of course, we have to construe this term—to say more about what
kind and level of institutionalisation is required for our concept of sport. Later, I shall explore
the nature and status of eorts towards the institutionalisation of computer games but, for
now, it should suce to say that a sport has achieved institutionalisation if it has managed
to provide a coherent representation of itself to its national and international constituencies,
evidenced by national and international federations. In the case of surng, the jury is still
out, despite its recent acceptance as an Olympic sport. Many surfers argue that the various
organisations with competing claims to represent them are only representing their own
To conclude this section, let me re-emphasise that my suggestion of these six logically
necessary conditions is just that: a suggestion for discussion. It is just my attempt to map
the logical geography of ‘Olympic’ sport, and of course this is open to criticism and improve
ment.17 The next section will seek to assess the claims of computer games to be (Olympic)
sport, as described above.
3. Competitive Computer Games as Sports?
For the purposes of this paper, I shall consider e-sports to be ‘competitive computer games’.
This enables me to concentrate primarily on the kind of e-sports that are currently most
popular, and that are currently being touted as sports. Some of them are actually seeking
recognition as Olympic sports, and I shall consider this development in the next section.
This does leave aside, though, the separate question of the status of ‘physical gaming’, or
‘kinetic e-sports’, in which physical activity is an important component, and which I will
address in a separate paper to follow.
I have dened sports as institutionalised, rule-governed contests of human physical skill. In
the context of computer gaming, the idea of ‘contest’ requires a moment’s construal. Llorens
makes an important point regarding the element of competition in certain computer games
… not all video games engage in eSport gaming sports practice. World of Warcraft or Diablo,
for instance, are highly popular competitive and online video games. However, they are not
fundamentally constituted as competitive personal interaction, but rather as a ‘prole upgrading’
exercise. … Therefore, it may be argued that … the result-oriented competition requirement
for sport is not met.
In agreeing with her disinclination to accept a ‘prole upgrading’ exercise as a genuine
contest, and so as a sporting practice, I accept the renement of my idea of ‘competitive
computer games’ as those involving ‘essentially contestive practices’. In thus accepting that
competitive computer games are rule-governed contests, that leaves open for discussion
four remaining criteria: human, physical, skill, and institutionalisation. I shall take them in turn.
Just as, in Robot Wars, the contestants are physically distanced from the action, so are com-
puter game contestants. They are remotely contesting over what they can make happen on
10 J. PARRY
a screen as a result of their manipulations of a console. The contest is indeed (in a sense) a
human vs human contest, but only in the way that a spelling contest is also human vs human.
However, a spelling bee is not sport, and the interactions in computer games are also inad-
equate for sport, on a human level.
Computer gamers (like the Robot Wars controllers) also experience the intense emotions
of battle (as do the spectators and viewers). But they are not, coddled in their special arm-
chairs, direct competitors. They are distanced, image-manipulating remote-controllers. This
is not sport - although, I suppose, you could call it e-sport (analogously to robot-sport), if
you really wanted to - because the contest is only indirectly, and therefore inadequately,
To be sure, there might be plenty of physical action and eort in computer gaming—but
the question is whether the physical exertion involved is adequately physical in the required
sense. For example, Kane and Spradley (2017) rely on a spurious stipulation and a failure
adequately to construe second-level concepts. ‘Physical exertion’ is accepted as a criterion
just because the dictionary says so; and the kind of physical exertion appropriate for ‘sports’
is unexplored. Of course, levels of physical exertion, thus unconstrued and unspecied, can
easily be demonstrated, just as they can in gardening, coal-mining, cookery or sex.
As noted earlier, the sporting sense of ‘physical’ requires that the movements bear a direct
relation to the outcome of the event. The actual movements made must directly produce
the result. This was one reason for our disqualication of chess and Robot Wars from sport.
In the present context, considering computer games, Holt makes an interesting distinction
between a domain of execution and a domain of application.
The domain of execution is subject-specic, a matter of where the execution occurs; by contrast,
the domain of application is object-specic, where the action’s outcome is meant to obtain.
(Holt, 2016, p. 8)
Holt goes on to assert (see p. 9) that a crucial dierence between sports and computer
games is that the technological nature of computer games necessarily separates the two
domains. Whereas in sport the two realms coincide (where I take my shot is the same actual
realm in which I aim to score a goal), in computer games the skills executed in the actual
domain must necessarily be transposed into a virtual domain. (From my $399 gaming
throne,19 I operate my console so as to achieve digital eects on a screen.)
This is one way of clarifying, specifying, exhibiting the lack of direct physicality in computer
games, that argues against its status as sport.
Whilst all sports require the development and exercise of human physical skill, not all human
physical skills qualify as sporting skills, such as those skills required for gardening, art or craft
production, sex, or playing a musical instrument. So it is not enough to claim that, because
computer gaming requires human physical skill (of some kind) that this qualies it as a sport.
To be sure, there is plenty of skill involved in manipulating those little buttons, and doing
so faster (with more hits) than others—but the question is whether this counts as skill of the
required kind, and the comments in the last two sections argue that it does not. But there
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 11
is a further consideration, relating to the distinction between ne and gross motor skills as
a means of distinguishing sports from non-sports (or, in our case, to distinguish the relatively
ne motor skills of console control from the relatively gross skills of Olympic sport).
I concur with Holt’s admonition (Holt, 2016, 7–8) of Meier (1988) and Hemphill (2005) for
their too-ready acceptance of the diculty of ‘drawing a line’ between gross and ne motor
skills. Often it is suggested that, because of the supposed diculty in drawing a precise line
between the two, this disqualies it as an indicator. This is false. Diculties at the margins
do not disqualify. There is no precise line to be drawn between men and women, and bor-
derline issues are the source of well-acknowledged problems for women’s sport. However,
this does not mean that we cannot tell a man from a woman; nor that we cannot make
borderline decisions (dicult and somewhat arbitrary though they may be).
So the gross/ne distinction, focussing on the use of large/smaller muscle-groups, does
not seem to me to be unhelpful, as a general indicator. However, the intuition underlying
this distinction might be recast in terms of ‘whole-body’ skills, as follows. Even in shooting,
it is the exercise of whole-body control and whole-body skills that are decisive. Here, again,
the image of the Olympic athlete oats before us: the skills required in Olympic sports are
the ‘whole-body’ skills of the athlete.
Furthermore, these are skills that are not only required for successful engagement in the
sport, but that also contribute to the development of the whole human. To be sure, engaging
and practising my jiggling and joggling skills will improve my ability to jiggle and joggle,
just as my practice of keyboard skills will improve my ability to type - but neither can con-
tribute to the development of the whole human in the way that Olympic sport does, in its
valuing of ‘whole-body’ engagement.20
All sports are founded on rules; and so are computer games. This suggests some level and
kind of organisation behind things, but the problem lies in construing just what level and
what kind of organisation are we looking for here, to count as ‘institutionalisation’?
Abanazir (2018) calls the sets of rules the ‘source’, and he points out that the source of
sports and the source of computer games dier in important respects. In sport,
‘… the source is created by the rule-making powers of an organisation having the power to lay
down the rules of the game. But in computer games, ‘… the source is the video game, which
consists of the “code” (so the code developer is the rule-maker) and the audiovisual representa-
tions (controlled by the publisher, who is an incorporated body within a particular jurisdiction).’
This means that there are no associations overseeing computer games, consisting of
members or joint ventures of sports team owners creating a legal person with a view to
laying down the rules of the source and the tournaments. Instead, we see a ‘dispersed pro-
duction process’, where publishers organise tournaments for their own games.
When we consider the number of computer games and the number of publishers (which are
actually industry rivals), we can see that the chances of establishing an umbrella organisation
(institution) determining the production of video games and the tournaments based on them
in a cohesive manner is almost impossible. (Abanazir 2018).
These observations are supported by Karhularti’s notion of ‘executive ownership’.
Since sports can only be administered, organized, and overseen (but never owned) by compa-
nies, the statuses of those sports cannot be compared to those of esport, which are dened by
12 J. PARRY
executive ownership (2017, 49). For an organized competitive practice to be considered esport,
it should rely on a commercial play product that is governed by an executive owner. (2017, 52).
Another problem is the fast pace of change in e-sports fashion. Tournament organisers
rapidly drop any game that loses popularity, to be replaced by a competitor. The uid and
fast-paced commercialised development of computer games, and the competitive produc-
tion process, place serious constraints on the emergence of the kind of stable and persisting
organisational structures characteristic of sports governance. As Abanazir says: ‘This situation
… calls for another take regarding the analysis as to whether e-sports would qualify as a
sport or not.’ At the very least, ‘… judgements passed upon the institutionalisation of e-spor ts
are, at present, premature’.
4. Olympic Sports Re-visited
I have attempted an ‘exhibition-analysis’ of the concept of Olympic Sports, arriving at a rst
level of six criteria: institutionalised, rule-governed contests of human physical skill. Each crite-
rion should be regarded as a starting-point, requiring construal at a second level, and maybe
even further. I accepted Körner’s account (1990, 130): ‘Exhibition-analysis consists in making
indicative or normative propositions which are more or less implicitly accepted by a person
or a group of persons fully explicit.’
I began by proposing the view that Olympic Sports were undeniably sports. However,
life (and concepts) do not stand still, and my proposal raises interesting questions regarding
the future direction of ‘Olympic’ sport itself. My initial stipulation now comes back to bite
me, for ‘Olympic sport’ is a designation that itself requires clarication, since what has been
included on the Olympic Programme has varied over time. Just which activities are to be
called ‘Olympic Sports’ (and therefore to constitute the subject-matter of our analysis)?
To begin with, there is an as-yet-unacknowledged historical dimension. Some events of
the classical Olympic period (running, jumping, javelin) did re-appear in the modern period;
but some did not (including chariot-racing, the hoplite race and pankration). Even in the
modern period, some events have remained constant (running, jumping); some that
appeared in the early years were dropped (target javelin, tug-o’-war, cricket, etc.); and some
sports came, went and came again (rugby). This shows that ‘Olympic Sport’ cannot be spec-
ied in terms of what has happened to be on the Olympic Programme at any one time; so I
would like to construe it as: ‘… activities that have appeared on the Olympic Programme
from time to time, together with any other suciently similar activities, whether or not they
have actually appeared on any Olympic Programme.’
Of, course, we now have to specify what counts as ‘suciently similar’; but let’s oer some
easy rst solutions. If football is acceptable, so is (in principle) any invasion game, such as
netball, korfball and lacrosse. If tennis, then any racquet game (Real tennis, squash). If weight-
lifting, then Atlas Stones and Giant Log Lift. If athletic eld events, then Caber Toss and Weight
Throw.21 So, for our purposes, ‘Olympic Sport’ means ‘Olympic-type Sport’. For various rea-
sons, kabbadi, sumo, kick-boxing, Australian Rules football, muay thai and jai alia have never
appeared on the Olympic Programme. But they are all Olympic-type Sports they all conform
to the concept of sport, as outlined in this paper.
Now, this has become a central philosophical problem for the International Olympic
Committee (IOC), in considering what should (and should not) count as an Olympic-type
Sport, and what should (and should not) be on the future Olympic Programme. This is the
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 13
job of the IOC Programme Commission,22 whose responsibilities include specifying the cri-
teria for acceptance, remembering that, although only 28 sports are currently on the
Programme, there are hundreds of sports that qualify as Olympic-type Sports.
What many ‘new sports’ are doing (and what they must do), as they scramble for IOC
recognition, is to evidence compliance with these criteria, as they strive to convert previously
non-sport (or even anti-sport) activities into sports. There are many examples, including
climbing, yoga, dance, aerobics and parkour. In order to ‘sportify’ these activities into sport
climbing, yogasport, dancesport, sport aerobics and ‘obstacle course sprint’, organisers have
had to demonstrate that their ‘new’ sport conforms to the criteria for Olympic sport that we
have described. They have had to show, for example, how these activities have been made
into ‘competitive’ activities (sometimes in the teeth of bitter opposition from the originators
of the activity, as with surng and parkour), or how they have been adequately
In his judgement with reference to the card game, bridge, Mr. Mostyn
… said it was ‘signicant’ that in 1999, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) acknowl-
edged that bridge and chess should be considered sports. The IOC recognised these as ‘mind
sports’ which should be separately categorised and excluded from participation in the Olympic
programme but still recognised them as sports. (Vinall, 2015).
This decision of the IOC pregures its ambivalence over e-sports. Esports was a demon-
stration event at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, and seeks entry
to the Asian Games programme in Hangzhou in 2022, driven by a partnership between the
Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Alisports, a division of Alibaba, recently announced as
an IOC TOP sponsor. The Asian Electronic Sports Federation Board includes Kuwait’s Sheikh
Fahad Al-Sabah, the son of OCA and Association of National Olympic Committees President
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah. United States Olympic Committee chairman Larry Probst
is also the chairman of video game publisher Electronic Arts, whose products include the
hugely successful FIFA game (see Butler 2017). Recent reports tout e-sports as under con-
sideration for the 2022 Asian Games and the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. (see Etchells 2017
and Bradley 2017).
And it is not hard to discern the motivation underlying the eorts of those who want to
claim sport status for computer games. It is the exploitation of these activities for the com-
mercial opportunities and other rewards associated with membership of sporting bodies
and access to sporting markets. Their values, in attempting to redene these activities as
sports, are transparently obvious—they seek the commercial spoils of inclusion into (or even
association with) the Olympic club. They have a vested interest in larking around with our
My view is that, if the IOC decided to exclude mind-sports from the Programme, it must
have been working on some conception of ‘Olympic Sports’, similar to my own. Presumably,
the IOC means: call mind-sports sports if you want to (and motor-sports, blood sports, rec-
reation sports, exercise sports, tness sports, etc.), but they don’t count as Olympic Sports.
This, I believe, will be the eventual position of the IOC with regard to computer games.
Anxious though they might be to capture their share of the ‘youth market’, and keen to forge
alliances with new media and new forms of sport consumption, they will not confuse this
I predict that their nal position will be: e-sports are not (Olympic) sports.
14 J. PARRY
I have argued that e-sports are not sports because they are inadequately ‘human’; they lack
direct physicality; they fail to employ decisive whole-body control and whole-body skills,
and cannot contribute to the development of the whole human; and because their patterns
of creation, production, ownership and promotion place serious constraints on the emer-
gence of the kind of stable and persisting institutions characteristic of sports governance.
I acknowledge the temptation to jump towards a ‘youth interest’—but the Olympics is
about sport rst and foremost. Competitive computer games do not qualify as sports, no
matter what ‘resemblances’ may be claimed.
Computer games are just that—games.
1. This is not the rst time that an author has taken the Olympic Games as suggestive, or
authoritative. Meier (1988, pp. 14-16) is critical of two previous attempts, those of Suits and
2. Any denier would be someone with whom it would be dicult to initiate a conversation.
3. See Robot Wars website at: http://www.robotwars.tv/the-show/.
4. Lopez Frias and Triviño, in their article Will robots ever play sports? propose a kind of Turing test to
distinguish between a robotic performance and a human sporting performance (2016, 78–79).
5. Another way in which chess can be played remotely is, for example, by mobile phone connected
to a smart chessboard which moves the pieces on command (see BBC News, 2018).
6. This point is considered by Paddick (1975, 14).
7. The High Court later held that bridge is not a sport. “Ruling in R (English Bridge Union) v Sport
England  EWHC 2875 (Admin), Mr .Justice Dove held that Sport England and other
sporting bodies are legally correct in using the European Sports Charter’s denition of sport
as “all forms of physical activity”. Therefore, while bridge is often referred to as a ‘mind sport’, it
did not satisfy the requisite of physical activity.” (New Law Journal 2015b).
8. Just in case you thought there was no such thing, see: https://storify.com/jem1ller/the-wacky-
9. Shooting is often (and I think erroneously) mentioned as an example of a relatively non-
‘physical’ sport, e.g. Jenny et al, 2017, p. 10, Llorens, 2017, p. 468).
10. E.g. see: http://www.majorleagueeating.com/. Their events have many resemblances to sporting
events. For example, like e-sports events, they are attended by thousands of spectators.
11. This is a joke. It trades on the name of the rst computer game, which was called Pong. ‘It
was as simple a game can be: just two paddles and a virtual ball that can be hit across a
two-dimensional screen. … one could see in this game the simulation of table-tennis.’ (van
Hilvoorde, 2016, 1). Pong is a computer game, but not a sport. Ping-pong is a sport.
12. For the test/contest distinction, see Kretchmar, 1975.
13. See: https://www.leedspiano.com/2018-competition/. This year, it provides live free-to-view
14. Papineau (2015, 2017) stresses that the primary purpose of sport is the exercise of physical skills,
whilst the primary purpose of music, dance and other arts lies elsewhere. Indeed, Papineau
takes the extreme view that sport is ‘any activity whose primary purpose is the exercise of
physical skills’. (My emphasis)
15. The Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the reviver of the modern Olympic Games, anonymously won
gold for literature (poetry) in 1912.
16. What I mean by ‘eld sports’ is something pretty informal. Of course, when, for example, shing
becomes more formalised, angling contests might qualify as sport. Clay-pigeon shooting (a
sport) uses a shotgun, but wild boar hunters (eld sport) can use anything they like.
SPORT, ETHICS AND PHILOSOPHY 15
17. For example, there may well be other putative logically necessary conditions worthy of
discussion – such as ‘shared values and commitments’. At present I think that, while this is
an important feature of sport, it is an outcome of criteria 5. and 6. rather than another and
18. For a detailed discussion of various denitions of e-sport, see: Karhularti 2017, 44–45.
19. For a gaming throne, see: https://usa.clutchchairz.com/product/pewdiepie-edition-throttle-
20. This is a reference to the philosophy of ‘Olympism’ – but space does not permit further
explication (see Parry, 2006).
21. These last four are all events in World’s Strongest Man contests (see: http://www.
22. IOC Programme Commission website: https://www.olympic.org/olympic-programme-
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
This paper was supported by the GACR project ‘Models of bodily experience in the theoretical foun-
dations of experiential education and its kinanthropological context’ (GAČR 16-19311S).
ABANAZIR, C. 2018. Institutionalisation in e-sports. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy. Advance online
publication.. doi: 10.1080/17511321.2018.1453538.
BAIER, K. 1955. ‘Is punishment retributive?’ Analysis, 16: 25–32 (1955-6)
BBC NEWS. 2018. CES 2018: Square O smart chessboard moves its own pieces. BBC News website
12.1.2018. Available at http://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-42657084/ces-2018-square-o-
smart-chessboard-moves-its-own-pieces (accessed 12 January 2018).
BENN, P. 1958. An Approach to the Problems of Punishment. Philosophy 33 (127): 325–341.
BRADLEY, L. 2017. Paris Open To Esports Being An Olympic Sport In 2024 Summer Games. SportTechie
website, 11.08.2017. Available at https://www.sporttechie.com/paris-open-esports-olympic-sport-
2024-summer-games/ (accessed 5 January 2018).
BUTLER, N. 2017. Esports take big step towards Olympic recognition. Inside The Games website,
28.10.2017. Available at https://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1057203/esports-take-big-step-
towards-olympic-recognition (accessed 5 January 2018).
ETCHELLS, D. 2017. E-sports to become ocial medal sport at 2022 Asian Games. Inside The Games
website, 18.4.2017. Available at http://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1049340/e-sports-to-
become-ocial-medal-sport-at-2022-asian-games (accessed 5 January 2018).
EVERS, C. 2016. Why adding surng to the Olympic Games is bad news for surfers. Huck website, 8th
August, 2016. Available at http://www.huckmagazine.com/perspectives/surf-olympics-bad-idea/
(accessed 5 January 2018)
FLEW, A.G.N. 1954. The Justication of Punishment. Philosophy 29 (111): 291–307.
1978. From ritual to record: The nature of modern sports. New York, NY: Columbia University
HART, H.L.A. 1962. The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
HEMPHILL, D. 2005. Cybersport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 32 (2): 195–207. doi:10.1080/0094870
VAN HILVOORDE, 2016. Guest Editorial: Sport and play in a digital world. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 10
16 J. PARRY
VAN HILVOORDE, I., and N. POT. 2016. Embodiment and fundamental motor skills in eSports. Sport, Ethics and
Philosophy 10 (1): 14–27. doi:10.1080/17511321.2016.1159246.
HOLT, J. 2016. Virtual domains for sports and games. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 10 (1): 5–13.
JENNY, S.E., R.D. MANNING, M.C. KEIPER, and T.W. OLRICH. 2017. Virtual(ly) Athletes: Where eSports Fit Within the
Denition of “Sport”. Quest 69 (1): 1–18. doi:10.1080/00336297.2016.1144517.
KANE, D. and SPRADLEY B.D. 2017. Recognizing Esports as a Sport. The Sport Journal, 2017. Available at www.
thesportjournal.org/article/recognizing-esports-as-a-sport/ (accessed 5 January 2018)
KARHULARTI, VM. 2017. Reconsidering Esport: Economics and executive ownership. Physical Culture and
Sport. Studies and Research. LXXIV, 43–53. doi:10.1515/pcssr-2017-0010.
KÖRNER, S. 1990. On Wittgenstein’s Conceptions of Logic and Philosophical Grammar. In Haller, R. and
Brandl, J. (eds), 130–141. Wittgenstein: Towards a re-evaluation. Vienna: Springer-Verlag.
KREIN, K. 2015. Reections on Competition in Nature Sports. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 9 (3): 270–286.
KRETCHMAR, R.S. 1975. From Test to Contest: An Analysis of Two Kinds of Counterpoint in Sport. Journal
of the Philosophy of Sport 2: 23–30.
LLORENS, MARIONA L.,
2017. eSport Gaming: The Rise of a New Sports Practice. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy
11 (4): 464–476.
LOPEZ FRIAS, F.J., and J.L.P. TRIVIÑO. 2016. Will robots ever play sports? Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 10 (1): 67–82.
MEIER, K.V. 1988. Triad Trickery: Playing with Sport and Games. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 15 (1):
NEW LAW JOURNAL. 2015a. Could bridge be a sport? NLJ website, 1 June 2015. Available at https://www.
newlawjournal.co.uk/content/could-bridge-be-sport (accessed 5 January 2018).
NEW LAW JOURNAL. 2015b. Bridge: a mind game but not a sport. NLJ website, 22 Oct 2015. Available at:
https://www.newlawjournal.co.uk/content/bridge-mind-game-not-sport (accessed 5 January 2018)
PADDICK, D. 1975. What makes physical activity physical? Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 2: 12–22.
PAPINEAU, D. 2015. Sports and Games. Lecture in Toroto, March 27, 2015. Available at https://www.
(accessed 3 February 2018).
PAPINEAU, D. 2017. Knowing the Score - What Sports Can Teach us about Philosophy (and what Philosophy
Can Teach us about Sports). London: Constable and Robinson.
PARRY, J. 2006. Sport and Olympism: Universals and Multiculturalism Journal of the Philosophy of Sport
33: 188-204. Also published as: Sport, Universals and Multiculturalism (in Muller A, ed, Concepts of
Culture: art, politics and society, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006, pp. 267–290).
SUITS, B. 2007. The elements of sport. In Ethics in sport, edited by W.J. Morgan. Champaign, IL: Human
VINALL, M. 2015. Is Bridge a Sport? Sports Law Bulletin. Available at https://www.sportslawbulletin.org/
is-bridge-a-sport/ (accessed 5 January 2018).
WAISMANN, F. 1968. How I See Philosophy. London: Macmillan.