The virtual athlete

Observations on sport

Before the end of this year a proposal will be brought before Sport England asking for e-sports - that is, the playing of competitive computer games - to be recognised as an official sport. Many will struggle to think of anything more absurd, but, for many gamers, the sports lifestyle is already a reality.

In the decade since Dennis Fong, the first professional gamer, won Microsoft's Deathmatch '95, steadily increasing numbers of players have been giving up their day jobs. They are the stars of a culture in which you earn respect by showing brilliance, not with a ball, but with your mouse.

The Cyberathlete Professional League, launched in 1997, has organised huge competitions across five continents and distributed more than $3m in prize money, and that is just one league. We now also have the World Cyber Games, the Electronic Sports World Cup, the World eSports Games and the World Series of Video Games. Hardly a month passes without hundreds of gamers jetting off to a foreign city to compete for six-figure prizes.

And e-sports is big business. Hardware firms such as Intel and Samsung were involved almost from the start, but now companies with a slightly less direct interest - Pizza Hut and Subway, for example - have become involved. To them, e-sports are a useful way of reaching 16- to 24-year-olds with disposable income.

Top players have formed teams owned by limited companies, and often receive salaries to train and compete. These companies are becoming brands with their own identities and merchandise. As in football, there are transfers: US-based NoA bought the Norwegian Ola Moum in 2003 from a Swedish team, SK Gaming; he later moved to Mousesports of Germany.

In China and South Korea, gaming is already a recognised sporting activity and top players are national figures with their own fan clubs, whose league matches are watched on television by millions. Several players, some as young as 17, earn more than most Premiership footballers, though their lifestyle is probably tougher - eight hours' training a day is standard.

Will the application to Sport England be successful? Probably not, as there is too much pressure on the government to encourage physical activity and reduce childhood obesity before the 2012 London Olympics. But leading figures in the industry believe that, whatever Sport England decides, such is the explosive growth of gaming and the businesses associated with it, that it will not be long before e-sports players from Britain and around the world start competing with conventional sportsmen for attention, coverage and revenue.


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