What is a sport? Sometimes, this question actually needs answering. In a case on gender equality, a district judge disallowed Quinnipiac University’s attempt to claim competitive cheerleading as a sport. Last year, the U.S. government awarded a visa reserved for “internationally recognized athletes” to a South Korean Starcraft II player.
But most of the time, questions of the form “What is X?” are too abstract and subjective, too prone to semantical quibbling, to ever be answered definitively.
Still, if you wanted to start an argument about the fundamental nature of sport, now would be a good time. Because last Sunday, in the final rounds of the DOTA 2 International Championships, a hellish demon named Shadow Fiend ate souls live on ESPN.
DOTA is short for Defense of the Ancients. In this wildly popular computer game, matches are fought between two five-player teams of “heroes,” each supported by an army of “creeps,” or computer-controlled soldiers, and several defensive towers. The goal is to raid the enemy team’s base and destroy their Ancient—an oasis-like structure crackling with strange magic—killing as many opposing heroes as possible along the way. Players are also expected to spend the gold awarded after each kill on one of myriad in-game items, provided, of course, that the “Drum of Endurance” or the “Oblivion Staff” is a good fit for whichever of the hundred-plus heroes (like the soul-eating Shadow Fiend) they happen to be controlling. Basically, DOTA is a sickeningly complex hybrid of chess, Pokémon, and high-speed fencing.
But why was it on ESPN? Because ESPN doesn’t care what a sport is either. The network has long shown non-sporting activities, like billiards, poker, and the spelling bee. The sporting behemoth has also branched out online, backing websites like the entertainment-focused Grantland and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. ESPN will show a video-game tournament if it thinks it’s good business.