Column: Is Fortnite a sport?

On Super Bowl Sunday, 3.4 million people gathered around the TV at the same time to do one thing, and it wasn’t to watch the big game.

It was to play Fortnite. Fortnite, for those unaware, is a video game; the face of an exploding genre known as ‘battle royale’ games. Think Hunger Games in video game form: 100 people parachute onto an island filled with weapons and other supplies; last one alive wins.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Fortnite hit a record-setting 3.4 million concurrent players (meaning 3.4 million people playing at the same time), shattering the 3.2 million mark set by another battle royale game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG for short, a month earlier.

Rarely has a video game ever had such a far-reaching appeal, and there’s plenty of reasons for Fortnite’s unique success. It didn’t necessarily do anything new: PUBG, and another game, H1Z1, before that, already tackled the battle royale formula to great success. Besides the fact that it’s simply a more polished game than either of its predecessors, what truly sets Fortnite apart is its accessibility.

It’s the type of game that anyone can play and have fun, no matter if you’re the first one eliminated or the last alive. Its core gameplay is simple and straightforward for beginners, but with a large enough skill gap to reward more experienced players. And perhaps most importantly, it’s incredibly exciting to watch. It’s not uncommon to walk into a college dorm and see a group of 10 people watching someone play Fortnite, just as enthralled as the one with the controller.

Anything that is as fun to spectate as it is to play has massive potential. After all, isn’t that true of all popular spectator sports? There’s a reason that cross country races and swim meets are far less popular to watch than football and basketball.

Just as it’s nice to be able to watch football without having to withstand any bone-crunching tackles or suffer any permanent brain damage, it’s nice to watch Fortnite without any of the stress and anxiety of actually playing the game. Don’t get me wrong, that anxiety and adrenaline is part of the reason why the game is so addictive. But watching someone else play can be just as enjoyable, without the pressure.

Fortnite shares many of the same qualities with what we generally consider a ‘sport.’ There’s a winner and there are losers. It takes strategy and skill, albeit perhaps not what we usually think of as skill. Put simply, it’s a competition between players, where the best (and the luckiest) wins. So can we call Fortnite a sport?

It’s a tricky question, and a hotly-contested one at that. Professional video game competitions, or “eSports,” are an ever-growing industry, and many mainstream sports outlets have tried to expand into the domain. ESPN in particular has dramatically increased its eSports coverage, causing a significant amount of outrage as a result. Pick any eSports-related article on their social media, and you’ll see the replies mostly consisting of the same kind of toxic “not a sport” comments you find on women’s basketball reporting.

Categorizing video games as sports is a debate that’s not going anywhere. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant. Who cares if you see Call of Duty or Madden as a sport, which is nothing more than a label, as long as you enjoy playing? But that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting conversation to have.

Do a quick search for the definition of sport, and you’ll see some common denominators in every entry: a competitive nature, adhering to a set of rules, playing for fun and entertainment. But there’s one key phrase that appears in almost every definition. “Physical exertion,” “physical activity,” “physical prowess,” are just a few. Can moving joysticks and hitting buttons with your fingers and thumbs be classified as physical exertion?

It’s a question that I can’t really answer, and it’s certainly a matter of opinion. There’s no wrong position on whether eSports can be considered sports.

If you’re interested, here are my thoughts. My short answer is yes, video games can be a sport, though mostly only on a professional level. You and I sitting on a couch playing Fortnite is not playing a sport. But a professional gamer—and I do hesitate to use the term ‘athlete’—playing for an eSports organization is playing a sport.

That said, I’ll likely never see eSports on quite the same level as a conventional sport. I can watch professional CoD players and crazy-good Fortnite streamers (we’re still waiting on a professional Fortnite tournament) and certainly feel a great deal of awe and respect, but I personally could never admire an eSports ‘athlete’ to the extent that I admire watching LeBron James play basketball or Mike Trout play baseball.

And of course, there are counters to every argument. If saying amateur gamers aren’t participating in a sport, does that mean Little League baseball or house league soccer also cannot be classified as sports?

It’s an impossible debate, and one that won’t be settled anytime soon. Whether it’s a sport or not, Fortnite is a blast, and that’s really all that matters. See you at Tomato Town.


Andrew Morrison is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at andrew.morrison@uconn.edu. He tweets at @asmor24