The global eSports market has been growing rapidly for the past few years, and this growth is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. However, the German authorities still refuse to recognize eSports as a sport.
What not so long ago was no more than a niche market for hardcore gamers has developed into a major global industry. There are a number of reasons for the rise of sporting competition between people playing computer games.
One factor is the global hype that has helped fill lager arenas with spectators watching gaming tournaments, which in turn has led to major media corporations devoting significant airtime to eSports - including live broadcasts. Another is the fact that the younger generation have grown up with computers.
However, amid all of this good news, something of a shadow hangs over the German eSports community, and that is the fact that the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) refuses to recognize eSports as a sport.
Felix Falk, the managing director of the BUI, an association that represents German producers and publishers of interactive entertainment software, told DW that convincing the DOSB to recognize eSports as a sport is of utmost importance.
"Recognition would lead to much-needed support, both politically and socially," Falk said.
Clear DOSB regulations
The prerequisites for gaining membership in the DOSB are clearly set out in its statutes. To become a member, the applicant must fill out an application, which is then put to a vote at a meeting of its general membership. In the view of the BUI, there is nothing standing in the way of eSports making such an application.
"eSports meet all of the requirements to be recognized as a sport. A number of scientific studies have demonstrated that the exertion experienced by eSports athletes in competition (measurable by things such as their pulse) is comparable to that of a regular athlete," Falk said, before going on to make the argument about the motor activity this entails.
"It is not only the motor activity, but it is also the social, cognitive activity that is involved in eSports. The motor activity is comparable with that of motor sports or chess, in which the motor activity is often not visible. If you consider the fine-motor activity, eSport athletes achieve something truly remarkable; with hundreds of clicks per minute they achieve things that are entirely comparable to athletes in other sports."
However, Michael Schirp of the DOSB argues that if you speak to many experts and physicians, you will find that they see eSports in a very different light, and they warn against the lack of movement and orthopedic damage.
"These are discussions for the experts to conduct and the DOSB is not the referee in this matter," Shirp said.
Non-profit organization or business endeavor?
So what is actually standing in the way of eSports being recognized as a sport in Germany?
"The DOSC is not an authority that decides what is and what is not a sport. Sports develop in the context of a society," Schirp said. "Not just that, but an application for recognition must be submitted before our member associations, such as the athletics association, for example, can vote on it."
However, eSports representatives have not submitted an application and according to Shirp, they couldn't do this if they wanted to, because eSports in Germany are not part of a non-profit organization or federation that exists for the common public good, but instead they are made up of companies, organizers, developers and software producers, which are all businesses seeking to turn a profit.
"Such businesses cannot join the DOSB," Schirp said.
In Germany, the tax authorities are charged with determining whether or not an organization is not-for-profit or is a business endeavor. When a new club is formed, the tax authorities examine its statutes to determine whether it meets the criteria set out in the paragraph of the tax code that deals with "tax deductible purposes." This determines whether the club qualifies as a non-profit organization for the common good. Of particular importance is the club's declared purpose or goal, what actions it plans to pursue to in order to fulfill said purpose, and whether, under the tax code it can be recognized as being a non-profit organization, a charity or a religious organization.
According to the DOSB, eSports do not meet any of these requirements.
"Due to the fact that members of the computer-gaming sector operate as businesses, which in the definition used by the tax authorities operate with the purpose of generating profit, they cannot become members of non-profit organizations such as the DOSB," Schirp said. "The computer-gaming sector is a business sector with the purpose of generating profit, which means that it may not obtain access to a non-profit group."
State finance ministry concurs
The finance ministry of the Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), confirmed the view of the DOSB. According to the ministry, clubs created to promote eSports operating in NRW are not recognized as being for the common public interest, because they promote none of the required goals to qualify as such, especially not as a sport. Felix Falk disputes this interpretation.
"The aim is to form clubs and state federations, but there is one main problem. Without being recognized as a sport, there is no way to gain recognition as a non-profit sports club," Falk said. "As a result there is no way to gain access to public funding under the sports promotion law. In this respect, Germany lags behind other countries."
Increasing recognition abroad
"The fact that eSports are recognized in other countries has to do with the fact that sports are organized differently in other countries," Schirp said. "Germany has more club members in organized sports than any other nation. This is due to the fact that it is a grass-roots movement for the common good, a bottom-up pyramid that has evolved over 150 years. It is a social institution."
According to Schirp, the structures that exist in other countries make it easier for eSports to gain recognition as a sport.
"As long as there is no voluntary or non-profit eSports community in Germany, they will not gain access to the overall sporting federation system," he said.
It doesn't matter that the number of spectators is rising rapidly or that two of the world's biggest tournaments are held in Germany, or that the prize money is now as high as a tennis player earns for winning Wimbledon.
These days, however, when the numbers in a given sport are high enough, the previously unimaginable can suddenly become possible. eSports are continually growing, and experts predict that they will have around 600 million spectators worldwide and generate 1.34 billion euros ($1.44 billion) in annual revenue by 2020.
An opening through the back door?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is structured as a club and therefore can admit whoever it wants. So what would happen if it decided to recognize eSports as a sport?
As a member of the IOC, the DOSB would be legally bound to offer eSports membership - and in turn to nominate its members to participate in the Olympic Games.
However, the DOSB says that the IOC currently views this possibility as purely hypothetical and that no international federation recognized by the IOC has submitted an application for membership or recognition in the first place.
"With this, the question has also been resolved for the DOSB," Schirp concluded.