Struggling for recognition: esports in the EU

By Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka. Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka comes from Poland. In 2020, she graduated with honours from the Beijing Language and Culture University with a BA in Chinese Language. Currently she is interning at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw (Poland) as a part of her Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Euroculture at University of Strasbourg (France) and University of Groningen (the Netherlands). LinkedIn.

What are esports? Are they a sport at all? It is just for fun, right? As video games become increasingly popular, a new profession has appeared: esports player. Nevertheless, they, like us, are ceaselessly confronted with these and many other questions. However, there is no doubt that esports are getting more and more visible. 11% of Europeans watch esports at least once per week. 50% of the European population between 6 and 64 years old play video games. Women constitute 47% of all players. The size of the European video game market increased by 22% in 2020 and reached €23.3bn. The numbers speak for themselves. And these figures translate into good moments to make our world a little better. Did you know that girls who play video games are 3x more likely to choose a STEM-related profession compared to girls that do not? The video games sector is constantly growing, creating new opportunities for Europeans. Esports could be the future of international sports competitions in Europe and beyond. So what is the stance towards esports in the European Union (EU)?

The first time esports came to the fore in the EU was in September 2007, when the European Parliament held its first discussion on esports. Already at that time, important issues such as intellectual property rights were raised, and although there was ultimately no consensus on whether esport was a sport or not, the need to develop a legal framework for the phenomenon of esports was recognised. Unfortunately we are not there yet. Governing esports is challenging. According to the study on EU sports policy conducted in 2021, currently the esports do not fall under the scope of sport policy of the EU, however, both the European Commission and the European Parliament are aware of the growing importance of the esports and try to take concrete actions. Since 2018, three projects related to esports have received funds from the ERASMUS+ programme; the most recent one is ‘Playing 4 Soft Skills’, with five EU Member States taking part (Germany, Latvia, Poland, Italy and Spain). Its main aim is to develop non-formal, digital tools for students aged 14-19 to develop and master the soft skills needed in today’s competitive job market. The same study, however, stresses that it will be difficult for esports to be classified as a sport on the EU level.

EU member states have had, and continue to have, different attitudes to esports over the years. Take Germany, for example. Initially, the country denied esports the status of sport, due to the lack of “self-motoric performance”. But Germany was quick to acknowledge the financial potential of esports and in 2018 the country granted them the status of sport under national law. The reclassification brought some substantial benefits for German esports clubs, for example the possibility to apply for not-for-profit-status, which lowers corporate and commercial taxes and allows the clubs to collect donations. The process of obtaining a German visa also got much easier for international esports players.   

Apart from individual position of each and every Member State, on the legal scene of esports in the EU there are many different stakeholders, from video game industry representatives concentrated on profit to Electronic Sports League organising international esports tournaments. Their often divergent needs aggravate the problem of disagreement over esports related matters in Brussels. Is it then impossible to reach an agreement?   

Definitely not! As time goes by, the voices of those involved in esports in the EU get louder and louder. Last February, Brussels welcomed the creation of the European Esports Federation (EEF), which had chosen the EU capital as its headquarters. The EEF brings together national esports players, teams and relevant partners from across Europe to build the European esports movement. It can therefore be expected that their position will become more and more influential on the European scene over time, to the extent of influencing legislative changes within the Community.

Esports are rising to prominence in Europe and around the world, especially in recent months during the pandemic of COVID-19. Their popularity is growing very fast, as well as the size of this entertainment sector. But esports are much more than just pastimes, there are broader social and cultural phenomena in today’s society. The EU and its Member States need a clear legal framework for this phenomena to seize all the opportunities and to tackle many challenges. The EU is known as a digital regulatory superpower—its standards, such as the GDPR, end up becoming the world’s standards. This is all the more reason for it to take the lead in establishing a clear legal framework for esports.The first step should be to develop a common definition of esports. Yes, esports are different from the mainstream sports we have known since we were kids, but new circumstances constantly emerge to change our traditional definitions and view of the world in the blink of an eye. It will be the same with esports. Who knows, maybe they will soon become an Olympic discipline?


Image credits: Sam Churchill

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