Exclusive interview: Sport England on the possibility of esports teams acquiring funding and how esports and sport can work together

Sport England, the public body sponsored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), is about to publish a new policy document outlining its stance on esports.

The body invests funds from the Government and the National Lottery, and has told the British Esports Association that it believes it can learn from the popularity of esports to help it reach new audiences.

In this exclusive interview with Sport England Director of Sport, Phil Smith, we explore how the sports and esports industries can work together.


What is Sport England’s current stance on esports? 

Sport England acknowledges that esports is consistently growing, with young people as digital natives where for some, esports is a just as exciting as Manchester City is for me. We know that esports is currently outperforming traditional sports in some areas, for example fan engagement, which is why we believe that we can learn from esports and help us reach new audiences.

We’ve agreed that doing nothing isn’t an option, which is why we are creating a policy document which states our official position.


Please tell us about this esports policy document you’re working on. What is the aim of that and when is it likely to launch?

We wanted to complete some research on esports so we could come to an agreed, considered view and this document aims to do just that. The document will be used both internally and externally to clarify how Sport England views esports – what we will and won’t invest in, and how we might work with esports bodies.

I’m not sure it needs an official ‘launch’ but we will be publishing and sharing in in the next few weeks.


There seems to be a general consensus that we’re moving past the whole ‘is esports a sport’ debate now and more towards ‘the similarities between sports and esports and how the two can complement one another’. Would you agree? Why/why not?

We use the Council of Europe’s 2001 definition to determine whether an activity would be recognised as ‘a sport’. Based on this definition, esports (in its current state) would not be recognised as a sport. But we think that the question ‘is esports a sport?’ isn’t the right question we need to be asking! More important is ‘how can esports help us in our aim of transforming lives through sport’?

We think that the esports and sport sectors can work together, as opposed to in competition, as demonstrated in the British Esports half term initiative delivered with Archery GB & West Ham United Foundation. We think this is a great example showing the benefits of combining the two.



“I think it’s possible , depending on how the esports competitive structure evolves and how international teams could be used to show the benefits of physical activity.”



While some in esports have a healthy/active lifestyle, the act of playing esports is sedentary. What can we as an industry – and yourselves as a body – do to encourage people in esports to get more active and involved in sports? And to tell sports fans about the benefits of esports?

We are aware that elite esports players are often required to be at a certain level of fitness to compete at a professional level, especially to improve concentration times and reaction speeds. This could be used as an example to encourage casual players to take breaks and partake in physical fitness whether it be kicking a ball outside or going for a walk thus improving overall health which could improve your gameplay.

Our whole message is about balance – too much of anything won’t do you good!


Do you think you could recognise esports as a sport in the future or will it perhaps not be as black and white as that?

At the moment esports doesn’t require much physical movement which we’ve used as the main reason for not recognising other activities in the past, but if it gets to a point where esports does become a physical activity, when the technology of virtual reality becomes more widespread for example, we may have to reconsider.

But again, we would have to question whether recognition as sport would be necessary and beneficial to both parties.


What are your thoughts on school, college and university students taking part in more and more esports tournaments, like our Championships?

We think this is positive – a regulated, accessible competition structure and an inclusive talent pathway is just as good for esports as sport. We may be able to lean something from how esports does it.


Through your work with BUCS do you have any involvement with National Student Esports (NSE)?

BUCS is a Sport England partner and whilst we have been aware of the work they’re doing with NSE we haven’t had any direct involvement.



“Based on the Council of Europe’s 2001 definition, esports in its current state would not be recognised as a sport. But we think that the question ‘is esports a sport?’ isn’t the right question we need to be asking! More important is: ‘how can esports help us in our aim of transforming lives through sport’?”



What are your thoughts on the Government’s increased interest in esports? How could you work with them in this space do you think?

We are aware that Margot James MP, (outgoing) Minister for Digital, has expressed she would like to support esports and it’s important for us to be aware of what those in Government are saying about esports especially as she is from our Government department, DCMS.

We’ve made connections in DCMS with those who specialise in this area, we think it’s important to work with them especially with some of the links we’re looking to make but we are yet to outline just how we would work with them, as esports is ever-evolving, as is the technology.


What are your views on the future of esports and sports, will we see more convergence do you think?

We’ve already seen some innovations becoming entities in their own right, such as British Cycling’s eRacing Championships in partnership with Zwift. Other sport and fitness organisations are also trying new things.

We think the next major change will be when VR/AR merges and takes off on a mass participation scale, which we hope may help more people to live active lives. Our concern would be that it’s accessible to all, we want to ensure that wherever the future of sport goes that it is inclusive and accessible to people regardless of background and circumstances.


Do you envisage a future where grassroots esports teams in the UK could acquire government funding?

I think it’s possible, depending on how the esports competitive structure evolves and how international teams could be used to show the benefits of physical activity.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s been a pleasure dealing with the British Esports Association, they’ve made a potentially complex new world much easier to understand!


Visit the Sport England website here

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