Sports v. Games (part 1): When a sport is not a game


The basis of this article was inspired by comparative reviews of competitive games like Magic, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and League of Legends along with articles from Polygon like Competition will drive success of Nintendo Switch more than Zelda or Mario, along with reviews from noted designers like David Sirlin on the importance of simplicity in competition driven games.

While I originally intended this to be a single post about the various different elements of design in games and sports, I realized part way through that I simply would not be able to fit all of the various concepts into a single article (quickly).  So I decided to split out each of the different concepts into its own article, to be stretched across many different parts of writing.

The article is not intended to be a rebuke to argument like Sirlin’s (and others), that simplicity should not be a driving goal for competitive sports.  (simplicity has a very notable benefit in growing the initial competitor base.) Instead I want to investigate why competitive games reject simplicity for valid reasons, and understand the why and the how of when they break with traditional game design.  This series of articles intends to take a dive into it.

For today’s article, I’m taking a look at one of the engines of player interaction in games and sports.

Before I dive in further I’m going to wave the white flag and admit that the nomenclature used here is less than adequate.  In most cases a sport is a subset of the broader “games” category.  While the word casual game might appear to be more accurate in the traditional sense of the word casual, Casual Games have the specific implication of being played on the phone and are usually puzzles like Candy Crush or Words with Friends.  I’d like to attempt to ignore that discussion entirely for the time being.  For now what I mean by games is all games that are not sports.


Competence versus Experience

Both games and sports have elements of competency and experience within them, and both are primary factors in both sports and games.  However, the spectrum of where players lie and what pushes them to the next level is weighted towards separate ends.  In “traditional” games.  In a traditional game, experience is the driving factor.  Pushing towards the next level, the next puzzle, or the next bit of story is driven by a desire to understand and experience a new element or bit of gameplay.  In a sport however, the driving force is competence.  Growth in a sport comes from being able to execute and understand a particular area of the ruleset that grants mastery or efficiency.

You can understand this in the framing of player guides in games.  Often things will be framed as “do x, y, and z in order to accomplish this hard to find task” or “navigate to this part of the screen in order to be led on an interesting adventure”.  And this is not unique to RPGs.  Games like board games (even ones with player competition) have similar impetuses, to test them in particular ways or to hand out an exciting win condition so that they can play their way through the game in a unique and interesting way.  Player guides in sports look very different.  If you go on a magic website like, you’ll notice that many of the guides don’t talk about specific achievements or experiences, but patterns of play, ways to think through the logic, or tactics and game piece guides that teach a user how to become more competent in their play through of the game.

What is interesting about this emphasis on competence or experience is when it leads to divergent design decisions.  The goal of a game is to move/encourage/help the player forward through competence in order to reveal areas of experience to them.  This comes in the form of levels that are specifically designed to show players new powers or different ways to interact with the ruleset that they will need in future turns.  The expectation for a modern game is that it will simply not allow a player to put the game in a state that they cannot get back from.  This is good design in the sense that it encourages a player forward and makes them less likely to drop the game.

A sport has a different goal, however, and it is very possible for players to end up in a position that feels unfair or is entirely unsatisfying, for the sake of competitive balance.  For example, in baseball, there is something known as the infield fly rule, where the batter can be declared out if the hit a pop-up in the infield with 2 or more runners on base.  This would feel entirely unfair to an unknowing player, but is strategically balance because it prevents the opposing team from taking advantage of the situation to an even greater degree.  Rules like offsides in soccer and eligible receivers in football serve similar purposes.  The design is there to say, we want the focus to be on the ability of the team to display competence (pass, shoot, run, hit, etc.) better than the other team.  There is certainly an opportunity and complexity cost here, but one that is often important for sports played at high levels, and one trade that they gladly take.

In Conclusion

Both game players and athletes play games for experience and competition.  Players will compete with each other in board games like Carcassonne, and experiences like incredible catches in football or baseball happen all the time.  The difference is the primary aim for playing and the design decisions that get made as a result.  Because of this it is possible for sports to feel poorly designed and either uncommunicative or unfair to their players (and certainly some can be).  However, this is often because of the tensions and the different aims of sports from other games.  So before you look at a rule in a sport and declare it absurd, ask yourself how it supports the sports main goal of encouraging player competency and whether or not it achieves that goal.


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