The question at hand is whether it is more correct to say “esports is” or “esports are.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people in esports, whether writing or speaking, use the two conjugations interchangeably. And why not? No one can seriously argue that the author or speaker’s intended meaning is obscured in either case, and insofar as there is no obvious reason to privilege one over the other, it might be said that the question of verb conjugation – singular or plural – should be left to the writer’s discretion.
There is a difference.
Fair enough. But I’d like to suggest that there is a difference, and that by standardizing a distinction between the two, we can resolve a very occasional ambiguity that results from their total equivalence. So, consider a pair of sentences from Justin Groot’s article, “Agony and Ecstasy at the Biggest Tournament Ever”:
“The whole East vs. West dynamic in esports is another great example of its instabilities and tensions.”
“All successful esports are hard, because it’s the difficulty itself that makes them interesting.”
So, one singular verb, one plural. Despite the identical spelling, the meaning of “esports” in the two sentences is not quite the same. In the first sentence, “esports” refers to esports as a kind of institution encompassing, it is implied, everything from fans, to teams, to leagues, etc. In the second, “esports” is a true plural, simply referring to a number of individual games that have professional scenes (i.e. “League of Legends is an esport, but Dota 2 and League of Legends are esports.”)
“Esports” is what’s referred to as a “mass noun.”
It’s relatively self-evident why “esports” in the second sentence should be treated as a plural, but the first sentence demands a bit more explanation. In this case, “esports” is what’s referred to as a “mass noun” (sometimes called non-count nouns), a curious category of words that denote an entity that cannot be counted, but nevertheless lack a plural in ordinary usage, and do not take the indefinite article. Likewise, they refer to something that cannot normally be counted, but may be countable when referring to particular units or types. Other examples include mathematics, transportations, and software; no one talks about “a mathematics” or “mathematicses” in anything but the most specialized discourse communities. I’d argue that esports perfectly satisfies these criteria – and, for what it’s worth, “sports” does too – and so should follow the grammatical rules that dictate the use of mass nouns, namely, that they take singular verbs.
So, what do we gain if we accept this distinction between these two meanings of “esports” as valid? Clarity, in very particular contexts. Imagine a situation in which a writer needs to talk about how the whole of esports is constituted by a number of individual esports – e.g. “Esports is comprised of nearly a dozen esports that are played professionally across the globe.” By differentiating between the two nounal forms of “esports” vis-a-vis the type of verb they take, the writer can make this distinction without further clarification, parenthetical or otherwise. This, in turn, increases the efficiency of their language and adds an additional device, if a specialized one, to their toolbox of writerly techniques.
It’s worth noting also that there’s a strong argument to be made that team names should follow these basic rules – that is, we should treat TSM, Alliance, Evil Geniuses, etc. as mass nouns (i.e., no one talks about “an Alliance Dota 2 team” or “Alliances”) that take singular verbs. Because the team is distinct from the players that compose it, it need not take the same verb conjugations, which affords increased clarity in sentences with multiple independent clauses with different subjects (e.g. “Alliance is winning because Alliance’s supports are so farmed!”).
Language has a metagame too.
Of course, this would render “incorrect” David “LD” Gorman’s famous plaudits of Team Liquid during the International 3 – ”Liquid are doing it!,” as they team wiped LGD at the Roshan pit – along with a lot of our colloquial use of team names and esports. But esports, all things considered, is still a growing field, and if so much else is changing, perhaps our writing should change too. Language changes over time, which is to say that language has a metagame too. No one, of course, should be shamed for making no distinction between “esports is” and “esports are,” but by reflecting on why we make the grammatical decisions we make, writers can make more deliberate and more thoughtful choices about their words, increasing the potential for both clarity and expressiveness. So if making a conscious choice between “esports is” and “esports are” helps defuse ambiguity, even if it’s only in one in a thousand sentences, then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s worth it.