5 Competitions Shown on ESPN That Are Questionable as Sports

What counts as a sport and what does not? One way to make a determination is whether a competition is shown on ESPN or another sports network. However, a lot of very competitive events appear on ESPN that have questionable status. While it’s true that competitive eating, auto racing, poker, e-gaming and spelling bees demand skill and stamina, many people don’t consider competitions like these to be on the same par as football, basketball, baseball, track and field, wrestling or other sports.


Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest has been an annual Fourth of July tradition since 1972. The legendary contest draws 40,000 spectators on site and nearly 2 million viewers on ESPN. However, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is just one of several competitive eating competitions included within the Major League Eating organization. Major League Eating also sponsors competitive eating contests involving tamales, shrimp cocktails, asparagus, bacon and other foods.

While competitive eating may appear to be just gorging large quantities of food, champion competitive eaters claim to train rigorously before a competition. Still, consistent overconsumption of food can lead to serious consequences ranging from chronic indigestion to gastroparesis, a medical condition where the stomach loses the ability to empty itself.


Auto racing is nearly as old as the automobile itself. Today, auto racing is a multi-million-dollar international industry. Top ranked NASCAR and Formula 1 drivers are sought after by sponsors, much like basketball or football players. However, naysayers point out that auto racing is as much about the car as the driver behind the wheel. Likewise, a driver’s pit crew can make or break a race. Nonetheless, auto racing is a staple feature on ESPN, which shows both Formula 1 and NASCAR races.

On the other hand, under the definition of sport given by Cambridge dictionary, a strong case could be made to define auto racing as a true sport. According to Cambridge, a sport is defined as “a game, competition or similar activity, done for enjoyment or as a job that takes physical effort and skill, and displayed or done by following particular rules.” Auto racing certainly fulfills every aspect of this definition.


After learning that poker matches are a staple on ESPN, many people respond in disbelief, “Poker is a sport?” There is no doubt that high-level poker players demonstrate expertise and skill. And the World Series of Poker is a popular annual event on ESPN.

However, unlike basketball, football, baseball or even auto racing or competitive eating, it is difficult to argue that poker requires real physical exertion. Even the act of moving from table to table during a championship competition is hardly comparable to driving a car or downing hot dogs. It would seem that high-level poker is more comparable to an intellectual activity like chess rather than as a sport.


Many parents despair about the hours their kids spend on video games. Those same parents may be surprised to learn that all those hours could earn their kids a hefty college scholarship. Since 2014, Robert Morris University located in downtown Chicago has offered athletic scholarships covering 50 percent of tuition, room and board to top-level e-gamers. The school has an established e-gaming team, including a coach.

E-gaming is also a popular feature on ESPN, and competitions of e-games like League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter-Strike, Fortnite, Call of Duty and Hearthstone regularly draw thousands of competitors and spectators from around the world, according to ESPN. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to make a case that e-gaming requires significant physical exertion.


Spelling may seem like an unlikely fit for ESPN, but the Scripps National Spelling Bee is an annual fixture on the cable channel, drawing competitors around the world. The competition is stiff: in 2019, there were eight competitors who spelled every word correctly. Each was named a co-champion and each received a $50,000 cash prize and the coveted Scripps Cup.

Given the amount of prize money on the line, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many competitors train for months with spelling coaches. Many competitors also use online study guides, including spelling lists. While this level of preparation is comparable to that of elite athletes, competing in a spelling bee isn’t athletic in the same way as dunking a basketball.


While competitive eating, auto racing, poker, e-gaming or spelling bees may not count as sports in the classic sense, there is no doubt that people who participate in these activities are true competitors. They prepare much like athletes and often earn generous monetary rewards for their efforts, not to mention attracting a lot of fans. And they also have a lot of fun, which may be the most important aspect of all.


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