Does the Presence of Analytics Make the Case for Skill Games as Sports?

Ever since people have come up with traditional physical sports and mind games, also often categorized as “skill“ games, there’s been a discussion if mind games should be classified as sports or not. There are definitely arguments for and against and the entire discussion covers much more ground than we could possibly fit in a single article.

That’s why we’ll focus on a single segment and see how mind games and traditional sports share a common area of interest: analytics. Based on this, we’ll see that classic sports and various skill games actually have a lot more in common than some people would like to believe.

Analytics in Traditional Sports

With the development of modern technologies things have changed in nearly all aspects of life. Sports are no different. Back in the day, film study, basic statistics, and scouting reports were the entirety of analysis on upcoming team or individual matchups.

Today, nearly every team in a major sports league employs a statistical department, be it an in-house team or an outsourced company in charge of crunching numbers. They assess their own players and players from other teams to come up with the best strategies and predictions for the upcoming games. It has come to a point where outcomes of the games are often predicted on paper before a single pass or shot has even taken place.

Rise of Fantasy Sports

These advancements in statistical analysis have massively increased the popularity of so-called fantasy sports. This is a type of competition where people pick players and create teams based on their statistical performance. How well a fantasy sports player performs will depend on the individual results of his chosen players.

Although fantasy sports have been around for a while, during the past decade more and more players have been taking an interest. While some of these players may be sports fans as such, many are simply math wizards who know their way around numbers. Fantasy sports are primarily about one’s ability to read graphs and charts, and only secondly about their love for sports.

Thus, one’s success as a fantasy sports player is primarily determined by one’s analytical skills. This means that fantasy sports belong to the category of „skill“ games mentioned in the introductory paragraph. However, they didn’t come to exist on their own, but merely as a byproduct of heavy statistical analysis present in all major sports leagues.

Data Analysis in Mind Games

Many mind games also rely heavily on analyzing past data.

Chess

Chess is probably the best example, as statistical analysis has been a part of the game since the 18th century, and even before people have tried to learn from the games played by their opponents and other players.

One can hardly become a good chess player without analyzing thousands of games and memorizing rather large databases of different opening variations. While someone incredibly talented and intelligent could possibly come up with solutions in real-time he or she would probably still lose quite often to well-educated players.

Data analysis is the key in chess as is in modern sports today. We can thus deduce that chess has a lot in common with traditional sports, even if players spend most of their playing time just sitting at a table instead of running around, jumping, throwing, and shooting. Chess, for the most part, has been recognized as a sport, even if some still argue about it.

Online Poker

There is also a more controversial example we can look at, which is online poker. Most people will claim that online poker will never be considered a sport, even if it is in part a skill game. However, heavy application of data analysis suggests otherwise.

Online poker professionals – those who actually make a living playing the game – have been using many analytical tools to increase their edge. Gathering information on your opponent and figuring out leaks in your own game is crucial to success. This can only be achieved by looking through hundreds of thousands of hands played, carefully dissecting them to find mistakes and new winning strategies.

In fact, data analysis in online poker has become such an integral part and such a powerful weapon that popular sites like America’s Cardroom have tried to eliminate it altogether through various moves. The reason is simple: Those with a good grasp of data analysis are far more advanced than casual players who just come to play. As a result, casual poker players are outmatched by a huge margin, which causes them to lose interest in the game.

Like traditional sports or chess, online poker is thus heavily reliant on crunching numbers. A good baseball team will prepare for an upcoming game by looking at performance sheets of their and their opponent’s players. A good poker player will similarly spend many hours looking at numbers, figuring out where his biggest leaks are and in what areas his opponents most vulnerable.

Does Use of Analysis Sportify Mind Games?

The question that remains is if using data analysis can be used as a proof of sportifying mind games or if traditional sports have become more mind game-like with the increased application of statistics. Of course, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer to this question as the problem can be approached from both sides.

If we consider the fact that data analysis is a crucial part of traditional sports today, however, there is a clear parallel that can be drawn between mind games and sports. Success in both requires some heavy crunching of numbers with detailed statistical research before a game or a match even starts.

Using that logic we can state that mind (or “skill”) games have become much more sports-like than they used to be a couple of decades ago. While the presence of statistical analysis is not an ultimate argument in this discussion, of course, it is certainly one that needs to be considered.

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