All sports can be grouped into five categories by their rules. These rules set constraints which lead to similar emergent behaviors and strategies in each category.
What is a sport?
For my purposes, a sport is a physical competition you can win or lose based on some skill.
This means non-physical skilled competitions like chess are not sports under this definition.
Leisure activities vs. sports
Many outdoor leisure activities are not sports. Kayaking alone is not a sport because you can’t win or lose. You would need to add competitive rules to make it into a sport, like speed kayaking.
However, the rules must be designed carefully to reward skill more than chance. Coin tossing would obviously not be a sport because it only depends on chance. If fishing is made into a sport via a fishing tournament, the rules should control for the unpredictable fish by evaluating fishers in the same area of a river for the same time period.
Under this definition, I claim that all sports can be categorized as Measure, Precision, Spectacle, Combat, or Play.
“Measure” sports are ones where the goal is to min/max a certain value. The most common measure sports are races. You win a measured sport by running the fastest, lifting the most, throwing the farthest, etc.
The objective is to get the record, and there is no “best” performance or ceiling other than the current world record.
Examples: track & field, car racing, running, cycling, rowing, bobsledding, speed-climbing, power lifting
Precision sports are like Measured sports, but with the goal of accuracy. The goal is to hit a target, not a min/max with no bound. You win a precision sport by being the most precise with your movement.
Examples: pistol, archery, darts, cornhole, golf
Spectacle sports are subjectively judged and aesthetics matter. They often have panels of judges.
For example, figure skating is judged on “interpretation of music” among other more technical criteria. Almost any physical activity could be turned into a spectacle sport if a point system is designed around it to determine who wins and who loses.
This is not to say that all non-Spectacle sports are perfectly objectively scored. For example, many Play sports have referees who make subjective calls for fouls. However, individual judges have fairly wide subjective leeway in Spectacle sports. Would a “perfect” judge with all information always make the same calls?
Because Spectacle sports require subjective judging, casual enjoyment of the activity is not a sport. Skating in Central Park with your friends is not a sport unless you count how many triple lutzes you each do.
Examples: cheerleading, figure skating, gymnastics, artistic (synchronized) swimming, skateboarding, parkour, surfing
Combat sports encompass most martial arts or fighting sports, where you win when the other person loses. They involve some direct physical strength contest or grappling, so fencing is a combat sport but tennis is not. These are often 1-v-1 sports, except maybe tug-of-war.
What makes fencing a Combat sport and tennis a Play sport? There’s something visceral about Combat sports, like they are one layer closer to actual fighting. Please provide a counterexample if you disagree.
Examples: boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, karate, arm wrestling, tug of war
Play is the leftover, catch-all category which encompasses all sports that don’t fit the other definitions. The top 9 most popular sports in the world are all Play sports, and they are perhaps the most natural expression of “play” even as kids. You can complete the sentence “I play ___” with any Play sport.
Play sports are hard to define on their own and not in contrast to the other four sports categories. Most Play sports have more complex rules than Measure, Precision, Spectacle, or Combat sports. Play sports are often, but not always team sports — both singles and doubles tennis are Play sports.
Examples: basketball, football, soccer, tennis, cricket, hockey, volleyball, ping pong, baseball, rugby
This blog post was a fun thought exercise for me, but I’m curious what others think. Would you categorize anything differently? Would you propose a new category? Do you have a better definition for any category?
Header image source: Fast (Motion) + my edits