The eSport World Championship, one of the largest and most prestigious gaming events in the world, finally happened on November in Israel after a year delay due to COVID-19. Participants, organizers and fans alike were excited to see the 2021 Games reach their full potential in Eilat after 2020’s competition was held fully online, with Sweden walking away as the winner of the entire event.

Hosted by the International Esports Federation (IESF), and organized by Maccabi World Union, the Championships featured 500 of the foremost gamers in the world. Players from 85 different countries descended on Eilat last weekend (November 16-20th) for the 13th annual competition after beating out 10,000 other competitive gamers to reach the coveted world championship. Hundreds of millions of fans tuned into the action.

The competition brings up many questions for the international sporting community. Can eSport competition fall into the category of “sport?” If it can, how do eSport players rank as athletes? How do women get an equal footing in eSports when the vast majority of international players are men? How does the national and international political climate impact participating nations and players?

As the 2021 Championships played out in Eilat, these questions were in the air. Several countries chose not to send players to the Games because of Israel’s hosting, yet many involved in planning saw these games as a step in the right direction in terms of peaceful sports competition. Azerbaijan, Kosovo, the UAE, Senegal and Indonesia sent players, a move that Ido Brosh, head of the Israel eSports Association, sees as, “the triumph of sports, or triumph of eSports, not only in the face of politics, but the face of COVID,” as he told The Jerusalem Post.

In terms of gender equality, there are varying levels of female representation depending on type of game. One game in the Championships, Titled Audition, had more female players than other categories like DOTA 2, Tekken 7, eFootball 2022 and Counter Strike: GO. Organizers have realized that games centered on war, shooting and sports tend to attract more male players, while Titled Audition is a Korean-made dancing and rhythm game with higher female numbers.

Winners at the event included North Macedonia in CS:GO, Czech Republic in Dota 2, Korea in Tekken and Georgia in eFootball.

The debate over whether or not eSports are “sports” has been active since the beginning of the practice, yet many eSport players and advocates do not see the questions around legitimacy as a threat. In his opening speech, IESF President Vlad Marinescu stressed that the shared values between eSports and traditional athletic competition are what matter, and he reflected on the power of gaming to uplift and unite: "Esports was the reason why during the pandemic we were able to support the mental health of people, we were connecting still.” It is with this positive attitude and sportsmanlike approach that the Games happened in Eilat. The gaming community was surely boosted by the eSport-friendly nature of COVID-19 lockdowns, offering a safe space for players new and old to reach mastery.

Israel had been preparing for this event since the 11th annual world championships, and was the first time the country hosted the unique competition. While other eSport games are individualized or focus on teams, the World Championships underscore national teams. Players representing their home countries competed for a variety of titles in many different video games.

ESports are surely here to stay, proven by the growing size and strength of the annual World Championships. For a short time, Eilat became the center of the action, and Israel was excited to put on a stellar competition in order to propel the world of eSports into the future. The fact that the Championships were organized by Maccabi World Union shows the increasing importance of eSports, as MWU is the world’s largest Jewish sporting organization. Lost Tribe eSports, the US-based Jewish organization bringing together gamers, also supported the competition. Maccabi is also the organization that is hosting the Maccabiah in the summer of 2022 between July 12-26, and as part of the Maccabiah we are planning a showcase exhibition in the field of Egaming.

With support from such an international athletic body, eSport competition seems to be gaining acceptance into the traditional sporting field, breaking international boundaries and shifting attitudes around gender equality in gaming. Fans and players alike are excited for the 2022 competition, announced to be hosted by Indonesia.