OnWords: e-Prefixes

Feb 4, 2020

With the rise of esports, we see also the re-emergence of the e-prefix.

Esports are, as the name implies, video games played competitively and for paying spectators. And they’ve gotten big, fast: collectively they make up a billion dollar industry.

While people like me may not see what is entertaining about watching other people play video games, it’s not surprising that esports exist: if people do it, they can find a way to make it a competition. But the word “esports” harkens back decades to when the word “email” was coined to differentiate between mail on paper and electronically-aided missives.

This old-fashioned use of the e-prefix may indicate the remaining power of traditional sports, perhaps showing that not everyone accepts esports as “real” sports. However much revenue they generate, esports still need the distinction so we don’t confuse them with competitions involving fields and diamonds, bats and balls.

Compare the “e” prefix with the “i” prefix, though. Apple brought us the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, implying their devices are all about the individual, configurable to our own tastes, expressing uniqueness.

But “e” implies the collective, the accessible, the social. Email is sent to someone; an iPod was listened to alone.

So as much as we might complain that our devices keep us from being present to each other, the “e” in “esports” suggests that we want to interact again, and for many of us, competition is the safest, least emotionally vulnerable way.