A Categorization Of Sports

On purpose, the title of this post is “A Categorization of Sports” and not “The Categorization of Sports” because, quite simply, there is not a single answer. Having said that, this post focuses on identifying categories for sports that are scored with similar statistical methodologies.

By using the following decision tree to distinguish between certain components of a sport, ultimately all sports can be grouped into one of five categories.


# of Sports Involved

The first branch of the tree separates individual sports from sports that are made up of multiple sports. Arguably the most straight forward branch, it is important to make this distinction early because it identifies the context of variability in results. As such, sports that consists of multiple sports, and multiple scoring methodologies (defined later), are grouped into their own category (i.e. MULTI SPORTS), with individual sports requiring a few more distinctions before being categorized.

In regards to variability, the more factors at play (pun intended), the greater degree of variability in the result. For example, even if the individual sports that make up a Multi Sport are all in the same category, it is the combination of skill sets required that creates the increased variability in the result and thus sets the Multi Sport category apart from others. Therefore, from a statistical perspective, variability in the result is a key distinction is categorizing sports.

Opponent Contact

The second branch of the tree determines whether or not opponents are allowed to come in contact with each other, either directly (i.e. person-to-person) or indirectly (i.e. via a shared object, like a ball). This distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. if opponents are allowed to come in contact with one another, a participants strategy is subject to the movements of its opponent, making the relative numerical result of each opponent more important than the absolute numerical result; and,

  2. sports that allow opponent contact can be interrupted/paused based off the subjective interpretation of the rules/status by participants and referees (i.e. humans), which creates variability in the momentum of the sport, and thus the result.

Therefore, based off these two factors, sports that allow opponent contact are categorized separately (i.e. as MATCH SPORTS) because their results are heavily subject to human (both player and referee) interpretations of the actions of other humans.

Scoring Methodology

The third branch of the tree introduces the scoring methodology of a sport. The options for this branch are whether the sport:

  1. adopts distance, time, or weight (“DTW”), as its unit of measurement for scoring;

  2. has created a unit of measurement for scoring that is tailored for the sport itself, typically referred to as “points”; or,

  3. uses a combination of methodologies (e.g. DTW and points).

These distinctions are important because they identify an objective (i.e. DTW) category of sports (i.e. METRIC SPORTS) from categories that are measured with points which, without further explanation, can be an ambiguous distinction. Furthermore, it identifies individual sports that use a combination of scoring methodologies so they can be appropriately categorized as Multi Sports.


As an extension of the third branch, the fourth branch of the tree focuses on whether the (aforementioned, and arguably ambiguous,) points of a sport are scored objectively or subjectively. The criteria for each is:

  • objective points occur when participants are tasked with placing an object as close to, or in/on, an agreed upon spot within an agreed upon field of play. These points, including their absolute value, allowed attempts, equipment used, and notably, manners, are agreed upon among the participants before commencing play. Therefore, with so many of the rules “out of the way”, participants score points based on the objective measurement of placement relative to a marker, multiplied by its associated point value, typically resulting in a whole number.

    • Said differently, with all else being equal, the purpose of a participants attempt, or performance, is to be more precise than their opponents relative to the same athletic feat. Therefore, precision is measured with an “X marks the spot” mentality, so these sports are categorized as MAP SPORTS.

  • subjective points occur when participants are tasked with performing an individually chosen athletic feat within an agreed upon field of play. These points, particularly their relative value, are ascribed by a panels interpretation of a real-time performance compared to a pre-defined interpretation of the performance. Therefore, the variability derived from this comparison methodology creates the need for a broader point scale, typically expanding into decimals, due to the subjective opinions of the human panel.

    • Said differently, with all else being equal, the purpose of a participants attempt, or performance, is to be more precise than their opponents relative to different athletic feats. Therefore, precision is measured by the participants ability to “wow”, or impress, the judging panel, so these sports are categorized as MARVEL SPORTS.


Match Sports

A MATCH SPORT is any sport that allows for physical contact between opponents. Often referred to as match-ups, or sometimes as games, Match Sports typically involve two (but maybe more) opponents offensively and defensively competing against one another, with the winner being the participant with the most points.

Regarding physical contact, in some Match Sports opponents are allowed to intentionally and obstructively come in contact with other opponents, to a certain degree, before a rule is broken. In other Match Sports, opponents indirectly come in contact with other opponents via a shared object such as a ball over a net.

Physical contact is the only distinction required for a Match Sport because, no matter the scoring methodology, the outcome is always dependent on the motions of the participants relative to their opponents. Said differently, when human movements (or interpretation of movements, from a referees perspective), are subject to another humans movements, the result becomes subjective. This is no big deal, as subjectivity is what drives variability which is a driver for excitement (or disappointment) in sports, but it does require these sports to be categorized separately.

Some examples of Match Sports are:

Metric Sports

A sport is a METRIC SPORT if:

  • physical contact between opponents is prohibited, and

  • placement is dictated from either distance, time, or weight (DTW)

While, yes, the name does come from The International System of Units (SI), Metric Sports are not limited to the seven SI Base Units. As long as the unit is universally consistent and unambiguous, it can be used.

Regarding physical contact, in order to maintain their objectivity in placement, physical contact with an opponent often results in disqualification in a Metric Sport. However, in some cases, physical contact is permitted if it is deemed to be unintentional and/or unobstructed.

Ultimately, Metric Sports have high measurement objectivity (i.e. universal metric) and minimal referee subjectivity (i.e. physical contact prohibited).

Some examples of Metric Sports are:

Map Sports

A sport is a MAP SPORT if:

  • physical contact between opponents is prohibited, and

  • an objective point scoring methodology is used to determine placement

Named for their objective of placing an object relative to a target on a given landscape (i.e. a Map), Map Sports can also be thought of as the precision / accuracy sports.

And since opponent contact (i.e. interference) is prohibited, the scoring methodology is, typically measured as closest to a target if given only one attempt, or the number of attempts it takes to place an inside the target.

Some examples of Map Sports are:

Marvel Sports

A sport is a MARVEL SPORT if:

  • physical contact between opponents is prohibited, and

  • a subjective point scoring methodology is used to determine placement

Named for their ability to marvel spectators, Marvel Sports can also be thought of as the artistic category of sports. As a result, a performance in a Marvel Sport is subject to the interpretation of human judges, hence their subjective scoring methodology.

Regarding physical contact, Marvel Sports typically involved one competitor participating in an individually chosen athletic feat, unobstructed. Additionally, while a prop may be used, never does it come in contact with another participant during the course of play.

Some examples of Marvel Sports are:

Multi Sports

While the tree may start with Multi Sports, the categories end with Multi Sports because they are the simplest to define. A sport is a MULTI SPORT if it:

  • involves two or more sports (regardless of the categorization of the individual sports), or

  • involves two or more scoring methodologies

Some examples of Multi Sports are:


  • The criteria use for categorization is based the sport itself, and not a sporting competition.

    • For example, swimming is a Metric Sport because it is dictated by time. However, swimming competitions typically ascribe a point value to the placement of a performance (which is, again, dictated by time) that is not necessarily directly correlated with the performance itself. So, while swimming alone has an objective placement methodology, swimming competitions do not.

  • Sports that are based entirely on other individual sports, such a eSports and Fantasy sports, should fall into the same category of the individual sports they reference

Author: Elliot Meena

Published: April 22nd, 2019

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology