Should eSports be part of the Olympics?


The 2018 Asian Games will feature several demonstration eSports, paving the way for competitive gaming to leap towards the Olympic grail.

Directly or subtly, you have been part of the debate before: can eSports really be considered a sport? Does it fit one of the many indefinite denotations of a “sporting activity”? Or is it more of a mind sport, like chess or poker for instance? Should eSports have their own separate equivalent of a “World Cup” or should we create the concept of e-Olympics?

Whatever your stance on these controversial topics, facts can not be swept under the rug any longer – eSports will, sooner or later, be initiated into the Olympic family.

Feel the Power

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has often reiterated his viewpoint that the spirit of the Olympics is in absolute juxtaposition with games that promote violence or killing. Yet, the annual 2017 Olympic Summit settled on the conclusion that eSports could be considered a sporting activity due to the intensity levels of gamers´ training. However, fingers were raised cautioning that the content of individual games must not infringe on “Olympic values” of non-discrimination, non-violence and peace among people.

It is unlikely that we will see a graphic bloodbath of CS:GO headshots and explosions under the heat of the Olympic flame. But sports games spearheaded by FIFA and NBA 2K could be perceived as instigators of real-life activities taken up by their respective groups of players. Still, more cartoonishly violent MOBA games of the likes of League of Legends or DOTA 2 add a new dimension to the already muddled up conditions. Do these games fall under the vexed category of “killer games”? Or is their worldwide popular appeal an irresistible force even for the greyheads of the IOC?

The tides seem to be shifting in the latter direction. Mr Bach unequivocally expressed his growing admiration for eSports in a recent interview, stating that the sector was “clearly exciting and growing with millions of regularly engaged young people worldwide.” The IOC President was quick to emphasise that “the Olympic movement cannot ignore such a phenomenon by any means.”

Cutting the Red Tape

Rules from the IOC´s statutes are straightforward: if eSports want to be recognised as an Olympic sport, the sector will need a globally functioning governing body or federation with official negotiating capacities and the ability to guarantee compliance with Olympic rules (anti-doping, betting manipulation etc.). Examples of such official agencies from the world of “real sports” include FIFA or the IAAF.

This could prove to be rather tricky business for the fragmented stratums of privately owned eSports. EA and Konami own the rights to the two most popular football games, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer. CS:GO content belongs to Valve while LoL is the property of Riot Games. If any of these games are to be featured on the Olympic scene in the near to mid-future, major gaming corporations will have to come to a consensus regarding the creation of a centralised ruling body that will oversee the process of transforming eSports into an officially recognised Olympic sporting discipline.

One Step at a Time

This years´ Winter Olympic Games were preceded by the Intel Extreme Masters Pyeongchang, a showcase Starcraft II tournament held under the overarching patronage of the IOC. The highlight Korean event was jointly organised by ESL and Intel, the IOC´s global technology partner.

The exposure of eSports aimed at a wider sportive audience does not stop here, however. Following a deal between Alisports, the sports dedicated off shoot of the Chinese internet giant Alibaba Group, and the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), competitive gaming is coming to the 2018 Asian Games, the world´s second largest multi-sport event behind the Olympics.

The Games, also known as the Asiad, are recognised by the IOC and are scheduled to take place from August 18 to September 2 in Jakarta-Palembang, Indonesia. The Asian Esports Federation (AeSF) has confirmed that Pro Evolution Soccer, League of Legends and Starcraft II will all be included in the tournament´s agenda. Fans of Hearthstone, Clash Royale and Arena of Valor will also witness a competitive feast of the games´ best from the Asian continent.

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The concept had previously been tried out at the 2017 Ashgabat Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games and is expected to reappear again at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. Nevertheless, a smooth execution of the eSports operation at this year´s Asiad could easily turn out to be a significant propellant in elevating professional gaming to Olympic levels. The financial backing for pulling through such bold enterprise is certainly there, as reports suggest that Alibaba plans to invest further $150M into eSports over the next few years via Alisports.

The Chinese corporate mammoth has already partnered with the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) that futilely struggles to gain recognition for eSports as a sport on a global scale while cardinally lacking the support of major gaming corporations. Alibaba also hosts the World Electronic Sports Games (WESC), a multi-game championship with an overall $5.5M in prize money, one of the highest reward pools in the history of eSports. All clues suggest the dough is just about ripe for competitive gaming.

Quo Vadis, eSports?

As the Asian Games are predominantly geared towards a continental audience, it remains questionable whether the uninitiated masses will be engaged enough due to the rather complex nature of most of the games involved. For fans, this will simply be an opportunity to cheer for their favourite players representing their own countries at a grandiose multi-sport event, as opposed to the usual format of single-faceted eSports club tournaments. For the wider public, however, it could be a first shy encounter with eSports.

Jace Hall, CEO of Echo Fox, a North American eSports organisation, vociferously made the point that if competitive gaming shall ever succeed as an Olympic sport, the games themselves must be “straightforward enough for the average person to pick up in the first minute of watching.” It is more than likely that sports fans around the globe will not bother watching a game they do not understand.

In general, attempts to sew eSports into the illustrious fabric of the Olympics have been marred by controversy. The advocates´ logic primarily stems from a hunger for broader recognition, while those against fear that the world of professional gaming would ultimately cast away its uniqueness and appeal.

eGames, an international gaming tournament presumptively labelled as “the pinnacle of competitive gaming”, went largely unnoticed. Its intention to generate popular awareness for the eSports sector ostentatiously failed and the event itself was met with lukewarm reception. Furthermore, the involvement of the OCA with eSports at the Asian Games does not necessarily translate into a direct pathway leading to the gates of the Olympics proper for the gaming industry. For gaming devotees, however, the Asiad could deftly be interpreted as a stepping-stone for future Olympic involvement to come.

For one thing is undebatable: the IOC will meet with eSports companies and athletes at a one-day summit in Lausanne at the end of July 2018. The picturesque Swiss city is widely regarded as the “Olympic Capital” and the official meeting represents the culmination of an action point from the 2017 Olympic Summit that guaranteed official discussions to be held between eSports stakeholders, the IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF).

The outcomes of this summit are all but a matter of speculation as of now. Yet, expect significant frictions at the edges of eSports´ tectonic plates that can easily cause a major Olympic earthquake.

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