The Olympic dilemma

With Olympic decision makers still mulling over the possibility of esports entering the world’s leading international sporting competition, it’s time to take a look at the pros and cons of the debate. Should esports be included in future Olympic games?

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_bingdian'>bingdian / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
The Beijing National Stadium, or ‘Bird’s Nest’, played host to much of the 2008 Olympic Games – on Saturday, it also held the LoL Worlds 2017 Finals

Esports’ entrance into the Olympic conversation has been a gradual process over the course of 2017, and looks to come to a head when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) eventually makes a final decision on the inclusion of esports in the 2024 Games.

The dialogue truly opened in April, with the news that esports would be making an appearance at the 2018 and 2022 Asian Games in Jakarta and Hangzhou, with esports being elevated to medal sport status in the latter event. In August, it was announced that esports was up for contention to be added to the roster of sports at the 2024 Games, despite an earlier comment from IOC President Thomas Bach that some “violent” esports titles are “contrary to all our values”.

The Olympic Summit

Four major decisions were made when leading representatives of the Olympic Movement met in Lausanne, Switzerland on the 28th of October, following invitations from the IOC:

  • Firstly, acknowledgement of esports’ burgeoning growth helped lead the Summit to recognise the potential for engagement of the youth with the Olympic Movement;
  • Secondly and perhaps most importantly, acknowledgement came from the meeting that esports “could be considered as a sporting activity”. This follows some research which suggests that the preparation, training and capacity for physical demands at esports’ highest level mirrors that of traditional sports.

The final pair of decisions made highlighted requirements that must be met for esports’ inclusion:

  • For IOC recognition as a sport, esports titles’ content “must not infringe on the Olympic values”. This statement parallels earlier concerns outlined by Bach;
  • Additionally, the IOC necessitates the existence of “an organisation guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement”. This body would manage issues such as anti-doping, betting, and match-fixing.

So what do these decisions mean in real terms? For starters, that the notion is even still being entertained comes as something of a surprise; after all, only 28% of esports fans themselves think that gaming should be included at the Olympics, according to Nielsen’s Esports Playbook. To then have esports considered a sport is a monumental step torwards a potential addition to the Games.

Having said that, there are still very real hurdles ahead for esports movers and shakers if they want to see an Olympic entrance. The formation of an independent governing body to cover compliance issues presents a formidable endeavour. Would such an expenditure of effort be a worthwhile commitment for the esports industry?

The esports perspective

The League of Legends 2017 World Championship finals took place at the former Olympic stadium known as the Bird’s Nest in Beijing on Saturday, and presented a tangible preview of what an Olympic esports event could look like. The prospect of further, exciting international competition is sure to whet the palate of esports fans, especially if it can match the scale of Riot’s flagship event.

For players, an esports Olympics would give another level of exposure – alongside the chance to represent their country, competitors would reach more eyeballs, and help build their brands in their home nations. That same recognition is also sure to be a major draw for the games developers of the ‘smaller’, non-violent esports which would be more likely to see inclusion at a Games, such as FIFA and Rocket League.

However, the fact that esports titles are likely to be limited to unaggressive titles could well see a host of the most popular games fail to make the cut. Fighting games and shooters such as Counter-Strike, PUBG and Overwatch would almost certainly be excluded; MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA 2 would probably also fall short of the ‘Olympic values’. Such a culling of esports titles would certainly inhibit interest for a substantial portion of the community.

Another obstacle arises in the form of scheduling; whilst many major events are only announced a year or so in advance, some esports – like Riot’s League of Legends – are regimented by a strict schedule, and inclusion in the Games could present major disruption for organisers.

The Olympic perspective

The 2018 Winter Olympics will see some esports involvement as the Intel Extreme Masters come to PyeongChang in advance of the event, following an announcement just days ago. The competition will see two games featured in South Korea – StarCraft II, a long-time national favourite, and “Steep™ Road to the Olympics”, a winter sports title from Ubisoft.

StarCraft’s inclusion in an event linked to the Olympics, despite being a war strategy title, carries a promising suggestion that we could see a looser interpretation of the IOC’s ‘Olympic value’ policy than may have been apparent. But perhaps more interesting is an esports event featuring Steep, which is the official licensed game of the 2018 Winter Games.

Game developers have clearly seen the financial benefit to having popular esports scenes for some time now. If the Olympic’s official game title sees major exposure and lucrative returns thanks to an Olympic-tied esports event, would that not signal a promising future for more events to follow on even bigger stages in upcoming Games?

Alongside an excellent marketing opportunity for official Olympic video games titles, esports events would also help the Games reach a younger demographic growing increasingly disenchanted with traditional sports. By attracting more youth to the Games, the Olympics could see more teenagers and young adults spread their interest to other sports and integrate with the Games’ athletic philosophy.

Of course, the counter-argument is that such a philosophy is diluted precisely by the introduction of gaming, and some level of community backlash and ridicule is seemingly inevitable if we were to see esports at the Olympics. In fact, bad feedback could even come from within the esports community itself – running large-scale live esports events is a finicky challenge; even perennial tournament organisers often run into technical difficulties, and a poorly-run show would be sure to draw the ire of viewers.

The Olympics – a show of sport?

Ask two people what defines an Olympic sport and you’re sure to get two different answers. Most, however, would probably agree that an element of athleticism is key, and some might echo the IOC’s view that featured sports should adhere to a strong, Olympic moral code.

It’s not my place to decide what sport gets into the Olympics – it’s not my place to tell you that more violent video games do or don’t deserve a spot on the big stage, or that the esports industry and IOC should strive to get them there. But in the interest of providing a fair analysis of the objective facts, it’s important to question certain assumptions.

And the fact is, whilst the placement of the border which determines what should be in or out is almost wholly objective, there is a certain hypocrisy to what we define as ‘Olympic’ sports. Did you know, for example, that dressage (shown in the video above), which involves horses controversially trained (sometimes cruelly, to the point of fan boycotts) to perform an unnatural ‘ballet’, has been an Olympic sport since 1912? Or that the ancient Olympics, as well as several decades of early 20th century competition, handed out medals for arts such as architecture, music, or even town heralding?

All of this shows that in the end, the decision of what constitutes an Olympic sport is an ever-changing, growing thing, alive with the context of its time and the preferences of its committee. Boiling the Olympic values down to ‘athletic’ and ‘anodyne’ is not always accurate.

Ultimately, esports’ possible inclusion in future games is more than a question of one sport. It is a crossroads, where the Olympics will again redefine itself in the modern age.