Esports – One Step Closer to Olympic Medal Status?
In April, following the announcement by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) that eSports was to become an official medial sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China, we asked “does eSports have a place in the Olympic movement?” Today, the answer seems to be inching further towards ‘yes’, as Tony Estanguet, co-president of the Paris Olympic bid committee confirmed that he will be discussing the possible inclusion of eSports within the 2024 Games.
Following the OCA’s announcement, IOC president Thomas Bach appeared to express a degree of scepticism both as to whether eSports “is really a sport, with regard to physical activity and what it needs to be considered a sport” and, in any event, whether it truly belongs within the Olympic movement. His particular concerns included the absence of an international federation “or a structure that will give us confidence or guarantee that… the Olympic rules and values of sport are respected and in place”. Concerns were also raised regarding the significant focus on violence and physical destruction of one’s opponents within many esports and the extent to which these features are incompatible with the values of the Olympic movement. According to insidethegames, Bach has referred specifically to a visit to Silicon Valley in early 2016 where a representative of one game boasted of being “very proud that since the invention of the game, something like 400,000 cars have been destroyed”. Understandably Bach and others have expressed concern that this type of mentality does not make for happy marriage with Olympic values.
In response to the expression of such views, Chester King, acting Chief Executive of the British Esports Association, cited a lack of understanding of some of the games available, stating “I think there’s an education needed with the IOC to say what are good games. I think every game has its own benefits on strategy.” He announced plans to meet with the IOC in May to discuss the issue, whilst also alluding to the possible establishment of an international governing body for esports:
“Part of what we’re doing with the IOC is hopefully coming together with about seven countries that have the right values… For [esports] to be accepted in the mainstream there’s got to be kind of a clear strategy on what to do.”
The degree of discussion and scepticism surrounding this topic is unsurprising. As we have noted previously, the inclusion of esports within the Olympic movement itself (as opposed to, for example, some parallel initiative or competition) crosses a previously clear dividing line between sporting and other skill in a manner which will be conceptually difficult for many to digest. Indeed, in a poll conducted by insidethegames, 85.71 per cent of voters said that esports should not be considered a sport (the numbers and demographics of the voters are not known).
Certainly, some of the concerns expressed in the aftermath of the announcements by the OCA and Estanguet are well placed. For example, South Korea (often considered the original home of esports and gaming) has a well-documented struggle with addiction to gaming amongst its population. In 2011, the Korean government acknowledged that the country had a problem with young people addicted to gaming. In an attempt to address the issue, it enacted the Youth Protection Revision Bill (or “Cinderella law”) requiring online games to blocked between the hours of 12:00 AM to 06:00 AM for all gamers under the age of 16 (although this law was subsequently relaxed to allow parents to consent to their children gaming in the small hours). The UK itself has seen the rise of gaming addiction clinics from as early as 2009.
Yet some, including Ian Smith (the first head of the eSports Integrity Commission), have pointed out that, although esports is largely unregulated and in some respects ripe for exploitation due to factors such as the ease of cheating using technology, the propensity of players to take drugs such as Adderall as performance enhancers, and the increasing numbers of people betting on the games, organisations like ESIC should be in a position to ensure that the lessons already learnt in traditional sport are implemented within esports. Yet, in seeking to implement a code of conduct, Smith reports that he has been “accused more than once of building a highway for cars that don’t yet exist. The trouble is, I know the cars are coming, because I’ve spent 20 years looking at them. People want to wait until they’re run over by that car.”
“We can save time and bypass the pain because traditional sport has already gone through this.”
It remains to be seen whether the IOC will come round to this way of thinking but arguably esports is simply part of the changing face of sport. We have already seen traditional sports adapt in unexpected ways – and facing scepticism along the way – with a view to attracting younger audiences and more commercial success (see Sports Shorts on the new short form golf sixes and the ECB’s new city-based Twenty20 tournaments) and the inclusion within the Olympics of traditionally non-competitive sports such as skateboarding (where a certain proportion of participants within the sport itself are sceptical about its inclusion within the Olympic movement). Perhaps esports is simply the next step in this trend.