A couple of years ago now, in the ballroom of a smart hotel in the Barra district of Rio de Janeiro, I sat with a gaggle of international hacks as five sports were given their place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Surfing, baseball/softball, sport climbing, karate and skateboarding were all given the nod by International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to join the programme on an initial one-off basis. For some of these sports, this represented the end of an intensive years-long struggle for acceptance. For skateboarding, the picture was different: there was no universally recognised international federation and no real sense of where the Games sat in the competitive order of things. All that would be worked out later: the cool kids were at the party.
I walked back along a waterside stretch of road towards the metro station in search of some non-conference food and happened upon – of all things – a skatepark. A local radio station had put on an event there; people were skating and talking and generally behaving in the way that a sought-after youthful demographic™ does. So I grabbed a beer and got chatting to a few of them about skateboarding’s arrival on the Olympic scene.
And the line, in every case, was some variation of: “Skateboarding will be at the Olympics? In Rio? Oh, the next one. That’s cool, I guess.”
I’ll accept it’s pretty rudimentary as market research goes but it was hard not to think of that episode last weekend as the IOC and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) hosted the Esports Forum in Lausanne: where the blazers met the Bl4zer5. It was an impressively high-powered assembly of key video game executives and sports politics bigwigs. IOC president Thomas Bach, when not making an example of himself in a VR headset, was on stage sharing his views about the links between Olympic sports and competitive gaming with professional esports player Jake Lyon.
IOC president Thomas Bach appeared on stage at the Esports Forum to give his views on competitive gaming
Those views have softened in the past few months and it isn’t hard to see why. This weekend, the grand finals of the inaugural Overwatch League season in which Lyon has been playing will attract over 20,000 people to New York’s Barclays Center. It also marks the start of a multi-year deal with ESPN. And the Overwatch League is hardly the only game in town, so to speak – it’s just the most focused effort to date to create a franchise competition of the kind the sports industry would recognise.
Now the federation world is taking its own interest, with the Olympic movement not far behind. Bach and his IOC colleagues insist they are not yet making room on the programme for esports but they are clearly in accommodating mood.
Bach has put a vague but conservative timeline on the Olympic future of esports, suggesting it would be a matter for his successor to resolve. For now, the youth-baitingly titled Esports Liaison Group has been established to further communications between the video game industry and federalised sport. It will present at a number of IOC events for the rest of the year, bringing all the excitement of electronic gaming to a series of killer static PowerPoint presentations.
The result of all this will be intriguing, and there doesn’t seem to be a plug and play solution. There are arguments in favour of esports having a recognised global federation. For one thing, that body could coordinate anti-doping and anti-corruption efforts while supporting player health and wellbeing. IOC approval might also bring attention from more powerful entities: Nicolo Laurent, chief executive of League of Legends publisher Riot Games, spoke in Lausanne of the need for government backing for esports to aid development and establish tools like athlete visas.
For esports players and fans, a standalone Games would provide a measure of legitimacy and a competitive apex without impinging on the galaxy of existing competitions.
Yet whether a traditional sports federation can achieve all that is another question. To repeat: esports is not a single discipline. It’s a whole variety of them, all powered by IP from rival companies and with a range of fanbases and objectives. The whole scene moves at a frightening clip. The global Fortnite phenomenon is based on a game that is barely a year old, yet people might have moved on to another title by the time fully fledged leagues are explored.
The definition of ‘sport’ on the Olympic programme is woolier than many would concede – soccer, shooting and synchronised swimming wouldn’t sit together too happily under any blanket ruling – but the debate over whether promoting competitive video gaming is consistent with the aims of the Games is not settled. Then there are the myriad complex mechanisms around funding and promotion, which could be disrupted by a well-backed new entrant with a fundamentally different ecosystem.
Mark Rein, co-founder and vice president of Fortnite developer Epic Games, is among those to have proposed a different kind of exception for esports: rather than adding it to the current Games, create an Esports Olympic.
There is no sense of any appetite for this yet within the IOC but it is a compelling idea. Not only is it more achievable but more scalable. It might help provide some shape to the competitive structure of esports. With a full programme available, it could properly represent the full range of disciplines and create space for different publishers. Such an event could open up opportunities for an alternative category of hosts and serve as a laboratory for new kinds of Olympic experiences.
Mark Rein, vice president and co-founder of Fortnite developer Epic Games has suggested creating an Esports Olympics separate from the current Games
For esports players and fans, a standalone Games would provide a measure of legitimacy and a competitive apex without impinging on the galaxy of existing competitions. It would keep esports separate from physical sports, but give those traditional federations an ongoing point of contact for their own video game activities and a potential showcase for licensed products.
Wide-open online qualifying competitions could bring players into touch with the Olympic brand in a revolutionary way, and the avalanche of content generated would add a new dimension to the Olympic Channel. Meanwhile, the original Games could concentrate on its project to celebrate traditional sport. These are changing times but the most prestigious events, when properly handled, are proving more valuable than ever.
More than anything, it would be a chance for the IOC to recognise that esports is not a genre of sport – another medal event to be shuffled into a two-week schedule alongside modern pentathlon – but a separate genre of activity. Rather than co-opting a culture, the Olympic movement would be cooperating. Rather than seeing what it could take, it would be seeing what it could add.
That way esports might not just join the Olympic Games, but be part of an Olympic movement.