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'The Olympics needs esports': Why that's a tough landing to stick

Does esports have a future at the Olympics? Experts aren't sure.

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Esports has become a big and popular business. 

Espat.ai

Two days before the Olympics opening ceremony in Tokyo, other elite competitors gathered virtually for the closing match of their own event. They weren't swimming laps or completing intricate gymnastic floor routines. Instead, these players, also ranked at the top of their field, were kicking soccer balls with cars -- through the medium of video games as part of the Intel World Open esports tournament.

By most measures, the event was a success. Nearly 11,000 gamers from over 95 countries faced off from June 21 to July 21 for $500,000 in prizes in Street Fighter V and Rocket League, said Sierra Reid, Intel World Open and esports program manager. Esports has a huge fanbase, with one Rocket League Open World bout attracting nearly 300,000 viewers on Twitch, according to the Washington Post

"We're huge supporters of esports so if we can share the unique experience of watching sports with new audiences leading into the Olympics, that's exciting to us," Reid said in an emailed comment. "If more comes out of this demonstration, we'd be huge supporters regardless of where it goes."

The Open World tournament, promoted and streamed on the official Tokyo 2020 site, is the closest esports has gotten to the Olympics. David Lappartient, chair of the International Olympic Committee's esports and gaming liaison group, called it "an exciting step forward for the virtual sports world and the Olympic movement." After initially responding to a request for an interview, the IOC didn't make a further comment. 

There are hopes video gaming and the Olympics could one day get even closer -- with esports potentially becoming an official Olympics competition. For gamers, being in the Olympics would bestow glory and possibly gold metals. The Olympics, meanwhile, would benefit from esports' young and growing viewer base, drawing in a crowd that conventional sports doesn't.

"The Olympics need esports more than esports need the Olympics," said Rod Breslau, an esports and gaming consultant. 

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There's precedent for nontraditional activities becoming part of the world's highest-profile sporting event. Skateboarding, rock climbing and surfing all debuted at this year's Tokyo games, which faced a 10-month postponement due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. But there are also hurdles to overcome before esports could become an official Olympics competition -- particularly the perception that esports is a game of skill, not a game of physical exertion. 

Esports' growing popularity

Esports is a billion-dollar industry. In a matter of decades it's become a meaningful way for players and fans to connect over video games on an international level. Gamers who once played casually can now make a living via competitions and streaming services like Twitch. And millions of people tune into matches, something that could benefit the Olympics. 

This year, esports will have an estimated 234 million ultra-fans and 240 million casual viewers around the globe, according to a March report from Newzoo. By 2024, the date for the next summer Olympic games in Paris, the total viewers could grow to 577 million, the games market researcher said. Most esports fans are young, male and affluent, according to a 2018 report from GlobalWebIndex, with nearly three out of every four viewers in the prized demographic of 18 and 34. In the US, an estimated 84 million people will watch esports this year, according to Activate -- more than every professional sports league except the NFL.

In 2016, the League of Legends World Championships had about 43 million viewers, according to Digital Trends, while about 27 million Americans watched the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Brazil, each night. And while viewership for esports is rising, interest in the Olympics has dropped. This year's opening ceremony in Tokyo, while impacted by the pandemic, attracted only 16.7 million viewers in the US -- the lowest number in 33 years -- and the nightly viewership stayed around that level. "NBC's Summer Olympics ratings are in free-fall," CNN declared, while the New York Times dubbed the viewership "a disappointment."

The audience of the Olympics would largely benefit from the excitement esports brings to younger viewers. "The IOC … needs to adjust and adapt to a modern age and cater to contemporary audiences," said Joost van Dreunen, an esports investor and adviser. "Tastes change."

Conventional sports audiences are also growing older. In 2016, MarketWatch, which collected data from different researchers, reported that most fans watching conventional sports are 40 and older. The average age of an MLB viewer is 57, the report said, while for the NFL it's 50 and for the NBA -- the youngest audience -- it's 42. Younger audiences aren't watching pro conventional sports nearly as much as viewers over the age of 40. 

Esports draws in a younger viewing audience. The average age of an esports viewer is 31, much younger than average NBA viewer. If the IOC were to incorporate esports into the Olympic Games, it would draw in a crowd that conventional sports doesn't. Contrarily, conventional sports viewers may find this addition too far removed from a sport, or, not a "sport" at all. 

"A non-shooter game would have an easier time getting adopted [into the Olympics], something more similar to a football or traditional sport that's already there," said Erik Anderson, head of esports for FaZe Clan.

But it's first-person shooter games -- like Call of Duty, Valorant and Counter-Strike -- that tend to be the most popular with gamers and fans, said Florent Gutierrez, Razer's director of global esports. The problem is largely that such titles would go against what the Olympics are all about and wouldn't be embraced by the IOC.

"We cannot have in the Olympic program a game which is promoting violence or discrimination," IOC President Thomas Bach told the Associated Press in 2018. At the time, he said there was no future for esports in the Olympics as long as the titles were so violent. "So-called killer games. They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted." 

Olympics then, now -- and in the future 

The Olympics we know today are drastically different from the first series of games in 1896 in Athens. At that time, they were a one-day series of Greek sports before being extended to a three-day series featuring running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration and equestrian events. 

The modern Olympics are split into two different categories -- summer and winter, each occur every four years, featuring different sports. The summer roster includes more than 45 sports, with gymnastics, swimming, soccer, basketball and track and field among the most popular. The winter sports cater to snow and ice events and include more than 10 sports. 

The IOC, which hosts and governs the games, continually evaluates which sports should be included. With each Olympics, new events are added while others are removed. For 2020, surfing, karate, rock climbing and skateboarding were added. Baseball and softball also returned this year after being cut in 2012 due to lack of viewership. 

"The five sports … offer a key focus on youth, which is at the heart of the Games vision for Tokyo 2020," the IOC said in a press release. 

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Skateboarding debuted at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Getty Images

For esports to become an Olympic event, the IOC would first have to recognize esports as a sport. Because competition is virtual, esports competitions typically aren't viewed as physical events, a hallmark of the Olympics. If the IOC got beyond that hurdle, esports would then proceed to the International Sports Federation, where the rules and regulations surrounding the sport would be established.

Even if esports is designated a sport by the IOC, that doesn't mean it will be part of the Olympics. The best examples are bowling, chess and cheerleading. While all three are recognized as sports by the IOC, none has athletes competing in the Olympics. There are other factors at play, too, like whether they're played in enough countries -- and whether anyone will watch the events. That's not always the case for nontraditional sporting activities.

As the IOC continues to welcome the opportunity for new games, there may be a push for esports in the 2022 Winter Olympics, when Beijing hosts. China is the world's largest esports market, with revenue totaling an estimated $385 million in comparison to North America's $252 million in revenue, according to a 2020 SportsPro report.

A 2017 press release from the IOC gathered thoughts on where esports stands. "Competitive 'eSports' could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports." Even still, the IOC's decision to include esports is largely related to esports being as close as possible to traditional sports. 

Getting the rights 

Even if the IOC declares esports to be a sport, there are plenty of other hurdles that could prevent it from debuting at the Olympics. A big one is licensing. 

When it comes to esports, each game is owned by a specific licensor. Without each individual game owner's approval, the IOC can't decide to include an esport in competition. The IOC doesn't have to ask the NBA or individual teams for permission for athletes to play Olympic basketball. With esports, however, the IOC would have to strike a deal with each game owner -- such as Epic or Valve -- for the title to be played during the Olympics. 

The most common streaming platform for gaming is Amazon's Twitch -- which the IOC has previously worked with via Intel. All of the streams for the Intel World Open were broadcasted through a channel via Twitch.

Even big, standalone esport events have struggled to license many games at once. The best opportunity for the Olympics may be to include one game at a time, making it easier for the IOC to negotiate licensing terms. 

"It's been very rare in eSports that there's an event that can really bring together multiple, really distinct games," said David Graham, an esports attorney and commentator. 

But striking a one-time deal wouldn't remove the licensing problem for future Olympics. While basketball or other traditional sports don't change much over the years, the most popular video games today are different from the most popular games from four years ago. In order to attract viewers -- and players -- the IOC would have to constantly stay up to date on the most-played games. That would become an ongoing licensing issue, with the IOC constantly striking new deals with the hot game of the moment. In addition to many esports being owned by a different licensor, the IOC would have to continually update or modify the popularity of the games being played.  

Would gamers show up?

Even if the IOC designated esports as a sport, adopted formal rules, signed licensing deals and solved the other problems, a couple of key question remains -- would gamers even want to be in the Olympics? And would fans still turn out?

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Members of the esports team FaZe Clan celebrate during a recent Counter-Strike competition. 

FaZe Clan

"From the esports perspective, the things that we have are already fully legitimate and already represent the pinnacle without needing to be on television, or to have a gold medal," said Graham, the esports attorney. "The stuff [tournaments, prize pools, etc] we already have already feels to us, to me at least, like it's big enough and good enough without needing more [the Olympics]."

Twitch has emerged as the key platform for livestreaming video games, and most esports competitions are broadcast on the site. Fans are used to watching whatever they want for free, all while chatting and interacting live with the streamers they're watching. 

The Olympics doesn't have the same kind of interactivity or free access. In the US, NBC is the exclusive broadcast partner for the games, and unless someone has an antenna connected to their TV, they're likely paying for cable or the network's new Peacock streaming service to watch the competitions. 

If the Games were to add esports, there would need to be a way to make sure the Olympics don't alienate the fans used to watching esports on Twitch or YouTube. There's no fan interaction with Olympics athletes during their events (except for crowds cheering from the stands), which would take away a key part of esports. And forcing esports fans to pay for subscriptions could cause the Olympics to lose some of its less-rabid viewers.

Ultimately, the allure of the glory might outweigh the negatives, at least for gamers. And for the IOC, those new eyeballs could make sure the Olympics retain their stature for decades to come. 

Team Liquid, for one, would be interested in participating in future Olympics "if done correctly," Co-CEO Steve Steve Arhancet said.

That's a big "if."