Esports at the Olympics

With the 2018 Winter Olympics upon us, an idea that has been floating around the internet for quite sometime now has resurfaced: the possibility of esports as an Olympic Event. Whether you are a critic of esports and find yourself criticizing video game related articles in the comments section of an ESPN thread or an owner of an established esports team, the prospect of esports as an Olympic sport is a point of conflict.

Let’s start with the obvious: establishing esports as an Olympic event will legitimize it as an official sport. At its roots, the Olympic games is a exhibition of athleticism. This was as true for the Greeks when they first developed the Olympics since 776 BC as it is today. This begs the question then that has troubled sports fans for quite some time: is esports a display of athletic ability?

There is no one objective answer to this as there is no proper measure of what amount of physical exertion deems an activity a sport. Therefore, the decision naturally falls upon the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While the IOC seems to regard esports as a legitimate sport, there are other issues that prevent it from becoming an Olympic Event.

One of the barriers to entry is that the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, believes video games to be “about violence, explosions, and killing.” While this isn’t necessarily a fair assessment, it is a fair concern. Considering that most of the prominent esports do feature violence, explosions and killing, the esports titles broadcasted at the Olympics may not be the ones that we would expect. Therefore, it’s worth asking: is an unrepresentative showing of esports on a worldwide stage really the best thing for esports?

It’s important to state that just because a game is competitive doesn’t make it an e-sport. There needs to be infrastructure to support it as well. Qualifiers for teams, rules and penalties, as well as a quality and consistent stream for competitive matches all fall under this category. By this criteria, games such as League of Legends, Counterstrike: Global Offensive, and Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2) have the best infrastructure. But what if one of these games was deemed as inappropriate for an Olympic audience for the reasons Thomas Bach explained?

We’re then faced with the challenge of determining what games are appropriate to be shown rather than determine what games are competitive and popular enough to be shown. I want to see esports as an Olympic Event as much as any other esports fan does. But if it’s not the games that the community wants to see, but rather the games that the IOC sees appropriate, is this really a benefit to esports?

In short, it’s a tough call to make. In addition to that, there’s also the requirement of an international organization to regulate esports. The IOC has stated that, ” further requirement for recognition by the IOC must be the existence of an organization guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement.” Currently, only the eagues that teams compete in and the individual tournament organizations (such as ESL) are acting as this regulator. If esports makes a run for an Olympic spot, there would need to be a global organization that would act as this regulator.

But who or what would be able to do this? Basketball in the United States, for instance, has the National Basketball League (NBA) who hold a monopoly on professional basketball In other words, there is no other league that is a competitor to the NBA for professional basketball. This makes basketball in the United States easy for Olympic regulation as the NBA can simply make sure that all the rules that are listed in the NBA are consistent with the ones in the Olympic Basketball organization.

Esports is far more complex in this regard. Not only are there multiple leagues for multiple different games, but there isn’t just one game to be regulated either. How could an international organization really account for all these players, tournaments, and games? The fact that esports is not an Olympic sport currently, despite its massive and ever increasing popularity, is proof that there has yet to be an answer to that question.

However, despite the problems that are present, I’m hoping that where there is a will there is a way. The next opportunity to make esports an Olympic Event would be for the 2020 Summer Olympics hosted in Japan. Through its establishment of several competitive e-sport leagues in the past, there already exists a very active and large esports fanbase in Japan. For this reason, Japan is an ideal location for esports to make its debut at the Olympics. While I remain hopeful, time will tell if we’ll see this come to fruition.