Esports doesn’t need the Olympics, nor does the Olympics need esports.
Ever since gamers sat down to play games competitively, the debate over if esports should be considered sports has raged on. Most recently, this debate has gained some new traction when the Co-President of the Paris Olympic Committee, Tony Estanguet, told the Associated Press he was open to investigating the addition of esports to the 2024 Olympic Games.
But let’s put the sport debate away for a minute, as regardless of stance, there’s more at play here.
The interest sounds genuine, and the committee is looking to really delve into the community. What will make or break the move is the International Olympic Committee’s final say – and that’s where problems will arise.
So first, one must ask – what would the Olympics actually do for esports?
The biggest pro for players and fans is legitimacy. Competing for a golden shield or fancy trophy is approachable, but if you could tell people you played video games and won an Olympic medal for it, there’s already a cultural recognition there. Being included in something so universal would be a sign that this thing we call esports is as real as many of us know it to be – and maybe shut down some snarky reporting and stereotypes that hang over the competition.
But why should people care about this sort of legitimacy when esports is growing as fast as it is? Even here in Australia, in the last six months alone we’ve seen two international-level tournaments on our soil, with local players participating. Two years ago, Intel hosting an Extreme Masters event here would be unheard of.
There’s no shortage of fans or exposure worldwide, nor is there a shortage of developers working around the clock to create, balance and improve the titles that make up today’s esports hits. You can’t really say that any major esports title is underground these days – not while these games are becoming huge deals worldwide.
More press and exposure to audiences is never a bad thing though. Just because esports doesn’t need the Olympics, doesn’t mean it would be anything but positive. The reason that esports is unlikely to work as a part of the Olympics lies in the heart of how esports works.
While I’m sure the broadcast model for the Olympics is being adapted to keep up with online streaming, esports would be a whole new challenge. Twitch has become the official home for most titles, with partnerships and broadcast rights in play, making the TV-centric model of the Olympic games troublesome.
Add to this the need for serious infrastructure – from the internet and computer requirements to individual game staff and broadcast set ups – and you’ve got a recipe for a very high-cost wing of something that already costs a heap.
With the time on hand, these issues can be sorted, but will teams and players want to participate? Taking time out of regular seasons to create country based squads, as well as dedicate time to practice for a medal, doesn’t sound as attractive as focusing on the big leagues and the prize pools offered.
All of this is assuming it does pass the International Olympic Committee’s verdict on what is and isn’t added to the games. In doing so, they’d also have to bump one or two other sports out of the competition to slot it in, as new sports can only be added by discontinuing others.
With a decision needed so fast, it just doesn’t seem to be realistic.
It’s the last part of the quote from Tony Estanguet that has me optimistic for the future, be it one with Dota2 at the Olympics or one with regular old badminton.
“The youth, yes they are interested in esport and this kind of thing. Let’s look at it. Let’s meet them. Let’s try if we can find some bridges,” the Frenchman said.
The important takeaway for both esports fans and sports fans is that this being considered is probably more important than it being there. Not only do people want to look at esports, they want to understand it and the community surrounding the games.
It signals an attitude change in communities long rooted in traditional sport. If they can adapt and believe in it, then the people that respect those institutions may come round on the topic too.
For now though, there’s already events with a much bigger impact than the Olympics for esports. Look at events like EVO – the fighting game community’s Olympics, DotA2′s International and the Overwatch World Cup. In each of their own communities, these have adapted the best of the traditional sports model and pulled millions of viewers into their worlds.
As Nate Nanzer said about building the Overwatch League, esports has an opportunity to be more than just a digital version of sports as we know them:
“We had the opportunity to kind of pick and borrow what we wanted [from sport leagues] – since there isn’t really a set playbook on how to do this – and then marry that with the best practices from esports.”
If the only thing driving esports to the Olympics is attempting to see it recognised as a sport, it’s misguided from the get go.
The culture and communities around esports are growing fine without gold medals, and by 2024 the scale an Olympic event offers may pale in comparison to the leagues of the future. Six years is a long time.