IOC Delivers Blow to Esports’ Quest for International Legitimacy

The credibility esports seeks as a legitimate sporting competition received a setback last week when the International Olympic Committee, through a written statement submitted to all winter and summer federations, stated that the organization would not recognize any global governing body at this time.

Esports is desperately looking for validation on a global scale in order to give the genre of competition the positive optics it needs to emerge from its current standing as a fringe entertainment property. If esports were able to shed the stigma some hold that it isn’t a real sport, it would encourage growth and opportunity and the opportunity to scale more quickly.

Sports Business Journal’s  Olympic reporter, Chris Smith, sees the OIC’s reluctance to move forward on esports as a behavior not just reserved for that particular genre, but other traditional sports as well.

“The addition of esports to Olympic competition would seem to be a match made in heaven. The esports industry would immediately garner both a global spotlight and a massive boost to its legitimacy, while the Games would have a direct line to younger audiences and, perhaps, newfound relevancy,” Smith said. “Despite that upside, there’s little reason to believe we’ll see esports in the Olympics any time soon. And it’s not just a matter of the IOC being stuck in the past; the Olympics have increasingly been open to non-traditional sports, with surfing and skateboarding both slated to debut in Tokyo. It’s instead a matter of esports presenting a multitude of very real hurdles all their own.”

As one would suspect, the prevailing feeling is that the IOC sees the commercial ownership of the competitive titles a large hurdle in allowing esports to become an Olympic event. Deciding which games to play and then subsequently allowing those games into the Olympics would certainly benefit the companies whose games made the cut. Also, with the volatility of the space determining  which games would be included in every Olympic cycle would be an undertaking under itself as titles wax and wane in popularity.

“The industry is a remarkably fragmented space, and the ‘sports’ within it are owned and governed by for-profit corporations,” Smith said. “The IOC didn’t need to negotiate a business relationship or secure a license to add surfing to the program, but that’s what it would take for video games to enter the fray. Figuring out the nuts and bolts of such an arrangement would itself be a significant challenge, as publishers would likely be reluctant to give up much, if any, control of their IP. Gaming trends also change rapidly while the Olympics require years-long preparation; the popularity or fundamental rules of swimming and gymnastics won’t change much in the next four years, but today’s most popular video game might be an afterthought in that time.”

To complicate the matter further, the IOC has expressed a strong condemnation of violent video games and has said they would not at any point consider violent titles which simulates the shooting and killing of people for Olympic competition. The reality here is that those types of games are by far the most popular, so the IOC would need to look to other titles such as sporting simulations.

“Could I see a future where the Olympics feature sports games like FIFA or NBA 2K? Sure. But the first step is for the esports community to establish a global governing body, the very thing the IOC just said it won’t (yet) recognize,” Smith said. “Without that framework in place, the rest remains a long-term hope. Speaking personally, I think Los Angeles 2028 could offer an ideal opportunity for esports to make its debut, given the city’s direct connection to gaming and LA28’s obvious desire to be seen as the Games of the future. But until the IOC even hints at a new outlook, I won’t hold my breath.”