The “2020+5” agenda recently released by the International Olympic Committee made it clear that the organization has no interest in bringing esports such as League of Legends or Street Fighter into its official Summer or Winter Games anytime soon. Despite holding summits with esports figures and continuing to “foster relationships” with the gaming community, the IOC’s agenda focuses on creating virtual simulations of traditional sports, hoping to bring young audiences into the fanbase of these physical competitions through their gaming counterparts.
While the merits of this strategy in a vacuum are debatable, as a replacement for proper esports representation it will likely fall short. We already have traditional sports simulation titles within the esports ecosystem, and their viewership consistently falls short of even titles outside the highest tier. If the IOC is going to look at esports for nothing more than its potential theoretical value at lowering the average age of sports viewers, the organization is missing out on a great deal of potential value.
Still, not all the IOC’s arguments against including esports are entirely without merit. Games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive do have imagery and terminology that is not particularly friendly to a global, casual audience that watches the Olympics once every four years. The lack of a standard infrastructure for identifying players and teams to represent a country also presents a challenge, as does the need to work directly with publishers in order to have a game included in your broadcast. If the IOC does not wish to address these challenges or risk potential negative impact to the brands of the Summer and Winter Games by introducing esports, fine. Then give esports its own Games.
The esports industry is only going to continue to grow. Younger generations can learn to play mobile games before they learn to throw a ball. Traditional sports will always have their place, but digital entertainment isn’t going anywhere. If the IOC wants to evolve with the times, it needs to do more than just use video games to try and keep curling relevant. It needs to actually become a part of the esports ecosystem in a way that is relevant to endemic fans and to the digitally native generations ahead.
By creating an entirely new brand operating outside the two established seasonal Games, the IOC could create something completely fresh that actually speaks to a young audience and provides authentic, relevant support to myriad esports. Even if the organization still didn’t want to include any shooting titles, there are plenty of unique titles free of graphic violence or controversial imagery that could fill those spots.
Every time the “esports in the Olympics” discussion arises, there are a number of analysts, influencers, and general Tweeters who are quick to point out that the esports industry doesn’t “need” the Olympics, or that even if the organization did include esports as a medal discipline, it would do so in an inauthentic, cringeworthy way.
The latter is certainly true. We’ve seen what happens when a broadcast tries to staple a traditional sports sensibility onto an esports competition. I would be very comfortable if that never happened again. Assuming the IOC hired an actual esports organizer and broadcast team to create something authentic (granted, a big assumption), it would have a brand new, culturally relevant, creatively free brand to court a new range of sponsors — or sell expanded deals to their established partners looking to court a younger audience (as we already see happening in esports).
The debate about bringing esports to the Olympics is effectively over for the time being. Whether esports “needs” the Olympics or not is irrelevant if the IOC doesn’t want us there. But international competition with the world’s greatest athletes representing their home countries, uniting the entire world through sport (the whole point of the Olympics), that will always have value. Various iterations of an “esports Olympics” have been tried and will continue to be attempted whether through individual publishers or third-party organizations. None of these have the global clout to attract a casual audience that an official Esports Olympics would.
If the IOC wants to strengthen its relationship with the gaming community, do it the right way. Empower esports communities, support under-developed scenes, and create something that speaks to our culture. Otherwise, don’t expect an audience who grew up on Fortnite to be particularly interested in virtual rowing.
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