This year, the 2020 Olympics started off with a very interesting event. The Olympics Virtual Series was a pre-show with players competing against each other in hybrid virtual sports like Zwift, a cycling game played on a stationary bike, and Virtual Regatta Inshore, a sailing simulator. This was the series debut and can be considered the first time video games have been integrated into the Olympics.
Naturally, that raises a question that’s sure to elicit a polarizing response: When will esports be officially part of the Olympics?
It’s one of those questions that crop up every so often and causes a big stir. People on both sides of the debate argue until they are blue in the face every few years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating question to ponder. But it’s simply an introduction to the two questions we should really be asking. The first of which is, what do esports need to do to finally be accepted into the Olympics?
In order for esports to be recognized by the Olympics, there are certain criteria that need to be met. The first is that the “sport” needs to have an international federation that is accepted by the International Olympic Committee, or the IOC. Esports has, in fact, had one for over 10 years. The International eSports Federation is the governing body for esports and was founded in 2008. In that regard esports is halfway there; it just needs to be recognized and accepted by the IOC.
Another important criterion is that a sport must have men widely practicing it in 75 different countries across four continents and/or women practicing in 40 countries on three continents. This standard has been established for some time in esports with about men and women in 150 countries on six continents participating.
The last prerequisite is the potential silver bullet for esports’ Olympic hopes: Any sport added to the program must be, well, a sport. Whether or not esports can be classified as such still doesn’t have a definite answer; it all depends on who you ask. A sport is defined as a physical activity that requires skills or physical prowess and is often of a competitive nature.
Skills and competitive nature are obvious attributes for esports, though its physicality is questionable. A study from the International Journal of Excercise Science shows that esports players do in fact have an increased heart rates similar to people playing physical sports. However, another study from ScienceDirect states that while players do exert themselves while playing games, it is not enough to qualify as a sport.
Ultimately, the IOC would be left to decide whether or not esports could legitimately share the stage with events like curling or live pigeon shooting. But on paper, they already check all the boxes. It’s simply a matter of the old guard recognizing that and making a modern call.
Esports is very close to qualifying as an Olympic sport on merit alone. However, the question of whether or not esports should be in the Olympics tends to be myopic. It is actually a two-way street. What we are forgetting to ask is, when will the Olympics realize it needs esports.
While we have debated every uncle and recreational softball coach about the legitimization of esports, the industry has found major financial success. According to a report from Reuters, the esports industry is expected to hit over one billion dollars in revenue in 2021. This will be a 14% increase from last year.
The viewership of esports alone should make the IOC heavily consider adding it to the roster of sports. During the 2016 Olympics, NBC had about 27 million viewers during the event. This is quite the accomplishment when you look at it in a vacuum. Unfortunately for the Olympics, we won’t. That same year the 2016 League of Legends World Championships had around 43 million viewers.
A study conducted by Newzoo states that 76% of esports viewers are choosing to watch esports competitions over watching traditional sporting events. Clearly, esports is a huge force in the competitive world and is eating the competition alive.
This doesn’t even stop with the Olympics. Competitive video games are taking big steps to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the public. Nintendo announced in May that it is partnering with PlayVS to help make games like Splatoon 2 and Super Smash Bros: Ultimate official varsity sports in high school. It’s a major development that makes it clear that the industry will only gain more traction in the coming years.
The relationship between the Olympics and esports is an interesting one. Some claim that esports has more to do to legitimize itself by the standards that the Olympics holds. However, in many respects, esports already do meet these standards and have not stopped growing since the industry began. To many people — especially in the younger generations — esports competitions have surpassed the Olympics. Why should esports fans worry about what the IOC considers a sport when esports dominates the market and towers over many sports in terms of fans, and viewership?
In order for the Olympics to stay competitive and be attractive to younger viewers, it may have to bring esports into the fold. It might be the only way for the Olympics to maintain relevance in these modern, electronic times. The question is no longer if esports will become part of the Olympics; it’s when.