The armchair athletes who want video gaming to be an Olympic sport

Competitive gaming enthusiasts crave the recognition and higher profile inclusion in Games would bring, but game makers and observers say many hurdles would need clearing for it to happen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 August, 2016, 8:03pm

Michael Udall earned three years’ worth of tuition and a hefty medal when his college video game team won a US national tournament in April.

That haul marks the first of what the third-year student at Arizona State University hopes are many accomplishments in a storied e-sports career. But Udall covets one achievement not yet attainable by any professional gamer: an Olympic gold medal.

“Being an Olympic gold medal holder carries more weight and prestige than anything else,” he says.

Many in competitive gaming agree that acknowledgement by the International Olympic Committee and then acceptance into the Olympics would validate their belief – and convince naysayers – that video games are a sport.

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They regard the Olympics as the premier cross-border athletic spectacle, one whose history of breeding patriotism and global camaraderie will never be matched. And e-sports, like soon-to-be Olympic sports skateboarding and rock climbing, ensure the Games stay relevant.

The Olympics “have a higher purpose, inspiring and motivating the youth of the world to be committed to excellence, patience and perseverance”, says Bobby Kotick, chief executive of games titan Activision Blizzard. “There’s no good reason why e-sports competition shouldn’t be included.”

But as a South Korean organisation lobbies for inclusion, other game makers and observers say not so fast. The e-sports industry has enough to settle internally.

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“It’s an interesting fantasy to talk about, but boy, rule sets need to be established, more games need to prove sustainable and a broader base of consumers needs to show up,” says Ophir Lupu, head of video games at talent agency UTA. “It’s way early days.”

There are also major challenges. Choosing titles for competition could be complicated since they can fall out of favour in less than four years, diminishing the frenzy that comes with record-breaking performances. Many countries could object to the virtual bloodshed commonplace in the most popular games. Game makers may refuse to let Olympics organisers use their intellectual property. It could disrupt existing e-sports competition, potentially forcing Olympians to be amateurs. And too few countries may be capable of fielding high-calibre, gender-balanced teams.

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The IOC has problems, too, including doping, cord-cutting and controversies over site selection.

Advocates, analysts and academics say the issues with e-sports are resolvable; it just may be in decades, not years. Even those who doubt the need for IOC approval expect a professional video game player someday to bring home the ultimate gold.

Chatter about the possibility exploded this spring when the Seoul-based International E-Sports Federation announced it would apply to the IOC this month for games played on electronic devices to be considered a sport. Recognition could come as early as December.

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The IOC declined to comment on an in-process application, and observers say approval on a sport’s first try is rare.

Alex Lim, a sports marketing veteran who is the eight-year-old federation’s secretary general, says endorsement from the world’s best-known athletics governing body would open doors. Governments that fund sports could start providing a stable living for e-sports players. Schools could be more inclined to grant gamers the same privileges as other student athletes.

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“The most important thing is access to public structures that can benefit players,” Lim says, adding that fame and revenue were secondary.

The federation, funded by investors and sponsors such as wireless giant SK Telecom and Chinese joint venture Alibaba Sports Group, is getting national e-sports competitions going in 47 countries, including Brazil, China, Egypt and Italy (Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post).

Heads are turning, Lim says. International sports officials increasingly view video games as a potential catalyst for driving more interest in at least the Youth Olympics, a regular starting spot for younger sports.

Three Activision Blizzard executives say they don’t have specific plans to push e-sports’ case with officials. Given the rising popularity of people watching online videos of others playing games and other factors, the argument is strong on its own, Kotick says.

Game maker support is essential because they need to permit use of their copyrighted work in competition. It would be the first time the IOC would face that hurdle, says University of California Riverside professor and Olympics expert Tom Scanlon.

Are we chasing for cool, somewhat novel mainstream experiences or are we trying to develop foundational experiences and build a sport?
Whalen Rozelle

Game publishers, players and sponsors would benefit from the Olympics exposure. “The huge marketing and hoopla – I don’t see why they would shy away from it,” says Manny Anekal, who founded e-sports consulting firm the Next Level.

But the Olympics aren’t important to all. Riot Games, the developer of the most popular e-sport game, League of Legends, is one of them.

The Los Angeles company isn’t anti-Olympics, says its e-sports director, Whalen Rozelle. The Olympics’ success in humanising athletes and fostering spirited rivalries inspire the company’s own annual international competition, which features teams worth more than US$1 million and players with six-figure salaries.

Riot already feeds off the sentiments the Olympics inspire, including a sense of national pride and international cooperation, he says. And it doesn’t necessarily help with fostering fans of its wholly controlled league. The company also hasn’t seen an uptick in Olympics-related demands from its 67 million monthly users, so it hasn’t thought about licensing to the IOC.

“Are we chasing for cool, somewhat novel mainstream experiences or are we trying to develop foundational experiences and build a sport?” Rozelle says. The Olympics “could naturally happen, but it’s not worth forcing”.

Before the closing, the Games in Rio de Janeiro featured a small, IOC-approved e-sports trial match with eight players from different countries battling in the game Super Smash Bros.

Chester King, the Briton who funded the event, wants his non-profit eGames operating independently of the Olympics, but occurring in the same place right after. He envisions competitions in 20 games and a focus on national pride over prize money, compared with most video game tournaments.

“We’re creating something different,” he says.

Despite the lack of prize money, winner Elliot Carroza-Oyarce of Canada says earning a medal was “a really amazing experience”.

It’s not just any championship podium, it’s standing on there wearing my USA gear. I’m such a fan of that being an option
Michael Udall

The conversation over what’s best extends to e-sports financiers, producing a new set of rifts. At health bar maker Quest Nutrition, which sponsors a gaming team, e-sports marketing leader Yoni Ginsberg supports new international competitions coordinated across multiple video games. He’s not a fan of attaching “the new phenomenon” to the “old-school” Olympics.

His boss, chief marketing officer Nick Robinson, has a sharper take. With diverse teams and global leagues from the get-go, e-sports breaks down the geographic barriers common in traditional sports. Why allow the Olympics or anything else to bring them into existence, he says.

But because the allure of the Olympics tops all else for many, alternative competitions such as the eGames might struggle to achieve popularity unless the IOC stalls on integrating e-sports.

Udall, 20 , competed in running, basketball and American football until injuries shifted him to video games. This year, he joined the Gale Force pro Heroes of the Storm team and led Arizona State to victory in Blizzard Entertainment’s “Heroes of the Dorm” competition.

Getting his parents off the hook for US$15,000 in tuition proved video games aren’t a waste. But still on the to-do list are: making history books, representing the US, gaining universally recognised credibility and showing he’s at the top of his craft.

“That’s what the Olympics is,” Udall says. “I want it now. It’s not just any championship podium, it’s standing on there wearing my USA gear. I’m such a fan of that being an option.”