Esports Are Real Sports

The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets recently locked horns in an eagerly anticipated NBA game featuring such luminaries as Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and James Harden. On the same day the two organizations faced off on Summoner’s Rift as their League of Legends teams competed for glory. The NBA game garnered more attention, but the balance of power is likely to swing towards esports in future.

The rise of competitive gaming is among the greatest phenomena of the 21st century and traditional sports franchises are desperately piling into the industry in a bid to remain relevant going forwards.

They are well aware that the 2018 League of Legends World Championship Final attracted more viewers than the last Super Bowl, and they have seen the writing on the wall. If you cannot beat them, join them. Leading NBA teams, the world’s biggest soccer clubs and all manner of rappers, celebrities, entrepreneurs and tech giants are investing in esports teams as they are utterly convinced by its potential to take the world by storm.

The competitive gaming scene is growing increasingly professional and disciplined and the leading players are now multimillionaire superstars with sponsorship deals, massive fan bases and bulging trophy cabinets.

Millions of teenagers and young adults prefer watching CS:GO, LoL, Dota 2, FIFA, Madden and Overwatch than football, tennis, golf and athletics. They have grown up with technology and many of them identify more with these top gamers than they do with chiselled athletes.

They pack into stadiums to watch major tournaments live and streaming figures head into the stratosphere on platforms like Twitch and YouTube when the big teams are in action. Betting on these matches and tournaments is huge, and you can see the wide range of esports wagering markets here.

Esports Mirror Traditional Sports in Many Ways

The leading lights of the competitive gaming scene are just like traditional sports stars. They train hard, give their all at big tournaments and they bask in adulation when they win. They face all the challenges that the likes of Curry and Harden face, and they must display skills like endurance, agility, focus, leadership, teamwork, bravery, discipline and anticipation, just like traditional sports stars.

Esports franchises are just like their traditional sporting counterparts, while the scene has training camps, player associations, sports psychologists and more. There are leagues, cups, power rankings, commentators and pundits, and fans obsess over highlights reels and statistics.

By almost every conceivable metric, esports are real sports and they will only grow in popularity in the years ahead. It is therefore surprising to note that they they are not yet part of the Olympics. Organisers of the Paris 2024 Games were “deep in talks” last year about including esports as a demonstration event. It followed news that esports will be included as medal events in the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, while the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games now featuring esports.

At the time, International Esports Federation secretary general Leopold Chung said the organization would work consistently to promote esport as a true sport beyond language, race and cultural barriers and try to turn it into an Olympic demonstration.

Yet this push now appears to be dead in the water. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that esports are too violent to be part of the Olympics. Any game that features people being hurt “cannot be brought in line with our Olympic values,” said Bach, who won an Olympic gold medal for fencing. That is essentially sword fighting, while shooting, boxing and judo are also Olympic disciplines. “Of course every combat sport has its origins in a real fight among people,” said Bach. “But sport is the civilized expression about this.”

A Number of Hurdles to be Overcome

That would exclude all of the world’s most popular esports, including LoL, Dota 2, CS:GO, Overwatch, Fortnite, StarCraft II, PUBG and Call of Duty. However, sports games like FIFA and Madden would presumably be fine, as would Rocket League. Yet there are further barriers that must be overcome.

Some people view esports as a single entity, but it is actually a diverse ecosystem featuring a huge number of different games and communities, many of which are totally different to one another. There is no overarching, international governing body and the fragmented governance is problematic. Publishers also own the rights to the games and that could cause licensing problems, while also creating a potential headache for broadcasters.

Yet these are all challenges that can be overcome. Right now you could argue that esports needs the Olympics more than the Olympics needs esports. Featuring at an upcoming Olympic Games would do wonders for the credibility, legitimacy and profile of esports.

However, in the future the tables are likely to be turned. TV viewership figures at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro declined 15% compared to the 2012 London Olympics, and that was driven by a sharp drop among those aged 18-34. They may have been busy streaming esports tournaments instead.

Bringing esports into the fold would help keep the Olympics relevant and preserve its future health in a world increasingly dominated by technology. A number of leading sports teams are investing heavily in esports offshoots, and even organizations like the Premier League have launched their own tournaments. They are taking it seriously and getting in there at an early stage. If the IOC does not act, it could be too late and an esports equivalent could eventually end up blowing the Olympics out of the water.