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Esports’ long journey to medal sport status - and what happens next


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We look at how renowned sports events are elevating professional competitive gamers to the same level as traditional athletes

The landmark decision to make esports an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China was seen as the boldest step yet towards mainstream recognition of competitive gaming. The Asian Games is set to take place across 44 venues and showcase over 40 sports. The audience is significant, the platform highly visible. And after the Asian Games, could esports secure a place at the Olympics?

Before we address such lofty goals, it’s worth tracing how esports got to this moment. In truth, esports has been knocking on the door of the Asian Games for some time now. The journey began when esports appeared as a medal sport at the Macau 2007 Asian Indoor Games, an event organised by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). Three games featured, all from publisher Electronic Arts: FIFA 07, NBA Live 07, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. China won gold in all three.

Esports has been a fixture at the Asian Indoor Games ever since, with an expanding list of games – and medals – up for grabs. Esports was set to feature as a medal sport at the 2021 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, as it is now known, before it was postponed to March 2022 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Asian Games, however, is a significant step-up for esports. Billed as the world’s second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics, the Asian Games ran an esports trial of sorts at Jakarta-Palembang 2018, where medals did not count towards the overall standings. In 2022, it’ll be a different game altogether, with esports athletes from across Asia representing their countries on an equal footing with swimmers, gymnasts and martial artists. This time, their medals will count, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

It makes perfect sense for this step-up to happen in Asia, says British Esports Association chair Andy Payne: “South Korea is the spiritual home of esports. They take it seriously and are really good at it. You look at most professional esports teams and there are South Korean players there.”

Grant Rousseau, director of esports at Guild Esports – the UK-based esports organisation co-owned by David Beckham – also points to Asia as the natural home for this landmark moment in the sector.

“Asia has always been a little bit further ahead in terms of talent production,” he says. “And there’s also a culture that is more open to esports being a part of their ecosystem. In Asia, esports feels like it’s been around for longer and is something they’ve truly bought into. To make it an official medal sport there makes complete sense.”

What does the world of esports stand to gain from appearing at the Asian Games? Validation, perhaps. By stepping onto the tri-level podium, video game makers have a new platform from which to improve the image of their products. And it’s a similar deal for esports, whose stars face an uphill battle convincing the naysayers of their athletic qualities.

“That validation should hopefully show the world esports can represent a genuine power for good and positivity,” Rousseau says. “With respect, it is a talent. It is a talent to be the best at these games. It takes so much to be a top-tier player. And it’s good to represent that. That legitimacy of top-tier competition can lead to positive perceptions.”

But let us not forget that esports at the Asian Games is also good – perhaps even essential – for the Asian Games itself. As John Clarke, CEO of London-based esports company Gfinity, puts it: “If you want to make events like the Asian Games relevant to young people, give them what they want and that is esports.”

It’s a good point backed up by data that reveals ageing interest in the Olympics. In the US, the median age of viewers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics was 47, rising to 48 for the 2012 London Games. Compared to London, Rio saw a 30% drop in TV viewers aged between 18 and 34. Based on this data, the Olympics is not an event that interests young people.

As you’d expect, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is aware of this issue. In an effort to give the games a more youthful and urban appeal, the IOC added 3-on-3 basketball and BMX Freestyle cycling to the Tokyo program. The inclusion of breakdancing at the 2024 Olympics is a clear bid to attract a younger fan base and grow the Olympic audience in the internet age.

“Globally, sports at a school level are in decline for a number of reasons,” Payne explains. “Athletics has always been a fairly marginal sport, not just in participation but spectating. That means those organisations need to be aware of what the world is doing. The world is and has been playing video games for a very long time. It’s now been playing video games competitively for 15 years, as in actual organised events.

“So, it’s about being relevant. It’s about bringing new audiences in.”

With the 2022 Asian Games set to take place in September next year, organisers are now working out the structure of esports’ star turn at the event. The OCA has yet to announce the video games that will be played, although esports behemoth League of Legends is expected to feature. How will players be selected to represent their countries? Will established esports teams be compelled to release them? Are the pros even interested in playing for their country at the Asian Games?

Rousseau, who works directly with pro players on games such as FIFA and Rocket League, is convinced that esports stars across Asia will have a burning desire to win medals for their country.

“I do think players will care,” he tells us. “If you look at the previous Asian Games where it was a test event, they were overjoyed. It really mattered, with a sense of national pride. Now there are medals involved, they will want to win it.”

Tough questions need to be answered in the coming months as the Asian Games nears. The OCA will have to decide what type of games it wants at its event, and this isn’t as easy a question to answer as you’d perhaps think. Will the OCA want a video game rated 18+ to be played at the Asian Games? Does it want a first-person shooter showcase? 

“Your average mother or father goes, ‘Hang on a minute, these people are running around shooting each other – this is not good for my kids to be inspired to do’,” Payne says.

Esports’ appearance as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games hopefully gives us an idea of what to expect. Six video games were played there: Arena of Valor, Clash Royale, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Pro Evolution Soccer, and StarCraft 2. Using this list as a guide, multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, card games, real-time strategy games and football games could show up in 2022. And it’s worth noting none of the games on this list are shooters. 

But, as Payne observes, publishers have the final say, of course. “If they don’t want their game to be used, then it won’t be used,” he says. “It’s a simple IP ownership discussion.”

Tough questions indeed. Yet Payne remains hopeful of quick decision-making: “If you go back to how the Olympics started, and how the World Cup started, it always starts with the best will and intention, and then people figure stuff out over time. Over time you start to build systems and representation.

“The bottom line here is that over time things will get organised, but don’t be surprised if it gets organised very quickly. There’s plenty of precedent, and plenty of will to get on with it.”

With esports’ status as a medal sport at the Asian Games 2022 secured, thoughts naturally turn to the Olympics. Will esports take the biggest step of all onto the podium at the Games of the Olympiad? It seems hard to imagine, and there may even be resistance from the esports community.

Money talks, and there is concern from some that any clash between an established major esports tournament and the Olympics would result in players suffering financial losses. Will the world’s top esports athletes choose the Olympics over the biggest esports events? Some in the world of esports consider it unlikely.

And while Asian players have already shown a desire to win while playing for their country at these types of events, western players may not show a similar level of commitment.

“Video games are global from the get-go,” Payne says. “So being selected to play for Germany, for example, is probably not what every German Call of Duty player is thinking about. They’re more thinking about enjoying the game, playing with their friends, and then getting good and joining a franchise, rather than thinking about an Olympic medal or an Asian Games medal.”

Mixed messages have emerged from the IOC in recent years. In July 2018 the IOC hosted an esports forum at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland involving over 150 representatives from across the esports community. Although esports’ inclusion at the Olympics was not explicitly discussed, the gathering was seen as a further sign that the IOC was taking esports seriously.

IOC president Thomas Bach, however, has repeatedly stressed that any video game that involves killing will never appear at the Olympics. “We cannot have in the Olympic program a game which is promoting violence or discrimination,” he told the The Associated Press in an interview at the Asian Games 2018. “So-called killer games. They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted.”

Fast forward to January 2020, and Bach sounded a little more convinced. Speaking as he opened the 135th Session of the IOC in Lausanne, Bach said video games that simulate sports could at some point in the future become a part of the Olympic programme. “Whether they could one day be considered for the Olympic programme the answer is yes,” Bach said. “It depends when this day is coming.”

That sounds like a greenlight for the likes of FIFA, PES and other sports video games, but Bach also suggested federations develop their own games suitable for a young Olympic audience.

“We have to acknowledge that we are not an isolated part of society,” Bach added. “We are living in the middle of society and want to keep our relevance and keep promoting our Olympic values.

“We cannot ignore our involvement and we have to keep connected. We have to explore our opportunities.”

It seems unlikely that professional gamers would take much interest in titles developed by sports federations when the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2 rule the roost. It’s hard to imagine a game made specifically to be played at the Olympics gaining much traction among gamers, either. That leaves existing sports games from the likes of EA in the mix, although the publisher will no doubt wince at the prospect of untangling the many commercial knots that come with the FIFA licence. Indeed, it feels like a great gulf remains between the worlds of esports and the Olympics – so how long before that gulf could be crossed? 

“I think we are probably talking eight to ten years away,” Rousseau predicts. “So, maybe three Olympics down the line where we start to maybe run a trial. It’s taken us five years to reach an official medal sport at the Asian Games, and that’s in an area where it’s more wanted. So we have a while to go. But it’s very possible.”

Clarke is more hopeful, telling us the Asian Games is “the starting point for a rapid movement towards esports being included in many big sporting events and eventually the Olympics”.

It’s fun to imagine what esports at the Olympics may look like and, closer to home, what chance Team GB have of winning a medal through video games. Rousseau laughs when we ask what video game we’d have the best shot of winning a gold medal with.

“We’re really good at controllers and consoles,” he says. “Rocket League, FIFA, Fortnite with a controller… controllers is our best chance at winning something. We know football inside out. Rocket League is basically football and cars, and we know cars inside out.

“I think Great Britain might need to do a bit of work to catch up on the talent side compared to some Asian and European countries, but we’ll get there.”

 

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