Road To The Olympic Games

Rio Olympic 2016

Could video games be heading to the Olympics?

A South Korean organization is seeking to get eSports into the Olympics. In February, the International eSport Federation officially petitioned the International Olympic Committee.

$500-million US eSports industry is officially seeking IOC recognition

The popularity of video games, which has many tournaments around the world such as this one in Paris featuring the game "Counter Strike", has led to a growing desire to enter eSports into the Olympics. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

By Ignacio Estefanell

Parents get ready; it may get harder to pry those controllers away from your kids.

At least it will be if video games — also referred to as eSports — become an Olympic event.

Players will already have the chance to win gold at the eGames. This Rio-based event — which is not affiliated with the Rio Olympics — is scheduled for late August and is being organized by the U.K.-based International eGames Committee.

While teams from only four countries — Canada, Britain, U.S., and Brazil — are scheduled to participate, the committee hopes to have a larger event to coincide with Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020.

A more direct effort to get video games out of the stands and directly into the Olympics is also in the works. In February, the International e-Sport Federation (IeSF), which is based in South Korea, officially petitioned the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for inclusion.

And while the IeSF's application is still in its infancy, it's inclusion might not be as far-fetched as it might first appear.

For one, it's a part of a booming industry. A report by financial services firm PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) estimates eSports will generate half-a-billion dollars US in 2016.

While the concept of  eSports  has been around for a while, the current generation of games have only [existed] for six of seven years.- Kyle  Chatterson - director eSports , the Score

Competitions like The International have annual prize money nearing $20 million. And this is for only one game — Dota 2. Other popular titles such as Counter Strike, League of Legends, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive also have impressive purses at their own respective events.

Equally significant is the fact that broadcasters have taken an interest. On July 17, ESPN will air 18 hours of eSports via online streaming and its main channels. Britain's Sky TV is also making footage from competitions available to subscribers.

It's not surprising considering events like the 2015 League of Legends World Championship produced 360 million hours of live views over the course of the competition. The finals alone drew a global audience of more than 36 million.

For comparison, viewership figures for major sporting events:

  • UEFA Champions League final — 180 million 
  • Super Bowl 50 — 112 million 
  • NBA Finals, Game 7 — 31 million, with a series average of 20 million
  • Stanley Cup Final, Game 6 — five million, with a series average of four million 

The question remains whether video games could be classified as a sport. For many, they're synonymous with couch potatoes rather than athletic prowess. According to Kyle Chatterson, director of eSports for The Score, this is a perception that will eventually change.

"There is no less skill required. These guys [professional gamers] are putting in 60, 70 hours of practice. And huge hand-eye coordination is required."

For some nations this isn't even a debate. According to the International e-Sport Federation 21 countries have already recognized eSports as members of their respective National Olympic Committees, the latest being Italy and Russia, with Denmark potentially next.

A Taiwanese video game team, plays 'Counter Strike,' at a eSports competition involving 700 competitors from 74 countries in Seattle, Washington. (Melanie Conner/Getty Images)

The biggest push, however, may come from the Olympics itself. In its strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement (Olympic agenda 2020), one of the key recommendations is to move the Games "from a sport-based to an event-based programme."

This alone may be enough to whisk eSports away from an athletic grey zone and towards surer footing. Coupled with viewership figures and demographics — the international fan base is comprised of a key advertising market of 18-35-year-old males — the case can be made that eSports are an obvious attraction to Olympic sponsors.

"Fans of these games don't care what's on for the Olympics," Chatterson said. "They care what's on for eSports."

Many levels to master 

That said, applying for Olympic inclusion is one thing, but acceptance is another. Just ask squash players, whose sport has been seeking IOC recognition since before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Beyond questions of athletic validity, eSports has a slew of internal barriers to overcome before it can even be seriously considered. There is no one central organization that governs eSports.

"It's like calling all sports, sports. Each [eSports] community has its own history," Chatterson said.

Chatterson's point goes beyond questions of which titles or platforms would be played – there are intellectual property concerns because games are owned by companies.

It speaks to the fact that eSports are part of an evolving industry.

"While the concept of eSports has been around for a while, the current generation of games have only [existed] for six of seven years," Chatterson said.

Games have risen and fallen in popularity in the span of an Olympic cycle, which makes it hard to envision defending champions or repeat medallists.

"It's impossible — it has never happened," Chatterson said. "While some games are similar mechanically, no one has ever [successfully] crossed genres."

For now, the question remains academic, but the process has begun. One day we may very well be hitting the reset button on what we believe Olympics sports to be. 

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