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Pavitt: Olympic Movement Should Learn from Esport, Rather than Make it a Sport

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Photo: iq.intel.com

The Olympic Summit – essentially the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and a couple of close friends – issued a communique yesterday in which they decreed that competitive “esports” could be considered as a sporting activity. For some, it was as if Saint Peter had allowed the Devil through the Pearly Gates.

Debate about whether esports are a sport is subject to rather heated opinion. Chances are you are either in the “for” camp or the “against” camp, with a sprinkling occupying the middle ground. The trick is to have a definition of sport which fits your view.

For the record, my definition is that anything that needs to include sports in its name is not a sport. Pole sports and esports being two that have been highly publicized recently. Sport climbing is allowed, as far as I can understand what it is about, without the need for “sport.”

Regardless, the Summit’s view has generated some news headlines which have briefly distracted us from the corruption scandals and the Russian doping odyssey, although in fairness I do not think this was intended.

The mere statement that the Summit discussed “rapid development of what are called ‘eSports””, would suggest the Olympic Movement remain unsold entirely on the idea. Perhaps, we should refrain for now in working out how we all try to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

They have, however, provided fuel to the idea that the esports train is heading down the track towards the Olympic Games at some point in the future. It comes after esports featured at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games as a demonstration sport, while it is poised to become a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games. (Although anything calling itself a sport appears to be a medal event at the Asian Games these days).

The killer line, referenced in all news stories today, is that “competitive ‘eSports’ could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports”.

What exactly this has been based on is anyone’s guess.

Other than the long-time chief executive of Electronic Arts, Larry Probst, and Angela Ruggiero, who claimed earlier this year that esports would become an Olympic sport in the future, I cannot imagine the rest of the Summit’s participants have a great deal of understanding.

Which I think is the point of the declaration yesterday. Rather than welcoming esports with open arms, it appears the Olympic Movement are taking steps to try to learn more about it. At best, it would show that the Olympic world have acknowledged they need to learn from the industry. At worst, it could be a sign that they are pushing the panic button after realizing that young people do not engage with traditional sports as much as they used to.

Either way, the communique marked a startling about-turn from the statements made by IOC President Thomas Bach in April this year.

“We are not yet 100 per cent clear whether esports is really sport, with regard to physical activity and what it needs to be considered sport,” the German had said. “We do not see an organisation or a structure that will give us confidence, or guarantee, that in this area the Olympic rules and values of sport are respected and in place, and that the implementation of these rules are monitored and secured.”

Photo: Gabriel Gagne via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, the IOC are in no real position to lecture the esports community. For a start, esports do not have to “infringe on the Olympic values” to receive recognition. It is quite rich for an organisation which is currently dealing with alleged corruption to make this kind of comment. Besides, the inference that certain violent games would infringe upon the Olympic values ignores the fact that numerous combat sports appear on the current sport program, one of which involves punching another human in the head.

The main problem is that the IOC are not exactly in a position of strength here. Arguably, they would need esports more than esports needs the Olympics. The industry has enjoyed a massive boom, with just under $500 million reportedly generated last year, with the projections suggesting this is due to grow and grow. They have also managed to garner interest among young people in a way traditional sports have not, with stadiums full and people streaming across the world.

Clearly, this has had a major influence on why the position of the Olympic Movement has shifted so abruptly.

In the money-making machine that is the IOC, it would not surprise me if the figures predicting the potential growth in the sport have proved too tantalizing for even the most ardent opponent of esports in the Movement to ignore. There are clearly people in the Movement who are driving esports forward. Yet, there is certainly a push from the organisation to be able to relate to the youth of today.

However, it does not help when those making the decisions are largely old men in suits. At times the IOC remind me of the 30 Rock scene, turned popular meme, where Steve Buscemi is pictured with a backwards baseball cap and skateboard imagining that he is passing as a teenager.

The decision to include skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 is typical of this. Is skateboarding really the popular and cool sport which will re-energize young people?

It was certainly viewed as cool in the 1990s, but is it to the same extent now? Amid the excitement of new sports, there are clearly some old ones which have little appeal worldwide and, despite the staleness, have maintained their places on the program through to Paris 2024. With a large program already, it would be good to see some of these jettisoned, while some others need shaking up.

It is absolutely clear that sporting bodies need to work out why esports have boomed and start to learn lessons. They need to work out what is so attractive about the atmosphere that draws people to the events, as well as how esports made themselves have such an appeal with a low cost. They also need to find out why it is less fascinating for young people to play a sport than watch someone online playing a game. Even on Youtube, the most subscribed channels, by and large, are people playing games.

As a result, there is a degree to which I do not think the Summit’s declaration was as bad as I initially thought when it popped into my inbox yesterday.

Having read through the statement a few times, it reminded me of a comment made by Eurosport chief executive Peter Hutton last week, when the broadcaster gave some insight into their coverage for next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

“We know people define themselves as sports fans, but we know that they are not watching the whole event on television anymore,” he said. “We need to reach the sports fans wherever they are and make them part of that system and encourage them to watch the live sport events.

“You can meet football fans that say, ‘I know everything about the Premier League’, but never watch a full game. They might play it on FIFA and know every player that way and know their pictures from snapchat and Instagram, but they still believe they are an immersed Premier League football fan. We need to bring people into the system and encourage a new audience into the sports eco-system that we love.”

While his comments were not made in relation to esports, it did give an insight into the challenge facing the sports movement.

In my view, it should also be the basis for any potential involvement esports have with the Olympic world.

By all means have International Federations partner with esports, as FIFA have done to launch a competitive gaming event, but there needs to be a purpose to it.

That is why the declaration is only okay, if the next steps are positive.

The key would be for sports to find what has worked so well in the esports industry and start finding ways to apply it effectively to their own sports. Should they determine that esports could be used effectively for the purpose of getting more young people involved in actual sport, maybe it would be worth it. I, for one, would need convincing as to whether this could work.

It is essential that sport is not lazy and chooses to make the decision to abandon its views about a need for physical activity in a bid to make money and appeal to youth.

If it does this, Bach can wave away the idea of getting “couch potatoes off the couch”.

By making esports an Olympic sport, he would effectively be saying “pull up couch and let’s have a game of FIFA”.

By Michael Pavitt

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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