There are, as you might expect, numerous definitions of “sport” in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
The one which best suits what takes place at an Olympic Games appears to be this: “A series of athletic contests engaged in or held at one time and forming a spectacle or social event. (1594).”
By which definition e-sports – about to become an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games as a possible precursor to future Olympic inclusion – do not qualify.
So let’s just put this marker down now. E-sports – massively popular, hugely lucrative, swiftly growing – are not sport in the Olympic sense of the word. They are games – and games which, it can be argued, often run counter to the spirit of the Games.
The Asian Games announcement this week followed a “strategic partnership” between the Olympic Council of Asia and Alisports, which was established in 2015 as the e-sports arm of Chinese e-commerce retail giant Alibaba.
Alisports was reported to have invested $150 million last year in South Korea’s International eSports Federation, which has been pushing for e-sports’ inclusion in the regular Olympics.
Earlier this year the Alibaba Group was signed up as one of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) top tier sponsors in what was described as a “transformative” partnership stretching through to 2028.
Of course, increased sales are the basis of all sports sponsorships. Otherwise why bother? But as far as the IOC’s top tier partners are concerned, no one has yet suggested that drinking Coca Cola should become an Olympic sport, demonstration or otherwise. Or that you should be able to earn a gold medal for consuming a Big Mac.
E-sports has already been added to the program of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat, where it will serve as a demonstration sport.
The e-sports due to be contested at the fifth edition of the AIMAG, scheduled to take place from September 17 until 27, include FIFA 2017, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena and Real Time Attack.
Don’t get me wrong. E-sports are a phenomenon that will go on and on, loved and embraced, embraced in some cases to the point of obsession, by generations of chairbound followers. Supporters of e-sports’ potential merit as an Olympic sport point to the hand-eye coordination, mental focus and fast-twitch muscles required to thrive at the highest level in what has become an international and professional arena. Fine. Not a sport.
I’ve just taken a look at a top FIFA 17 player in action thanks to a video on www.easports.com/fifa
Rafifa13, to use his gaming name, has been crowned Americas Regional champion after a dominant performance in the Miami regional final of the Ultimate Team Championship series.
Sitting in his padded chair, with big black squidgy headphones on, his thumbs working furiously at the console, our engaging youngster is a picture of calm concentration and mastery. But the closest he comes to athleticism in this contest is his victory celebration as he rises eventually from his chair to administer celebratory high-fives.
At least Rafifa13 is involved in a virtual sport. Others who have developed their mastery in the broad field of e-sports – or computer games, as some still like to call them – do so in very different arenas from the football field.
For instance, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena is a genre of strategic video games in which a player controls a single character in one of two teams, the objective being – “with the assistance of periodically spawned computer-controlled units that march forward along set paths” – to destroy the opposing team’s main structure.
As the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, might have said – it’s not about the winning, it’s about the taking apart.
I wonder if there will be a place within these upcoming Asian Indoor Games, or even a future Olympic Games, for a gold medalist First-Person Shooter? This video game genre, centered upon gun and projectile weapon-based combat in which the player experiences the action directly through the eyes of a protagonist, typically involves what has been described as a series of “fast-paced and bloody firefights.”
Players have a choice of weapons. Some games involve realistic models of existing weapons, mimicking their rate of fire, recoil and accuracy. But a wide array of weapons can be employed, from lasers and grenade launchers to the crossbow.
Figures made available last year suggested that the global e-sports market generated $325 million of revenue in 2015 and was expected to make $493 million in 2016; the global e-sports audience in 2015 was estimated at 226 million people.
It can’t be denied that these are figures to make any sporting contest prick up its ears and look interested.
In two respects, at least, some e-games players have come to resemble some of their sporting counterparts. There are numerous cases of repetitive strain injuries because of the constant rapidity of hand movement required. And there have also been reports of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs including stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall and Vyvanse, or drugs with a calming effect such as Propanol.
Just thinking aloud here, but if Olympic participation is to be based upon popularity “among the youth,” as the phrase has it, how about making sex an official part of the Games? Lots of young people, in fact even some older people, are keen on sex. And, unlike e-sports, this can sometimes go beyond manual activity.
Of course, sex has long been an official part of the Games in one sense, as the large numbers of condoms supplied to athletes attests. At last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro the official figure was 350,000 male condoms, and 100,000 female condoms. No wonder the tabloids labelled it “the raunchiest Games ever.”
In fact this activity would fit in nicely with another OED definition of sport: “Amorous dalliance or intercourse.”
But we digress.
In one respect, the debate over whether e-sports are really a sport in the Olympic sense would be redundant if the Games were organised as they were in the early part of the last century.
From 1912 to 1948, medals were awarded at the Games for works of art in five different categories – architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.
The impetus came from the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who wanted to combine sport and art in this form, as long as the art was inspired by sport.
But as even some of the Olympics’ key sports, such as athletics and rowing, are now proceeding warily in an effort to maintain their standing within a changing and – apparently – shrinking Olympic program following the Agenda 2020 initiative, any new sport or event coming in means an old sport or event going out.
How, for instance, might lightweight rowers feel a couple of Olympics down the line if their events were to be eclipsed in order to herald the new kid on the console?
Were the Games endlessly open-ended, you could make a case for e-sports as a modern equivalent of the earlier artistic genres – at least, those e-sports based on sport rather than slaughter.
But it is the latter characteristic of so many e-games that surely undermines its right to be associated with the Games as Coubertin envisaged them.
One of the idealistic Frenchman’s strongest desires was to see men competing together in sport rather than war. Athletic competition was seen as a means of promoting understanding between nations and cultures, thereby lessening the danger of conflict.
Do e-games, so much of which appear based on a mindset of attrition and destruction, really belong within an Olympic Games?
Needless to say, the latest news has regenerated debate over the issue. I have just noticed a tweet from @martinpmcevoy: “A capitulation to anti-sport. E-sport is not a version of sport, it’s the enemy of sport, and the Asian Games have let down the drawbridge.”
By Mike Rowbottom
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.