Two weeks ago, the Olympic Council of Asia added esports to its list of events for the 2022 Asian Games.
The OCA has been involved in esports already with some of its smaller events, and now wants to make it an official medal sport to reflect "the rapid development and popularity of this new form of sports participation among the youth."
All of this has once again reignited the conversation around whether esports might one day become part of the Olympic Games.
Yet esports is not like other sports. It is forever changing and is full of different games, many of which require different skills and boast entirely separate fanbases.
GamesIndustry.biz spoke to those operating in the pro-gaming space, including broadcasters, team owners, journalists, publishers and event organisers, to see what this all could mean for this rapidly growing area of the business.
How significant is this move from The Olympic Council of Asia?
Sam Mathews, Founder, Fnatic: Esports has been something of a grassroots movement inside each country, where young people feel like it's their choice, their native sport, and they see much more patriotism and passion for things which are present throughout their society. Basically, if the Olympic Council wants to remain relevant with youth, then this is inevitable.
Adam Simmons, VP of Content & Marketing at Level Up Media (Dingit.TV): It is another step towards mainstream validation and acceptance of esports. For a current fan, it represents another high-profile event. But more importantly, it provides another platform for esports to be seen and discussed by a non-endemic audience. One of the key benefits of widening the appeal of esports and its profile is that not only does it increase the potential audience but it also further encourages non-endemic brands and advertisers to get involved in the space - something that is critical to the continued growth and success of the industry.
"If the Olympic Council wants to remain relevant with youth then this is inevitable
Sam Mathews, Fnatic
Dominic Sacco, Editor, Esports News UK: This is fairly significant, but it's not the first time esports has had a medal-based tournament. We've had the World Cyber Games, the eGames and others, but this, of course, has added weight: esports has been recognised by The Olympic Council of Asia. Let's not forget that esports has already been added to the OCA's Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games this September as a demonstration sport.
Paul Chaloner, MD, Code Red Esports:It's significant in terms of helping to further legitimise esports as a competitive entity in the eyes of the mainstream. It's also a play to capture the hard-to-get millenial demographic, which the Olympics has struggled with in recent years and where esports currently thrives. It makes sense on a few levels, but esports moves exceptionally quickly and 2022 is a long way away. In esports terms, 5 years is like 20 years in any other sport, so quite what the benefit to esports will be by then, is anyone's guess.
Neville Upton, CEO, Gfinity: It is yet another acknowledgement of just how significant esports is to the future of sport and entertainment. If sport wants to continue to be relevant to all segments of society then it needs to fully embrace esports.
Spike Laurie, Senior Director, ESL: It's certainly an exciting bold move, but the devil is in the detail and for this to be sustainable and successful it's important it's tackled correctly and with integrity.
Véronique Lallier, General Manager Europe, Hi-Rez: "It's very significant as it will start the debate among many more groups of people and raise awareness. However, it will depend on the execution, it is hard make esports fit the Olympics as rules and gameplay vary from one game to another.
Is esports ready for the scrutiny that comes from being part of a major global mainstream event?
Chaloner:It's been under heavier scrutiny for the last few years, with plenty of mainstream press reporting on various parts of it, including the odd scandal with betting or drug taking. I think, in fact, when you count up the small amount of those stories, it shows just how mature the industry is compared to other sports which have hundreds of similar stories.
"Our industry is very varied and standards of professionalism differ heavily from game-to-game
Veronique Lallier, Hi-Rez
Matthews: 100%. It's still in its infancy with a lot of challenges to overcome but it's growing up fast. I think people need to understand that sports are just games of skill. Video games based on skill are sports with the infusion of technology. The only real current difference is the lack of intense physicality, which will come with time via VR and AR.
Sacco: Yes and no. Industry-wise, it has the infrastructure, set-up and reputable brands, teams and players required, but there's still a common mindset that 'esports is not a sport', which we need to get over. It's not a sport, but it's a legitimate activity that actually has some great benefits - cognitive, social, etc - and it's here to stay."
Lallier: Some parts of it are, others are not. It's like asking: 'Is the sports industry making best use of technology?' Some sports are and some are not. Our industry is very varied and standards of professionalism differ heavily from game-to-game, and while there have been some local initiatives to get a code of conduct and some standards together, there are still no global rules that apply to the whole esports industry. In the UK, Ukie has worked a lot with us to make sure we are working closely with the gambling commission to proactively address concerns and make sure we are anticipating potential issues.
There was no information as to what titles will be part of the competition, how should the organisers approach that?
Laurie: Smartly, and with diligence and care. You'd be surprised how many sports have been part of the Olympics to date and no longer are: tandem cycling anyone? What's important here is that the games are picked on their competitive strength and sustainable legacy. It'd be a huge shame if it was used as a marketing opportunity for a 'flavour of the month' game that didn't have the competitive chops required to last year after year. The IOC have a huge responsibility here, and a fantastic opportunity.
Simmons: A lot of the decision-making to what games should be featured needs to come down to the logistics and aims of the event. Whatever titles are used, they need to be easy to understand for new viewers and consider what audience they are trying to reach.
Sacco: If you look at what they're including in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games this September - FIFA, MOBA and strategy games - that should give you an indication as to what kind of games might be there. Dota 2 and StarCraft II, perhaps.
But which games to select is of course a challenge. Too often esports is used as a broad blanket term, but actually, the fanbases, tournaments and structure can differ wildly from game-to-game. Organisers will likely pick the titles that are most popular, but certain developers and publishers are picky as to which tournaments include their games. Some - like Overwatch - already have nation-based tournaments like the Overwatch World Cup, and may be reluctant to get involved.
"It depends whether they want to have one game represent the whole of esports - a bad idea in my opinion - or whether they would prefer to run it in a similar way to the Olympics and have many different disciplines
Paul Chaloner, Code Red
Chaloner: This is where many who come in to esports misunderstand how it works. Some come in and think: 'Yeah, I'll run an esports event' and then only afterwards have they tried to figure out which genre, or which game or games, to use. Ideally they will approach professionals in the space who have the experience of running major esports events and can help steer them away from the pitfalls that many face when entering esports.
Overall, it depends whether they want to have one game represent the whole of esports - a bad idea in my opinion - or whether they would prefer to run it in a similar way to the Olympics overall and have many different disciplines, different genres, different platforms and ultimately a wide variety of games for a wide variety of age groups. If it's the latter then I'd be very happy to see that kind of event run for a couple of weeks with all the various communities able to enjoy something special.
Upton: It would be good to take a variety of games across different genres and platforms. It is equally important to ensure that the content plan and format create the most exciting and engaging competitions.
Lallier: Five years is too far out to pick the titles. The market landscape will change a lot in that time. They should pick a moment in time, such as two years beforehand, to choose which games will feature. It needs to be as close to the tournament as possible while also allowing for proper qualifiers to happen.
Also the game selection is very tricky because of the commercial implications for inclusion vs exclusion. Those included will have a massive boost.
The organisers might be best advised to differentiate. In the same way that footballers would rather win the World Cup than the Olympics, and tennis players would rather win the tennis majors than Olympics, gamers might prefer to win the League of Legends World Championships than the Olympics (or Asian Games). Making the same players compete across a 'pentathlon' of games is just an example of how to differentiate, which tests all-round gaming skill rather than skill at one specific game.
eSports is such a varied sport, so is it realistic to expect this to become part of more global events - such as the Olympics - in the future?
Lallier: In order to fully represent the industry several games would need to be included in the Olympics. It seems unrealistic to expect that to happen at present, but massive changes happen and the Olympics might decide to integrate esports in an effort to remain relevant.
"The biggest challenge organisers like the OCA have is getting the best esports players in the world to take part
Dominic Sacco, Esports News UK
Instead of trying to integrate, the Olympics could make a third type of Games - eSports Olympics - in addition to Summer and Winter Games. If the event has to fit the existing Olympics event, a showcase, perhaps, is more likely to work.
Upton: There are 385m esports enthusiasts and over 1bn gamers. It is totally appropriate to ensure that the Olympics embeds esports as a key part of the event. It should not just be a few token games but a full spectrum of titles across all the different platforms.
Simmons: One of the biggest challenges for an event like the Olympics is the changing nature of eSports titles. Not only can a new game come along, but existing games can get sweeping changes made through patches that alter the gameplay significantly. Olympic events are, for the most part, stable - while there are some changes to specific rules, the fundamentals of a 100m sprint are locked down. For global events, balancing a stable competitive environment while still featuring games that are popular will be a challenge.
Sacco:It's hard to say. I think organisers like the OCA are still testing the water with esports. In my opinion, the biggest challenge organisers like the OCA have is getting the best esports players in the world to take part. Top players earn top money, and may not be interested in even taking part in medal-based tournaments unless there's some kind of strong financial incentive.
Laurie:I'm not sure. I think the analogy of boxing is a good one, where there's a clear distinction between the 'amateur' and 'pro' circuits. Esports is a digital beast, with teams being formed of the best global talent. Will the country vs country format of the Olympics be able to capture that top level play? I certainly hope so, but will it replace the top tier spectacle of an ESL One or Intel Extreme Masters? I don't think so.
Mathews: Of course, if you want more eyeballs and increasing entertainment factor, you need to keep it relevant to what's on the rise. I don't think there's been a sport that's grown as fast as esports in the past 20 years. I'm also excited to see some AR/VR games in the next 10 years come out with mass adoption that will take everyone's viewing experience to the next level. Imagine watching real time hunger games, being played out on Titan (the moon) from your living room VR set?