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Is the Olympics relevant for esports?

IOC president Thomas Bach dismissed games as “contradictory to Olympic values” - but his approval is less important than what esports is building elsewhere

Like most people who've had the rather mixed experience of living in an Olympics host city - I'm presently on my second run through that particular merry-go-round - my view of the games themselves is high while my view of their deeply flawed, self-serving and morally compromised governing body, the IOC, could scarcely be any lower.

Much-publicised comments from IOC president Thomas Bach ruling out the inclusion of esports in the Olympics, then, didn't have to do much to elicit a pretty severe eye-roll. The fact that Bach's comments betrayed a drastic lack of awareness about both esports games and the Olympics' own history is only the icing on the cake. Bach claims that video games cannot be a part of the Olympics due to "promoting violence" (and "discrimination", he added, though I'm not sure what he even thinks he's talking about here, as I doubt he's party to any particularly nuanced arguments about the presentation of Middle Eastern nations in the Call of Duty franchise, for example); perhaps suddenly realising that his own sporting career was in fencing, which is literally a martial art designed to train people to poke holes in their enemies with very real swords, he went on to argue that sport is a "civilised expression" of a "real fight among people."

"The fact that Bach's comments betrayed a drastic lack of awareness about both esports games and the Olympics' own history is only the icing on the cake"

Look, this is patently daft stuff. It's almost embarrassing to point out something so obvious, but the Olympics is full of events, ranging from the classic javelin via fencing and archery up to modern additions like judo and shooting, which are former (or current!) martial sports designed very much to kill or subdue enemies. This isn't revelatory in any way; the Olympic movement has always had roots in the notion of martial prowess and readiness, and the idea that "yesterday's warfare is tomorrow's Olympic event" is well-founded. Bach himself knows that, which is why he tied himself up in rhetorical knots trying to justify how replicating the physical actions of lethal warfare are "civilised" while replicating some aspects of combat in digital form is "contradictory to Olympic values."

The thing is, though, that the naked hypocrisy of Bach's comments disguises a deeper truth that he failed to articulate. Games in general, and esports in particular, simply haven't been around enough to attract the rather artificial veneer of "civilisation" that the Olympics values so much. Bach's reasoning for excluding esports is flimsy, but betrays the truth of the matter; his is not a lone voice, but rather a clumsy expression of a pretty common viewpoint among people of his background. The notion of games being in some way "uncouth" and unsuited to the Olympics or to other major sporting events dovetails with the more general suspicion regarding esports' right to be seen as a genuine athletic pursuit - and both of these are issues that will be solved in the end only by time and patience.

"Given enough time, the recognition and acceptance of esports in broader sporting events is inevitable"

That's not to say that the counter-arguments aren't strong and persuasive. Proponents of esports rightly point out that many games are not intrinsically violent (and it's easy to strip back and tone down depictions of violence in a game for broader consumption anyway), and note that the degree of focus, coordination and reflexes required to play these games at a competitive level is comfortably comparable with many sporting events that rely on skill and coordination rather than brute strength or speed. Whatever your position on the validity of esports as a professional sport overall, the degree of skill and training required to compete at a high level is simply not in question - and the notion that these games are intrinsically violent (or discriminatory, whatever the hell Bach meant by that statement) is easily dismissed.

Given enough time, the recognition and acceptance of esports in broader sporting events is inevitable, simply because these counter-arguments and the simple, undeniable popularity of esports will prevail. It's just that "enough time" in this context may mean decades, not years or months. Esports as a category is growing strongly and developing fast, but even aside from the cultural barrier - which is generational as much as anything else - there are a huge number of issues that create structural barriers to broader acceptance, which will need to be fixed within the esports world before it's ready to be adopted more widely in the sporting world.

"Is getting recognition from a stuffy old body like the IOC even the right move for a disruptive and ground-breaking sector like esports?"

Not least among these is the fact that "esports" is not a monolithic thing as the name suggests. There are dozens of games involved and the dominant ones turn over every few years. This constant state of flux is exacerbated by the confusing array of rules and norms that different tournaments and organisations use. The overall sense, looking from the perspective of major sporting organisations, is of a field that's in its infancy despite its rapid development. That may seem frustrating to esports people who have worked on this field since the 1990s, but even that 20-odd year span is a drop in the ocean compared to the "development time" that most sporting events have gone through before becoming mainstream and accepted.

The idea that esports might "settle down" into a set of accepted games, rules and procedures that start to take on the mantle of being "real" sports is a fairly logical one; it's certainly what bodies like the IOC are waiting to see, only they're expecting to wait several decades for it. Yet that settling-down process might not actually be the right move for eSports. Indeed, it may end up abandoning much of the dynamism and rapid evolution that actually makes esports so exciting and interesting for its many fans.

Having developed such a wildly innovative and new form of competitive play, the question deserves to be asked: is getting recognition from a stuffy old body like the IOC even the right move for a disruptive and ground-breaking sector like esports? How much of itself should it be willing to sacrifice in return for a minor venue on the outskirts of an Olympic park and a few late-night reruns on a cable channel somewhere?

The attempts to get esports recognised by organisations like the Olympics or other sporting bodies is well-intentioned - but I can't help but compare it to the desperate attempts 15 to 20 years ago to get more video game coverage on television. A huge number of creative and clever people spent countless hours working on pitches and pilots for video game TV shows, convinced that this was an important step the medium needed to take for broader acceptance. It never worked, but it didn't have to. Today, consumers watch more video game content on YouTube and Twitch than they ever would have on TV. Technology leapfrogged the TV itself; new video distribution mediums grew up in an era where video games had always been mainstream and developed a symbiotic relationship with them from the outset.

Similarly, I suspect that esports' future isn't at the Olympics; it's at some as-yet undreamed-of event that will grow up in the age of games and streaming and redefine how consumers relate to sports (digital and physical) in small but important ways. Esports organisers would do well to keep their eye on the ball, as it were. The Olympics is a distraction; never mind pleading for recognition from men like Thomas Bach, when the future of sports entertainment is out there waiting to be created.

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