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Will esports reach the Olympics podium?

Bryan Tan
Bryan Tan • 5 min read
Will esports reach the Olympics podium?
Photo: Albert Chua
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Esports and traditional sports have in the past been seen as mutually exclusive types of events, but in recent years, there has been an increasing overlap between the two as esports continues to grow in popularity, especially since the pandemic. Do they have a shared future and will we one day see a greater role for esports in the Olympics?

Small steps through the years

In the early days, traditional sports leagues, teams, venues, and arenas feature an esports tournament or exhibition match as part of their programming, which can attract a dedicated esports audience. For example, the NBA 2K League has partnered with the NBA to host esports tournaments during halftime of basketball games, and the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) has held events in sports arenas like Madison Square Garden in New York and Oracle Arena in Northern California. This has extended to traditional multi-disciplinary sport competitions.

Esports was first included as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, and was later officially added as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

Esports was also first included as a medal event at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 2019, held in the Philippines. The esports events included three MOBA games - Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Dota 2, and Arena of Valor; two strategy games - Starcraft II and Hearthstone; and one fighting game - Tekken 7. Ten events offering thirty medals were featured. Esports continued to be offered as a medal event in the 2021 and 2023 editions.

Esports has not yet been included as an official sport in the Olympic Games roster, but there have been ongoing discussions and interest from both the IOC and the esports community about the potential inclusion of esports competitions.

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In 2017, esports was recognized as a sport by the IOC, which was a significant step forward in the discussion about esports in the Olympics. Since then, there have been various discussions and pilot events, including the aforementioned multidisciplinary IOC-sanctioned events, where esports was included as a demonstration sport.

Key challenges

However, there are still concerns and challenges that need to be addressed before esports can become a fully recognized Olympic sport. Some of the key challenges include:

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There are several challenges that need to be addressed before esports can be included in the Olympic Games. Some of the key challenges include:

1. Standardization: Esports encompasses a wide variety of games, each with their own unique rules, gameplay mechanics, refereeing and equipment requirements. Standardizing these elements across different games would be necessary for inclusion in the Olympics.

2. Governance: Esports lacks a central governing body that can ensure fair play, prevent cheating, and address other issues that may arise. Establishing a regulatory body that can address these concerns would be critical for the inclusion of esports in the Olympics.

3. Cultural differences: Esports has a different cultural context and audience than traditional sports. Some argue that it is not in line with the Olympic values of physical fitness and fair play. Bridging these cultural differences would be necessary for esports to be accepted as a legitimate Olympic sport.

4. Infrastructure: The infrastructure required for esports is different from that required for traditional sports. For example, esports tournaments require high-speed internet connections and powerful computers and utilise commercial venues, while traditional sports require purpose-built stadiums and other physical infrastructure.

5. Doping: The use of performance-enhancing drugs is a concern in esports, just as it is in traditional sports. Developing measures to prevent doping in esports would be necessary for its inclusion in the Olympics.

Addressing these challenges will require cooperation and coordination between the esports community, traditional sports organizations, and the International Olympic Committee.

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Hope arises

The Olympics Esports Week 2023, which was announced in 2021, is a step towards the potential inclusion of esports in the Olympic Games. The event aims to showcase esports and bring together the esports community with the Olympic community.

The event is also an opportunity to address some of the challenges that need to be overcome for the inclusion of esports in the Olympics, such as standardization and governance. The event will feature a limited number of games that have been selected based on their suitability for competitive play and their potential for future inclusion in the Olympics. For Olympics Esports Week 2023 which will take place in June 2023 in Singapore, nine initial games have been announced:

Archery (World Archery Federation) featuring Tic Tac Bow; Baseball (World Baseball Softball Confederation) featuring WBSC eBASEBALL™: POWER PROS; Chess (International Chess Federation) featuring Chess.com; Cycling (UCI) featuring Zwift; Dance (World DanceSport Federation) featuring JustDance; Motor sport (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) featuring Gran Turismo; Sailing (World Sailing) featuring Virtual Regatta; Taekwondo (World Taekwondo) featuring Virtual Taekwondo, and Tennis (International Tennis Federation) featuring Tennis Clash.

While the Olympics Esports Week is a positive development, it is important to note that it is not a guarantee that esports will ever be included in the Olympic Games. The event is more of a test to gauge interest and to see how esports can fit within the Olympic framework.

The Olympics Esports Week is a step in the right direction, as it provides an opportunity for the Olympics and esports communities to come together and explore the potential of esports in the Olympic Games. Singapore announced that it will be represented by 14 esports athletes competing in chess, dancesport, motor sports, archery and taekwondo.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether esports will be included in the full Olympics roster, but there is certainly growing interest and momentum towards its inclusion. Will esports make it to a podium finish in the Olympic Games?

Bryan is a partner at Reed Smith's entertainment and media group

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