With every passing month, esports fans around the globe hear more and more news about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) making professional gaming an Olympic sport. At Power Play, we think the inclusion of esports at the Olympics is an inevitability. But that doesn't mean it will be easy! While there are some obvious similarities between sports and esports, there are important differences too. It will take some serious thought and research for the IOC to integrate esports in a way that both respects and extends the Olympic charter, while also being authentic to esports and its communities.
In this blog post, we want to point towards what we think are some of the key questions for the IOC to consider. Putting aside thorny questions about intellectual property rights – a topic that deserves its own blog post – most of the big questions about what an Olympic esports event would look like boil down to one of two categories: how do esports fit in the Olympics, and how do the Olympics fit in esports?
What are the IOC's strategic goals in including esports in the Olympics?
For many, the idea of esports in the Olympics is exciting. But it's important for the IOC to think seriously about what they want to achieve by including esports. Is the purpose of doing so to extend the Olympic charter? Or is it to connect their brand with younger audiences that enjoy esports? Maybe it's simply to maximize viewership? All of these are fine goals, as far as we're concerned but we also think it's important for the IOC to be intentional about them.
What is the justification for including esports in the Olympics?
Programming esports into the Olympics is going to ruffle some feathers. The IOC will need to craft a strong explanation for why esports belong in the Olympics that will satisfy as many naysayers as possible. We think it's crucial for the IOC to demonstrate how esports extend, rather than challenge, the principles of the original Olympic Charter by updating the games for a new era of competition.
What criteria should determine whether or not an esport is included?
What makes an esport worthy of being included in the Olympics? Is it a matter of a large player-base, or a huge viewer-base? Should legacy determine a game's eligibility, regardless of its current popularity? Do violent games have any place in the Olympics? Should a game have to be free-to-play to be considered for inclusion in order to ensure equal access to players across the world? How should the IOC accommodate the fact that competitive games that are very popular in one part of the world – for example, mobile games in China – might not be popular elsewhere? Figuring out what games qualify for inclusion and why is crucial for making smart choices about how esports fits in the Olympics.
Where do esports belong in the existing Olympic ecosystem?
Though the summer games tend to get most of the glory, the IOC also operates the Winter and Youth Olympics. Which event does esports belong in? Or should esports be spread around according to scheduling or some other criteria? Or perhaps the Olympics should plan a new event entirely, a modern version of the ill-fated World Cyber Games?
What are publisher's expectations about their games?
Because game publishers own the intellectual property rights to their esports, the IOC has to consider publisher expectations in ways that it does not with traditional sports, the rules of which no one has intellectual property rights to. Is it appropriate for publishers to charge a licensing fee for their games' use? What role should publishers have in shaping an Olympic gaming competition, especially if the publisher already operates a professional league? Is it fair for the IOC to ask publishers to develop low-violence versions of their games?
How will Olympic esports events fit alongside traditional esports events?
If esports are included in either the summer or winter Olympics, they face a serious scheduling challenge with longstanding esports leagues and tournaments like the Overwatch League and the League Championship Series. Good luck trying to get any Dota 2 team worth its salt to forgo The International even for an event like the Olympics! Putting esports in the Olympics means either re-scheduling these already existing leagues, or relying on less-than-superior players.
How should the IOC approach the problem of regulation?
Early Olympic games suffered in part because there were different standards for events in different regions of the world, leading to confusion about what the "real" rules of a competition were. These days, the rules have been standardized with the help of international sporting federations. But those don't really exist for esports. So who has the authority to give answers to questions like: Which version of a game should be played? What's the best tournament format? What hardware is permitted? Should coaches be allowed to speak with players during games, or only between them? Whether this means making a new, global organization, or relying on publishers to set the rules, justifying and defining standardization is a major challenge.
Whose responsibility is it to fund and manage a national esports program?
Very few professional esports teams all hail from a single nation. The popular Overwatch League team Fusion, for example, has players from nine different countries! With a few exceptions, there's no equivalent of a state- or corporate-funded national sports program in esports. How important is such a program for esports with respect to the Olympics? Would states or corporations across the globe be willing to pay for national esports programs? How would a country go about determining its national "team" for team sports, or delegation for individual esports?
These are only a fraction of the challenges the International Olympic Committee faces when it comes to programming esports into the Olympics. We don't think any of them are insurmountable, but it's critical that the IOC think long and hard about why and how to include esports.