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With Olympics in View, eSports Makes 2017 a Year to Remember

13 Dec, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Despite the always heated debate surrounding them, eSports continues to evolve. The past year has been particularly eventful, with developments occurring in pro sports, on the college campuses and even on the Olympic level. In fact, on any given day, there’s a new piece of content.

So what are the top developments in the past year? Here’s a playback.

Yes, it’s a sport: In October, eSports made a big leap in status when a group of Olympic stakeholders noted it was, in fact, a sporting activity. This, they said, is because the “players involved play with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.” The IOC and the GAISF were expected to enter into dialogue with the gaming industry and players to examine the issue further. It was, however, noted, that in order to be fully recognized by the IOC, eSports had to prove it does not “infringe on the Olympic values.”

And an Olympic sport? Mas oui! The co-president of the Paris Olympic bid committee, Tony Estanguet, has told the Associated Press he is considering the addition of eSports to the agenda to the lineup for  the 2024 Games. Under the IOC’s Agenda 2020, host cities are allowed to select some new sports to be presented. Whether eSports will appear in Paris is a decision that won’t be made until 2020.

Coming to a host city sooner than that: Intel has noted it will be hosting an eSports tournament, the Intel Extreme Masters, in PyeongChang just prior to the Olympics. Games to be presented include Blizzard Entertainment's popular StarCraft II. (A separate exhibition featuring Ubisoft's action-sports title “Steep Road to the Olympics,” the official licensed game of PyeongChang 2018, will be included.)

Just don’t expect Call of Duty: Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, has noted he would be open to featuring eSports (after all, they do capture that youth demographic he wants) but has stated he wants them to be games that would promote “peace among people” and be based on actual sports such as basketball or soccer (or skiing, featured in the officially licensed game for 2018). He stated it is his hope such games would encourage people to take up the physical counterpart of the sport.

But eSports still needs leadership: One thing the IOC made clear this year was the fact that if it is indeed to take eSports under its wing, it will need proof the sport has a governing body and that it is ready to comply with the rules and regulations of the Olympic movement with regard to issues such as doping, cheating and more. And while the World eSports Association launched in 2016, there is widespread doubt that it is the leadership the fledgling sport needs.

Playing with the pros: The NBA has announced that 17 teams will be part of the upcoming 2K League, a competition it created in partnership with Take-Two Interactive, the developer of the popular NBA 2K series. Qualifiers start January 1, with draft rounds planned for March 2018 for a season that's set to begin in May. Further blurring the lines between real and digital sports, the Sacramento Kings have unveiled a new eSports training facility within the Golden 1 Center pro arena.

On the campus: Whether officials like it or not, the voice of eSports is resonating loudly, even through the hallowed halls of NCAA. A recent announcement noted officials are continuing to engage in “discussions to better understand the NCAA’s potential role, if any, in the eSports realm.” The NCAA isn’t known for the speed at which it makes decisions, so it may well be that eSports arrives at the Olympics before action is taken at the collegiate level.

Meanwhile, individual colleges are forging ahead: SportTechie noted that in April 2017, the University of Utah became the first Power Five school to offer a varsity eSports program. In addition, Big Ten universities are competing in televised eSports tournaments. Successful instances like these will continue to propel the forward motion of NCAA on the subject.

With training facilities: This year, news emerged of Sandbox eSports, the first pre-season eSports training facility. Located in Newbury Park, California, the facility has a weight room, nutritionist and more – in addition, of course, to plenty of connectivity. Advanced eSport-specific training tools are available, including the Dynaboard (hand-eye coordination and reaction time), Neurotracker (memory and task prioritization skills) in addition to the recovery equipment (Cyrochamber and Normatec). On staff sports psychologists are available to address a variety of individual or team needs.

And a variety of competition facilities in the sports event market: In September, it was announced the Durham Bulls would become the first MiLB team to host an eSports tournament in its facility. In addition, the first purpose-built eSports arena opened in 2017.

…And ethical questions: Late in the year, news broke of a U.K.-based company, Bidvine, that allows people to hire professional Call of Duty players to play the game for them. It’s far from the only such service. And since a skilled player can up an individual’s ranking, unlock game features and improve statistics, it stands to reason people would be willing to pay. Of course, one article notes, “cheating in any scenario is frowned upon in online gaming and tends to lead to players being banned from games or online services.” While cheating can happen in any sport, its presence in eSports is something any governing body will have to take a stand on.

And so the virtual roller coaster ride continues. Expect 2018 to bring even more developments.

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