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eSports: The Next Medal Event in the Games?

3 May, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Inclusion of eSports in Asian Games Reignites Debate Over Whether It Deserves a Spot on the Olympic Podium

The debate of what constitutes a sport probably dates back to the first Olympic Games when the ancients bickered over which athletic pursuits should be incorporated. Fast-forward to today and you’ll hear the same arguments.

The latest fuel for the fire is the announcement that eSports will be a full medal sport in the 2022 iteration of the Asian Games.

According to an article in Inside The Games, the announcement was made in part by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). The OCA says the inclusion of eSports is a reflection of the “rapid development and popularity of this new form of sports participation among the youth.”

To whet spectators’ appetites, eSports will be presented as a demonstration sport at next year's Asian Games in Indonesian cities Jakarta and Palembang.

There’s no question that multi-sport games have long sought a younger viewership, and few sports skew as young as computer gaming. The New York Times recently covered the uptick in colleges hosting eSports as part of their programs:

Video game competitions, also known as e-sports, have taken off on campuses across the country, including Harvard and Florida State University. More than 10,000 students now play in the biggest college league, 4,400 more than last year and 4,600 more than the number of men who play on Division I college basketball teams.

The stakes keep climbing, too: Winning a big tournament can sometimes earn players several years’ worth of tuition money. And in a possible sign of the future, the athletic department of Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago created an official video game team this fall, offering the same sort of scholarships given to athletes playing soccer, football and ice hockey.

An article in CNet notes that the market for esports is growing, and participation is expected to reach 191 million people around the world by year's end, according to research firm Newzoo. As of last April, the industry was worth more than $450 million, an amount that is expected to grow to $1 billion by 2019. New eSports arenas are also opening; the most recently announced will be housed in the Luxor at Las Vegas. (Vegas recently announced the formation of the non-profit Nevada eSports Alliance, dedicated to making the city a capital of the exponentially growing eSports universe.)

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association has created its own esports league. Gaming schools have also cropped up to groom the next generation of pros. Esports will also be a demonstration event at the OCA's Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan in September, according to the OCA.

So can we count on seeing eSports trying to become an Olympic sport any time soon? Depends on who’s doing the talking. As recently as last year, ESPN stated it was a very real possibility, even going so far as to say that the IOC could be recognizing eSports by 2020.

According to the article, the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), a South Korean organization, made inquiries to the IOC, and received a response outlining the process and next steps to allow esports to be recognized as an Olympic sport. In addition, the International eGames Committee successfully presented a two-day eSports showcase in Rio in August of 2016, following the conclusion of the Paralympic Games.

The biggest driver in the equation – outside of the youthful culture – is the money. eSports is raking it in and creating huge sponsorship opportunities, something that has been a problem for multi-sport events recently.

As the travel market also begins taking advantage of the growth of the sport, with designated eSports arenas in cities like Las Vegas, as well as travel to tournaments in cities around the world, count on the debate about ‘sport/not a sport’ to continue. Whether eSports will make it into the Olympics also remains to be seen. A recent online poll found an overwhelming number of readers do not consider it a sport.

One thing that can’t be denied is the numbers. Turner president David Levy got the idea of investigating eSports after watching his son watching competitive gaming.

“I came back to the office and asked my strategic planning people to do a deep dive on what this eSport thing is. And a month later, I got a stack of things of what was going on. It’s huge. Fifty million people in the United States play eSports. It’s a global phenomenon. Eighteen to 34 (demographic), there’s more money spent in this thing, growing like a weed. And so we knew we needed to get in.”

In late 2015, Turner announced it was partnering with WME/IMG to create what would become known as ELEAGUE, one of its most successful commercial properties.

The same people who consider themselves sports purists won’t like the idea of eSports even being considered for the Olympics. But, as many pundits have pointed out, there’s gold to be made, and medals are the least of it.

Do you think eSports should be in the Olympics? Take SDM's new poll here.

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