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eSports Moves One Big, Controversial Step Closer to the Olympic Podium

25 Jul, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

In the controversy-meter of the sports world, eSports is right up there with stem cells and capital punishment: standing square in the center of a maelstrom of opinions with few claiming ambivalence. And that has never been more obvious than it is now, as it edges toward consideration for inclusion in the Olympics. And this past week, it took a remarkably big step.

This past weekend, officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) agreed to establish a liaison group during a meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland. This came on the heels of an eSports forum jointly hosted by the two organizations, in which topics were discussed, including governance, the athletes' perspective and continuing opportunities for collaboration.

According to an article in Inside The Games, the liaison group will next have the opportunity to present during an Olympism in Action Forum, to be held in Argentina in early October, with more discussions to follow at other meetings in November and December. 

Bach admitted in Lausanne that gaming being seen at the Olympics was not likely during his tenure as IOC President (which ends in 2025), but claimed that the sport had taken the "first step of a long journey" on its path to becoming part of the Games.

So far, so good, as far as eSports is concerned. But the opposition is gathering its forces as well. IOC Athletes Commission member Sarah Walker has decried the possibility of inclusion, noting that entry level gaming “is not active enough” to constitute a sport. Walker, an Olympic silver medalist in the women's BMX at London 2012, did not mince words.

"I think as it stands right now, the way eSports is, I don’t think it completely fits into the Olympics. The main difference for me is if I want to practice any Olympic discipline, if I wanted to try one of them, I actually have to go out and do it. I have to be active. Where gaming is right now, if I was inspired to be a gamer, my first step is to go home and sit on the couch."

Bach had noted that if eSports were to be added to the Olympics, he would want it to be in the form of a recognizable sport. In particular, he objected to games depicting violence and shooting.

eSports advocates at the Lausanne meeting, however, were quick to point out that both shooting and sports that involve aggression and so-called violence (such a wrestling, boxing and martial arts) are already present at the Games.

Harder to argue with was the fact that eSports already has favor with the much-longed-for youth demographic that has been steadily falling off for Olympic viewership – or that as an industry, it has  amassed considerable wealth.

Jacob Wolf, who covers eSports for ESPN, noted in a tweet: “All for esports inclusion with traditional sports, but I hope that people do not report on this IOC Esports Forum as the industry “making it.” eSports “made it” years ago. Last year, 20 groups invested $352 million in franchise fees for just two leagues. The Olympics need us.”

eSports won’t be on the list of sports for the 2020 Beijing Games and current plans for Paris 2024 do not include it either. However, it could be seen in Los Angeles in 2028.

But even amid all the controversy, eSports continues to tiptoe toward the podium, inch by inch and against argument after argument. World Sailing launched the inaugural eSailing World Championship in May. Intel hosted an eSports tournament, the Intel Extreme Masters, in PyeongChang just prior to the Winter Olympics. Games presented included 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, also took place.)

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