In the past decade, video games have become increasingly popular especially among the millennial and generation Z demographics. The rise of video games has extended past being a hobby as many have made careers in gaming. Esports (electronic gaming) has become a multi-billion-dollar industry where professional gamers compete in teams across multiple video games, such as Fortnite, League of Legends and eNASCAR. Esports is not only an emerging market in sports but has also redefined what it means to be an athlete. With gaming in an upward trajectory, it has become a question whether Esports should be included in future Olympic Games.
The creation of electronic gaming consoles in 1972 ignited competitive gaming. However, competitive gaming did not begin until 1980, when 10,00 gamers participated in a Space Invades tournament. Over the next three decades, competitive gaming consistently grew, not only in participation but in viewership. By 1998, a Starcraft gaming tournament reached 50 million viewers. By 2002, competitive gaming had become so popular that major international tournaments were created such as the World Cyber Games, Electronic Sports World Cup and Major League Gaming (MLG). In 2006, history was made when the first Esports event was televised on USA Network. When Twitch was introduced in 2011, Esports broadcasting became not only more accessible, but popular and consistent. Now, we see Esports tournaments broadcast globally, with in-person tournaments selling out within minutes.
The International Olympic Committee announced that they would have a slate of five esports events for the 2021 Tokyo Games. These virtual events included auto racing, baseball, cycling, rowing, and sailing. In a statement, IOC President Thomas Bach said: “The Olympic Virtual Series is a new, unique Olympic digital experience aimed to grow direct engagement with new audiences in the field of virtual sports. It encourages sports participation and promotes the Olympic values, with a special focus on youth.” For more details on the results of the events, check out this link.
Like many Olympic athletes, those competing in Esports can compete at the collegiate level. Currently, there are 175 Esports varsity teams in colleges across the nation including Boise State, Miami (Ohio), and Ohio State. These teams regularly compete in league tournaments with the chance to win prizes in the form of scholarship money. While Esports athletes typically gain exposure via independent channels such as twitch or tournaments, college programs could also give Esports athletes a direct path to the Olympic Virtual Series.
While Esports provides many opportunities for athletes, there are some current setbacks. Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter states that athletes cannot compete in the games if they are using their name, image, or sporting performance to be used in advertising during a “blackout period,” which occurs between games, without the permission of the IOC. While this rules prohibits current Esports athletes from competing, it will take some time for the IOC to give permission to the athletes to compete.
Even though the Olympic Virtual Series is not an official Olympic sport, its creation has created a pathway to where Esports can become an integral part of the Olympics. The inclusion of Esports would show the international community how gaming has evolved and the inclusion of popular Esports athletes could potentially benefit the streaming numbers and platforms for future Olympic games (The Tokyo 2020 Olympics recorded the highest streaming numbers of any Olympics in history).