Computer GamepadThis week it was announced that eSports is to become an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games.  This follows a “strategic partnership” between the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and Alisports, the eSports arm of e-commerce organisation Alibaba.

eSports is also due to feature in the programme of the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG), taking place this September in Turkmenistan, where the programme will include FIFA 2017, Multiplayer Online Battle Arena and Real Time Attack.

More than 25 years after the Nintendo world championships launched in 1990, gaming has become a colossal industry as well as a profitable career for its top gamers, who can earn up to $1 million (£780,000) per annum.  Sports clubs are also getting in on the action, with West Ham United becoming the first club in the UK to sign an eSports player to represent the Hammers at FIFA video game tournaments.  Sean Allen (known by his gaming name Dragonn), was given squad number 50 and is said to wear a Hammers shirt at events.

The global eSports market generated $463 million (£384 million) in 2016 and is set to reach $1.1 billion in 2019, with its global audience up 27%, having grown to 131 million people in 2016. There can be no doubt that eSports is a sizeable and growing industry, centred around competitions and leagues which bear more than just a structural similarity to traditional sport. These are just two of the factors which are attracting traditional sports to invest in eSports (as Sports Shorts has previously discussed, a key motivator for traditional sports seems to be the potential to increase fan reach through eSports).  But is there really a place for it in the medal table? Do professional gamers belong on the podium next to the heptathletes, rowers, and marathon runners?

Unsurprisingly eSports’ inclusion within the Asian Games has provoked substantial debate and has also led many to question whether this is a precursor to the inclusion of eSports in the Olympics.

On the one hand eSports is a sedentary activity, which begs the question whether it should be a ‘sport’ at all, given that it requires no physical activity other than “thumb twiddling”. Indeed this was what ultimately foiled the case for categorising Bridge as a sport (following a ruling in which the High Court agreed with Sport England that the absence of physical activity precluded Bridge from being a sport for the purposes distributing public sports funding).  On the other hand, gamers excelling in their field point out they train up to 15 hours a day and adhere to strict dietary (and often fitness) regimes, demonstrating the dedication and concentration required to succeed. Moreover, many of the biggest professional games (such as League of Legends and Counter Strike) require formidable strategic skill and team work.

As to the question of Olympic inclusion, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach voiced his view on the matter during this week’s Pan American Sports Organisation General Assembly, admitting that in his opinion some of the games forming part of eSports are contrary to the “Olympic rules and values of the sport”.  Although Bach acknowledged eSports’ value due to its “high engagement from the youth”, he voiced a concern that “we do not see an organisation or a structure that will give us confidence, or guarantee, that in this area the Olympic rules and values of sport are respected and in place, and that the implementation of these rules are monitored and secured.  There is no International Federation that has the necessary authority to give this guarantee and to restrict these activities to the values of sport.  [However,] the initiative by the OCA can be a valuable test for such an engagement”.

Bach’s comments hit on the absence within eSports of a traditional sporting regulatory structure, yet governing bodies and integrity authorities are beginning to emerge which may one day in the not-too-distant future render his comments outdated. Others have pointed to the fact that many eSports entail a significant focus on violence and the physical destruction of one’s opponents, which appears to run contrary to the spirit of the Olympic movement (though it would appear that sports such as boxing might provide something of a counterargument to this view).

Setting aside the technical arguments as to whether eSports constitutes a ‘sport’, its commercial promise, size and the skill involved are all undeniable and are of potentially great financial and cultural value to the sports industry, particularly in terms of the potential to engage younger fans. Indeed the commercial potential of eSports appears to be the principal driver (on both sides) for its integration with traditional sport, which is unsurprising in the modern sports industry where commercialisation and entertainment is becoming increasingly central. Yet, whilst eSports may be perfectly capable of coexisting with, and adding value to, traditional sports, including through organised competitions analogous to the Olympics (such as the inaugural eGames hosted in Rio in 2016), its inclusion within the Olympic movement itself would cross a previously clear dividing line between sporting/athletic skill and other types of skill. This is a line which many will find conceptually difficult to digest. It also begs the very real question of whether Olympic inclusion would open the floodgates for the inclusion of other less physical endeavours (perhaps even Bridge!), eroding or distorting the nature of the Olympic movement.

As Thomas Bach has suggested, the Asian Games should provide an interesting test case, and the IOC’s position as regards eSports following those games will be watched with great interest.