Many readers will be aware that Sports Shorts has been tracking the development of esports over the last 18 months, particularly its journey towards possible inclusion within the Olympic Movement.  In September 2016, we looked at the relatively recent ‘explosion’ of esports in Europe and the US, the emergence of new governing bodies, and some of the regulatory issues beginning to rear their heads.  In October 2016, we examined the growing trend for ‘traditional’ sports to invest in esports (from NBA teams, to European football teams, and most recently NFL team owners). Then, in April this year, following the announcement of esports as an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games, we covered the debate surrounding the move to include esports more fully within the Olympic Movement, a destination which, in August, appeared to be one step closer when Tony Estanguet (co-president of the Paris Olympic bid committee confirmed that he would be discussing the possible inclusion of esports within the 2024 Games).

At that time, the IOC President, Thomas Bach, expressed considerable scepticism as to whether esports could even be considered a sport “with regard to physical activity and what it needs to be considered a sport” and the absence of an international federation “or a structure that will give us confidence”.

On 28 October, however, the IOC Summit discussed the development of esports and “the current involvement of various Olympic Movement stakeholders”, concluding:

  • “”eSports” are showing strong growth, especially within the youth demographic across different countries, and can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic Movement.
  • Competitive “eSports” could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.
  • In order to be recognised by the IOC as a sport, the content of “eSports” must not infringe on the Olympic values.
  • A further requirement for recognition by the IOC must be the existence of an organisation guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement (anti-doping, betting, manipulation, etc.).”

This was followed, a few days later, by the IOC announcing that, in partnership with one of its TOP sponsors Intel, it will be bringing esports to Pyeongchang “ahead of” the Olympic Winter Games 2018:

Intel will deliver two distinct gaming experiences to Korea in the lead-up to PyeongChang 2018: the Intel® Extreme Masters PyeongChang esports tournament, featuring one of the most celebrated esports titles of all time, Blizzard Entertainment’s “StarCraft® II”, and a separate exhibition featuring Ubisoft’s action-sports title “Steep™ Road to the Olympics”, the official licensed game of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

Whilst, on this occasion, the IOC have stopped short of inclusion esports within the Games themselves, Timo Lumme, Managing Director of IOC Television and Marketing Services stated, “Following on from the Olympic Summit last week, the IOC will now explore esports’ relationship with the Olympic Movement further. This is just the start of an exciting future and we’re interested to see how the experience will play out”.

This plainly represents a significant step towards inclusion, particularly when viewed against the IOC’s hesitance as recently as August.  But what of the popularity of the IOC’s decision?

Sports Shorts has previously noted the strong views held by some sporting ‘traditionalists’ who feel that the essence of sport lies in the pursuit of a physical discipline.   Now, interestingly, a survey recently conducted by Nielsen suggests that only a slim majority (53%) of esports fans themselves consider it to be a “sport” and even fewer (only 28%) believe it should be an Olympic Sport.  In some respects this bears a resemblance to the skateboarding community which has traditionally seen skateboarding an a non-conformist discipline, giving rise to a high degree of scepticism amongst the membership regarding the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics.

Traditionally, sporting regulators such as the IOC have adopted a strict and narrow stance on the definition of ‘sport’ compared to the courts and other regulatory bodies such as the Charity Commission. The definition of sport for the purposes of the Charities Act 2011, for example, specifically encompasses “[amateur] sport or games which promote health by involving physical or mental skill or exertion” (emphasis added).  However, for tax purposes, the European Court of justice (hearing a case originally pursued through the English courts) has, as recently as last month, confirmed that Bridge is not a sport for tax exemption purposes because it is “characterised by a physical element that appears to be negligible” (it is worth noting that, in giving its ruling, the court diverted from the opinion of Attorney-General Szpunar which recommended that “sport” for these purposes should encompass “the training of mental or physical fitness in a way that is generally beneficial to the health and wellbeing of citizens”).  Viewed against the IOC Summit’s recent declaration that esports could be considered a sport because participants “prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports” this presents an interesting conundrum.  If the IOC opens the door to “sports” based on the intensity with which participants prepare, it is difficult to see where the dividing line is now to be drawn.  If this is to be the test, could we see the eventual inclusion of other non-physical disciplines at which one can improve by training?  Olympic Bridge perhaps? Coding? Or Sudoku?  All of these are disciplines in which one can enter tournaments or leagues structured in a similar way to traditional sport.

Perhaps, then, this is simply a case of the IOC seeking to ride on the commercial coat tails of epsorts at a time when consumption of traditional sport is declining, particularly in the younger demographic.  Some might argue that is not necessarily a ‘bad thing’; attracting the younger generations is essential for continued growth and survival of the Olympic movement as we know it and esport has a veritable grounding in this demographic.

Other questions also arise from this emerging dichotomy between the varying definitions of sport. If esports continues to grow as part of the Olympic movement, but is unable to benefit from the same tax exemptions as the traditional Olympic sports, will we see a growing lobby to align these definitions?  Presumably, inclusion of esports within the Olympics would necessitate recognition of national governing bodies for the sport.  Would the esports governing body benefit from the new tax break afforded to recognised NGBs in the UK?

One thing is for certain: esports is an exciting and growing industry, which has the potential to transform the ‘sports’ landscape as we know it.