Why the esports industry is up in arms about the Olympic Esports Series

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On March 1, the International Olympic Committee announced its first worldwide esports competition, only to be criticized by the esports establishment for its lack of popular titles. But the IOC’s alternative definition for esports is still good news for the competitive gaming scene — and the brands looking to play in it.

Qualifiers for the Olympic Esports Series 2023 have already begun. The event will culminate at an in-person June 2023 finals at Singapore’s Suntec Centre, as part of the IOC’s broader Olympic Esports Week 2023. The tournament features nine games: “Tic Tac Bow,” “WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros,” “Zwift,” “Just Dance,” “Gran Turismo,” “Virtual Regatta,” “Virtual Taekwondo,” “Tennis Clash” and chess. Competitions for each are being run as a collaboration between the games’ developers and the governing bodies that oversee each game’s corresponding traditional sport.

Some of the games chosen by the IOC certainly have their own vibrant communities and competitive scenes — take chess, the virtual cycling platform Zwift or popular auto racing simulator “Gran Turismo.”

“Zwift racing is not a traditional esport in the mold of ‘League of Legends,’ ‘Counter-Strike’ or ‘Overwatch,’ but we feel that Zwift is correctly classified as an esport,” said a Zwift representative. “Zwift is a piece of software that allows participants to measure their athletic performance — individually or against others — in a metaverse environment.”

Nevertheless, many observers in the esports industry felt that the IOC’s announcement missed the mark. The event does not involve any traditional esports, such as “League of Legends” or “Counter-Strike,” nor does it include prominent sports-adjacent competitive games such as NBA 2K, FIFA or Rocket League. Some of the selected titles, such as “Tic Tac Bow” and “Tennis Clash,” are primarily mobile games with little to no structured competitive scene.

As far as the IOC is concerned, all the grousing of esports-industry veterans might be little more than a distraction. Many of the most popular traditional esports are explicitly violent games, replete with guns, terrorists and pitched group combat, and thus inherently a bad fit for the Olympics, which operates on the mantra of “peace through sport.” By focusing on games that emulate traditional sports, it’s more likely that the IOC is using its first esports event to target Olympics fans with an interest in gaming — not hardcore esports fans with an interest in the Olympics.

“Because the Olympics included phony nonsense like the tennis game [‘Tennis Clash’] and the baseball one [‘WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros’], it makes the whole thing look like a joke that they’re not taking seriously,” said Rod Breslau, an esports journalist and industry insider.

And yet the IOC’s nonstandard approach to esports comes with a significant potential payoff. Olympic Esports Week is supported by a bevy of big-name brand partners already associated with the broader Olympic movement, including Airbnb, Panasonic, Visa and Omega, which is listed as the “official timekeeper” of Olympic Esports Week.

By tying competitive gaming to the Olympic brand, the IOC could encourage yet more of these prominent sponsors to dip their toes into esports as well. (At the moment, basic four-year Olympic sponsorship packages reportedly sell for about $200 million, and the going price for extended partnerships can be up to $3 billion.)

“Omega is a luxury watch company; it is not the immediate type of brand that perhaps you would associate with endemically tapping into gamers,” said Matthew Woods, CEO of the digital agency AFK. “So it kind of shows you that the way in which brands and the Olympics have approached this from a more traditional mindset.”

In other words, the Olympic Esports Series isn’t really an esports event — at least not in the sense that the word “esports” has been used by the multitude of stakeholders building the franchised leagues and competing inside them. It’s more of a general gaming event that is successfully using the strong brand recognition of the Olympics to generate interest in competitive gaming among the Olympics’ pre-existing fan base and sponsor group. 

It’s worth noting that much of the criticism of the Olympic Esports Series is coming from a Western esports perspective, despite the event’s international scope. Mobile esports is massively popular in many international markets, where the average gamer is less able to afford pricey gaming consoles or PCs. Western esports fans mocked the presence of mobile games in the IOC’s announcement — but gamers elsewhere are more likely to welcome this aspect of the event. 

“The established faces and voices of esports can’t necessarily relate to the fact that there will be participants from all around the world — South America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia — that only have had the opportunity to participate through mobile,” Woods said. “So I think that’s something that the IOC could actually be applauded for, through that lens.”

Update: After this article was published, an IOC representative reached out to provide more context regarding the organization’s game choices for the Olympic Esports Series: “The Olympic Games has always offered a diverse programme, including those sports whose competitors do not benefit from the platform of other high profile competitions. In order to build a similarly diverse programme for the Olympic Esports Series 2023, we have partnered with International Federations (IFs), who in turn propose game developer partnerships. When considering these proposals, it is important to us that featured games align with the Olympic Values. This includes participation inclusivity, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender split of player base and avoiding any personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission which is to unite the world in peaceful competition.”

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