By: Joshua Sloan
May 1, 2023
One would think that the International Olympic Committee’s announcement of the Olympic Esports Series 2023 would be met with excitement and optimism, but rather the prospect has been labeled as “strange” and “out-of-touch.” This is because the initiative lacks popular titles. Qualifiers for the series have already begun, and 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. Matt Woods, of the esports marketing and talent agency AFK, summed up fan sentiment, saying:
“For the average esports fan, [esports’] inclusion in the Olympics should have been a triumphant moment representing a step forward for the community, which has grown from a few hundred gamers in the early 1980s to over half a billion this year… Unfortunately, last week’s announcement left us feeling disappointed and, honestly, a little embarrassed. Instead of working with existing game publishers or well-established tournaments, it seems that the Olympic committee has instead decided to use this event as a marketing vehicle for brand-new, poorly thought out, unlicensed mobile games.”
The field of titles featured demonstrate that the IOC will not go-to-bat for the esports industry in arguing whether they truly comprise “sports.” The named events are simply: tennis, but virtually, and sailing, but virtually, and taekwondo, but virtually, and baseball, but virtually… et cetera et cetera. Not a single top game of 2023, such as CS:GO, Call of Duty, Fortnite, Rocket League, Apex Legends, FIFA, Madden, NBA 2K, League of Legends, Valorant, or even Tetris will be on display.
All of this comes in the wake of an unrelated February U.S. Court ruling, which took place in Navarro v. Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), that held esports do not count as sports for the purposes of Title IX. Six members of FIT’s men’s rowing team initiated a suit when their athletic program was cut, claiming that such cut “represented a shortfall of 132 athletic opportunities for men” at the school. FIT countered and, when they included collegiate esports athletes within their data pool, asserted that the athletic opportunities at issue fell from a shortfall of 132 to 3. The Court found FIT’s calculation to be a stretch, considering that “esports does not require athletic ability” and there is no “esports national governing association.”
In the wake of this verdict, the IOC’s inclusion of esports at an Olympic event seems at odds with the position of American courts; however, as was discussed, they are more in sync than it appears. One would think that this IOC series would serve to advocate for the proposition that esports should be taken seriously, but the IOC has instead taken the position that esports should not be showcased unless they are so close to a traditional sport that it is essentially the traditional sport. Whether Call of Duty, CS:GO, or other major league players deserve a new international platform is an issue that is pushed to the wayside. Clearly both parties are unwilling to delve deeper into a discussion that goes-to-bat for popular titles. And for good reason. The business logistics, as well as ethical considerations, behind incorporating popular gaming titles in events will be complicated. To give an example of why esports are unique: while the NBA and other basketball governing groups do exist, no single group owns the sport as a whole. To make a better analogy, no individual basketball group owns or controls all of the basketball courts in the world. Now if we assume that, say, Call of Duty is a sport, well the sport’s “fields” are servers and they are all privately owned since publishers own the IP. While this is a true complication, it is not an impossible hurdle to overcome. In fact, in this Series the IOC is engaging developers such as Project 99, which created both Tic Tac Bow, and Konami, which created WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros. So clearly, the IOC is capable of cooperating with private parties to use video games in the Olympics. Thus, the only thing that stops the IOC from engaging legitimate esports games is themselves.
What the IOC truly hides behind is that the IOC has said any video games that portray violence in any capacity will not be considered for Olympic events. Well, that disqualifies most popular titles. But it also begs the question, doesn’t taekwondo portray violence in some capacity? And yet, virtual taekwondo is included in the slate. Also, one of the most clamored-for games does not show any violence at all: Rocket League. The IOC’s failure to include the game undermines their argument here. So once again, the IOC seems directionless and confused when it comes to justifying their conduct.
To reiterate, the IOC has elected to avoid the hard question and put digitized sports, that are blatantly not mainstream games, in their series. If the IOC truly wants to engage a new audience of active gamers, then they must try to attract viewers by engaging with already successful esports categories, as opposed to forcing digital iterations of traditional sports onto consumers. There are far fewer unprecedented dangers and complications in this area than it appears, and no significant legal risks. The IOC can play a significant role in changing America’s legal definition of “sports” to include esports, but they need to be willing to give the sport a spotlight instead of a bone.