eSports can be the spark for the International Olympic Committee to update the Olympic Games and reach a larger, more diverse audience
If we have learned anything from the previous few Olympics, it is that the Games are going through an identity crisis. Rocked by a doping scandal and with an older audience than ever, the International Olympic Committee is attempting to rehabilitate its image by appealing to a disinterested youth.
With sports such as BMX freestyle and baseball taking their place alongside archaic remnants from the age of imperialism, like modern pentathlon and dressage, it is difficult to know what or who the Olympics represent anymore. If the IOC is serious about joining the brave new world that seems to have passed it by and more importantly if it wants to keep its sponsors happy, it needs to make serious changes starting with introducing eSports.
Described by the organising committee as an opportunity to inspire new generations and become a turning point and a model for future Olympic Games, the decision to include events such as surfing and climbing in the programme for the 2020 Games comes across as a desperate and cynical ploy by an organisation that is clinging on to what relevance it once had by including sports they believe will address flagging viewership amongst the under-30s. The inclusion of skateboarding especially smacks of a decision made in a focus group run by a man who uses the word dude unironically.
Whatever nostalgia we may have about the Games, the simple truth is they are no longer a celebration of the worlds greatest athletes but rather a corporate exercise in mass marketing. And therein lies eSports greatest strength. eSports generated $493m (386m) in revenue with a global audience of about 320m people in 2016, the eSports website Newzoo reported last year. Purely from a financial standpoint, advertisers are missing a potentially massive opportunity to reach new audiences. There are estimated to be over 100m League of Legends players worldwide, and unlike surfing or softball, it has proven its mass viewing appeal, with 36m unique viewers tuned in for 2015s League of Legends final between Koo Tigers and SK Telecom, exceeding the 31m people who tuned in to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers, inspired by a virtuoso performance from LeBron James, defeat Golden State Warriors in last years NBA Championship decider. Incidentally, that figure is also higher than the average of 27.5m American viewers for the Rio Games.
The Asian Games, the second largest multisport event after the Olympics, is set to feature eSports first as a demonstration event in 2018 as part of the run-up to eSports official inclusion as a medal sport in the 2022 Games in Hangzhou, China. This should come as no surprise because of the enormous popularity of eSports across the continent, and especially in the far east. Seouls Sangam Stadium, which hosted a World Cup semi-final in 2002, was sold out for the 2014 League of Legends World Final which was broadcast to a global audience of over 27m in 19 different languages. The popularity of eSports is not solely confined to Asia though, with Swedens DreamHack, the worlds largest digital festival, hosting a variety of tournaments including games such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Street Fighter V, and Heroes of the Storm.
Perhaps one of the main peculiarities of eSports competitions is that they rarely feature sports games. Despite their global popularity, football games such as Fifa lag behind the likes of Dota 2 and Hearthstone, with last years Fifa Ultimate Team Championship Final providing the first lucrative opportunity to play the game as it featured a $400,000 prize pool and was broadcast on traditional gaming platforms, YouTube and Twitch as well as BT Sport.
Football teams are slowly starting to embrace the growing trend of global tournaments, with Manchester City, West Ham United, and Wolfsburg all signing professional eSports players, while other teams such as Valencia and Schalke have gone beyond Fifa the former have a Rocket League team and the latter a League of Legends roster.
Footballs involvement should provide the IOC with the encouragement they need to incorporate eSports onto the Olympic schedule. Its global appeal far outstretches nearly every other sport in the world, while it also makes commercial sense. For the naysayers who claim it will devalue the Olympics to have skinny, pasty, nerds smashing buttons and pretending to shoot one another, just remember at least its not dancing horses.