Adam Fitch: The Olympics’ first attempt at esports is a shambles

Zwift cyclingZwift

Even though there’s a contentious relationship between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the esports industry, it’s just been announced that the Olympics will host its first sanctioned esports event. I’m not convinced that this is a good move for either party.

It’s long been discussed that one day we’ll see esports titles among the many sports that are utilized at the Olympics, a major international sporting event held once every four years. Why? Well, for some it would serve as legitimacy for the industry they’ve helped build and support and, in return, it would allow the IOC to tap into the youthful audiences competitive games yield. Hey, there’s no doubt they need our viewership.

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Over the past few years, though, those at the IOC have been adamant that that day won’t come until some major changes are made in esports. They’re concerned games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are too violent and violate their values — a contradictory statement to say the least. “We cannot have in the Olympic program a game which is promoting violence or discrimination,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in 2018.

Fast-forward to 2021 and we’re in a weird spot. The committee have just tapped DreamHack Sports Games to produce the Olympic Virtual Series, the first Olympic-sanctioned event to feature “non-physical virtual sports.”

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The Olympic Virtual Shambles

Olympic Virtual SeriesIOC/Zwift
The event will begin on May 13, leading up to the Olympic Games.

Attention to detail is key when perusing the announcement as they carefully manoeuvre around using the phrase ‘esports’ throughout, despite a couple of the chosen ‘virtual sports’ are video games that will be played competitively (also known as, you guessed it, esports).

The Olympic Virtual Series has chosen five disciplines, a mixture of sports simulation titles and video games. Online cycling platform Zwift has been chosen alongside a rowing simulator, as well as ‘eSailing’ game Virtual Regatta, Konami’s eBaseball game, and racing title Gran Turismo.

Now, Zwift has a competitive scene that regards itself as esports but the rest of these choices? They make it very clear as to what the IOC are attempting to do. These are not incredibly popular esports with millions of viewers, they’re obscure picks that are meant to appeal to the existing Olympics viewers.

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Instead of bringing millions of gamers over to watch esports played at the Olympics, they’re priming their legacy viewership to understand that virtual titles can be regarded as sports in their own right and, if successful, the sky should be the limit from there.

Virtual RegattaVirtual Regatta
Virtual Regatta is part of the “eSailing” community and has been chosen for the Olympic Virtual Series.

This is clearly meant to be a small step into esports for the Olympics but they’ve gone about it a strange way, skirting around the terminology to presumably not invoke any commentary from our industry. This move does not help esports in any way — some would even argue that they’ve not included any esports titles at all — yet they’re hoping to benefit from what thousands upon thousands of people are building daily.

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Utilizing games and simulators to slowly convert sports fans to caring about “virtual sports” is understandable in some sense, but they’ll have a hard job in doing it. Would a sailing fan care to spectate a simulated version of the sport without any of the real-life nuances and stakes? Sure, sim racing saw plenty of attention in 2020 but that was because there was no other alternative. There are alternatives again in 2021.

Who do they even expect to participate in the simulated biking and rowing competitions? Thinking logically, it’ll be professional cyclists and rowers who have the best chance at winning in such events. Will any ‘gamers’ even attempt to compete? If the prize purse is attractive enough, there’s nothing stopping professional athletes from crossing over and breezing through the competition. Sounds like a fair and open competition that truly encourages “online mass participation” as described in the announcement.

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Having had a couple of days to think about the event and what it truly means for both the Olympics and esports, I realised I had neglected to think about another party’s involvement: DreamHack Sports Games. I have respect for the people I know at the company, which is under the same ownership as ESL and DreamHack, but their involvement worries me slightly.

DreamHack Sports Games productsDreamHack Sports Games
The properties that DreamHack Sports Games have developed with sports partners.

They’ve been involved with bringing a handful of sports leagues over into esports and haven’t done a bad job all-in-all, so I don’t doubt their intentions. I’d not be surprised if they think working with the IOC on the virtual series is a foot in the door to get esports in the main event one day, potentially securing their involvement in the process.

But considering how this event has been devised, it appears to me that they’ve had to pander entirely to the demands of the committee. It makes sense considering the status of the IOC and what this could mean for DSG down the line, but pandering isn’t often the move for those who wish to be principled and respected.

It’s been pointed out numerous times over the years but the IOC are incredibly boneheaded in their stance on violence in video games. At the Olympic Games you’ll see sports such as boxing, an activity in which people actively try to knock each other out, rugby, a sport notorious for producing brain injuries, and shooting, a sport that simply cannot be considered less promotional of violence than shooting in video games. The IOC’s views here are ignorant, contradictory, and, as far as I’m concerned, show that they’re too outdated in their thinking to be worthy of embracing esports.

Looking down at esports while also trying to get in on the action doesn’t sit well with me, and I’m sure this event will prove to the committee that they’ll need to work with us should they want to access what we have to offer. We truly don’t need them, they need us.