On March 1, the International Olympic Committee announced the first details of the 2023 Olympic Esports Series, the next step in the venerable sporting body’s attempt to break into the esports arena. (It previously hosted an Olympic Virtual Series in conjunction with the Tokyo 2020 games.) Starting with qualifying this month and culminating in the live finals in Singapore in June, and open to both amateur and professional players, the Esports Series looks like a moderately serious offering. by the Olympic movement to get involved in competitive video games – as underlined by their rebranding to use the community’s favorite term, “esports”.
There’s just one problem, however: the choice of games is… chance.
You won’t find any of the most popular esports represented here. No League of Legendsno Counterattackno fortnite, Overwatch, Street Fighteror rocket league. None of the esports people actually watch.
Instead, the initially confirmed nine games are all, to a greater or lesser extent, simulations of real-world sports, games and activities. Only a few of them are instantly recognizable as video game brands: Gran Turismo and Just Dance. (Hang on… Just dance?!) Also represented are prominent chess website Chess.com and indoor cycling instructor Zwift. The list is completed by obscure simulators: Virtual Regatta (navigation), virtual taekwondo (Guess), tennis match (it’s a mobile game!), Konami’s WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros (which comes off the tongue), and archery game Tic Tac Bow (another mobile game). What’s going on here?
Scanning the list, I wondered why the IOC chose not to meet esports fans where they are, which is watching the world’s most popular games. True, the heavily promoted and wealthy world of professional sports leagues is anathema to the ideals of the Olympic movement – but that hasn’t stopped the IOC from embracing boxing on, say, the amateur side.
I guessed two possible answers to the odd list. One, that the IOC wouldn’t want to endorse violent games, even the broad fantasy violence of something like turns on. And two, that it was keeping the focus on virtual analogues of real-world sports. But that still doesn’t explain the presence of chess or motor racing – two activities that would never make it into the IRL of the Olympics – or the absence of legitimately real-world based big esports like FIFA. So I asked for clarification.
The IOC got back to me with a long statement that more or less confirmed my assumptions. Yes, the main objective of the initiative is to promote the development of “virtual and simulated sports games”. And indeed, violence was a no-no that would have ruled out most popular esports – along with, oddly enough, the gender divide between players and “technical barriers to entry” (which I read as games that can only be played competitively on high end PCs rather than mobiles or consoles). In the words of the IOC:
When considering these proposals, it is important to us that the games featured in the Olympic Esports Series align with the Olympic Values. This includes inclusion of participation such as technical barriers to entry, gender division of the player base and avoiding any personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission, which is to unite the world in peaceful competition.
In the context of the IOC’s comments, even the inclusion of Just Dance can be explained. The game’s wide demographic reach and ease of use – you don’t even need to be skilled with a controller – must have been attractive from an inclusion perspective. Meanwhile, the focus on console and mobile games and the selection of Gran Turismo over, say, iRacing, it makes sense when you consider the requirement of a low technical barrier to entry.
Another wrinkle is the IOC’s decision to partner with international sports federations in selecting the games to work on – so the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile suggested Gran Turismo to represent motorsport, the World Archery Federation suggested Tic Tac Bow, and so on. The goal is not necessarily to select the most famous games — quite the contrary. As the IOC says:
The Olympic Games have always offered a diversified programme, including those sports whose competitors do not benefit from the platform of other high-level competitions. To build an equally diverse program for the 2023 Olympic Esports Series, we partnered with International Federations (IFs), which in turn proposed partnerships with game developers. Although not currently sports on the Olympic programme, both chess and motorsport are recognized International Federations, so they were invited to submit proposals to be part of the competition.
At the very least, the involvement of sports federations explains why FIFA games do not represent football, given the severed relationship between football’s governing body and the games’ publisher, Electronic Arts.
The IOC says the lineup is not complete and may still add new games. “We had interesting and encouraging conversations with [international federations] and game publishers, and we expect additional titles to be added to the Olympic Esports Series lineup in the coming weeks,” he says. He also points to a series of video documentaries that feature some of FIFA’s top players, among other names in esports.
As strange and distant as the Olympic Esports Series playlist might seem to the average fan of competitive video games, the IOC has a compelling justification for the choices and partnerships it has made. Admittedly, Olympic esports must look very different – and indeed be a paradise – from the lewd and brazen commerce that surrounds professional leagues. But that leaves a huge gap to be filled between the ideal of Olympic sport and the popular imagination.
The inclusion of the likes of Gran Turismo and Chess.com is a step in the right direction. If the IOC could somehow bypass FIFA and bring EA Sports FC on board – or allow non-violent but fantastical sports such as rocket league to be included — it would make a huge difference in making your dream of a digital Olympic movement a reality.
In the meantime, how about a little nintendo switch sports bowling? I imagine my chances.