The Olympics takes on new sports with every iteration. Tokyo 2020 saw the addition of baseball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing for the first time. And with the ever-growing popularity of esports, it seems like a matter of when, not if, esports will join the Olympics too. Their inclusion has been ruled out for the next games in 2024, but organisers have suggested that it could happen for Los Angeles 2028 — being held in the esports-friendly market of the US, and with sympathetic voices in charge of the Games.
There are, however, a number of obstacles, both practical and political. To start with, every sport included in the Olympics has a worldwide governing body; be it World Rugby, FIFA, or the International Federation of Sport Climbing. There is no such official “World Esports Federation”; even individual games are usually “governed” by their developers, with all the challenges that come with it: with governance of the professional game having to compete for attention with regular development cycles. This makes the inclusion of “esports”, as a broad category, into the Olympics tricky on a practical level.
A political issue is the classification of esports. As fans of Counter-Strike know, even classifying esports players as athletes is a controversial issue, let alone classifying esports as an athletic pursuit. The gatekeeping of what constitutes a “sport” has been going on for decades and, to be blunt, esports are not exactly the most physical of pursuits. To make matters worse, other similar activities — such as chess — have been fighting their own losing battle for Olympic inclusion for many years; this puts pressure on the powers that be to reject any applications that are on the borderline — purely to avoid the fallout that would come from any inconsistency, or a “slippery slope” of admitting all of them at once.
There are those who would argue that esports does not need the Olympics, that esports should go it alone. That would, in my view, be a mistake. It is true that esports does not need to be validated by external sources; it is a rapidly-growing industry that is strong in its own right. However, inclusion at the Olympics would still represent a huge opportunity to show esports to a different audience. Esports has a global audience of millions, the Olympics has a global audience of billions. It would, in my opinion, be a mistake to turn down the chance to expand the reach of esports out of mere pride.
We should consider arguments that were once made against other sports. Association football was rejected for a long time because it was felt that professional players undermined the amateur ethos of the Olympics. The resulting compromise, which sees nations submit a limited number of professional players alongside up-and-coming talent, has helped to expand the number of players given such opportunities rather than making it a retread of existing competitions such as the World Cup. This also holds true for developing nations — the Olympics offers a number of slots in most competitions to nations who do not have a history in the event, in order to help build the infrastructure necessary in smaller countries. Esports would benefit hugely from the expansion of the game away from the handful of nations who currently dominate.
If anything, the inclusion of esports and other such non-physical competitions would be a throwback to the early days of the modern Olympics, which included cultural competitions in the arts and music as well as traditional sporting competitions. Tokyo 2020 saw a similar initiative for esports in the form of the Intel World Open, a tournament run by ESL in Rocket League and Street Fighter, and while that tournament was not without its issues (most unfortunately, it had to be run as an online, regional competition, rather than the planned international LAN, due to the COVID-19 pandemic), it was a great first step. Hopefully it can be revived, and potentially even expanded, for 2024 — as the esports industry continues to grow, it would be a waste for the Olympics to not take advantage of it.
With esports continuing to grow, the calls will only get louder. It will take compromises for esports to join the Olympics as a fully-fledged medal sport, on both sides — but just because something is difficult does not mean it should not happen, or that it will be impossible. If it can happen, I fully believe both sides would benefit greatly, and with Tokyo 2020 and the Intel World Open showing the first positive signs, cross fingers for more progress over the next few years.