On March 1, the International Olympic Committee announced the first details of the 2023 Olympic Esports Series, the next step in the venerable sports body’s tentative step into the esports arena. (It previously hosted an Olympic Virtual Series along with the Tokyo 2020 games.) Starting with qualifying this month and culminating in live finals in Singapore in June, and open to both amateur and professional players, the Esports Series looks like a pretty serious offering by the Olympic movement to engage in competitive video games – as underlined by the shift in branding to use the community’s favorite term, “esports.”
However, there is one problem: the game choice is… foreign.
You won’t find any of the most popular esports here. No League of LegendsNo CounterattackNo Fortnite, Overexpected, street fighteror Rocket League. None of the esports people actually watch.
Instead, the nine games initially confirmed are all, to a greater or lesser extent, simulations of real sports, games and activities. Only a few of them are instantly recognizable as video game brands: Gran Turismo and Just Dance. (Wait a second… Just dance?!) Also represented are leading chess website Chess.com and indoor cycling trainer Zwift. The list is rounded off by obscure simulators: Virtual Regatta (the sailing), Virtual taekwondo (take a guess), Tennis clash (it’s a mobile game!), Konami’s WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros (that stumbles from the tongue), and archery game Tic Tac Bow (another mobile game). What is going on here?
Going through the list made me wonder why the IOC chose not to meet esports fans where they are, which is watching the hottest games in the world. It’s true that the heavily promoted, big money world of pro esports competitions is anathema to the ideals of the Olympic movement – but that hasn’t stopped the IOC from embracing, say, boxing on the amateur side.
I bet on two possible answers for the odd list. First, that the IOC wouldn’t condone violent games, not even the broad fantasy violence of something like that Competition. And two, that it focused on virtual analogs of real sports. But this still didn’t explain the presence of chess or motorsports — two pastimes that would never be included in the Olympics IRL — or the absence of legitimate major esports with a real-world base, like FIFA. So I asked for clarification.
The IOC got back to me with a lengthy statement that more or less confirmed my suspicions. Yes, the initiative’s primary goal 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, interestingly enough, the gender split among players and “technical barriers to entry” (which I read as games that can only be played competitively on high-end PCs , instead of mobile phones or consoles). In the words of the IOC:
In considering these proposals, it is important to us that the featured games in the Olympic Esports Series align with Olympic values. This includes participation inclusiveness, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender distribution of the player base and the avoidance of personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission of uniting 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 have to be handy with a controller – must have been appealing from an inclusivity point of view. Meanwhile, the focus on console and mobile games and the selection of Gran Turismo is over, say, iRacing, logical when you consider that a low technical barrier to entry is required.
Another wrinkle is the IOC’s decision to work with international sports federations in selecting the games to work with. Tic Tac Bow, and so forth. The goal is not necessarily to select the most famous games, on the contrary. As the IOC says:
The Olympic Games have always offered a diverse program, including those sports whose competitors do not benefit from the platform of other high-profile competitions. To build a similarly diverse program for the 2023 Olympic Esports Series, we are working with International Federations (IFs), which in turn are proposing game developer partnerships. While sports are not currently on the Olympic program, both chess and motorsports are recognized international federations, so we were invited to submit proposals to be part of the competition.
If anything, the involvement of the sports federations explains why FIFA games don’t represent football, given the fractured relationship between the football governing body and the games’ publisher, Electronic Arts.
The IOC says the lineup is not complete and may add new games. “We have had interesting and encouraging conversations with wider (international federations) and game publishers, and we expect additional titles to be added to the Olympic Esports Series lineup in the coming weeks,” it read. It also points to one video documentaries it runs with some top FIFA players, among other esports names.
As strange and out-of-touch as the Olympic Esports Series playlist may look to the average competitive video game fan, the IOC has a compelling reason for the choices and partnerships it has made. It is right that Olympic esports should look very different – and indeed be a haven – from the brutality and brazen trade that surrounds professional competitions. But that leaves a big gap between the Olympic esport ideal and the popular imagination.
The addition of Gran Turismo and Chess.com is a step in the right direction. If the IOC could somehow bypass and bring FIFA EA Sports FC on board – or allow non-violent but fantastic sports Rocket League be included – that would make a huge difference to fulfilling his dream of a digital Olympic movement.
How about a spot in the meantime Nintendo switch Sport bowling? I bet on my chances.