last week I decided that I needed to start getting some articles published that aren't completely silly. I landed on writing about games in the Olympics and thought I'd make little thing that was page or two long that would give me a chance to look into the matter and report back.
Upward of 15 hours later, I have this monster of an article. I also happen to know so much more about the Olympic process than I ever have. A few times while writing, I felt like a 4th grader writing a report. But here it is. It appeared in Issue #30 of The Weekly All In as the headlining article. More details at the bottom.
A few weeks ago, the unlikeliest of all men, my father, who I have never seen willingly play a videogame in my life, genuinely asked me if eSports would ever be an Olympic event.
This is not a new topic among video gaming enthusiasts, as competitive gaming is as old as video gaming itself. Tennis for Two, which is frequently given the title of the first video game, pit two players against each other in a competitive match. As competitive gaming continues to gain momentum (and people still watch Twitch.tv more than Hulu), this is a topic that will increasingly pass through the minds of more than just gamers. If my father can stop and wonder and ask if eSports could make it to the Olympics, the pinnacle of all competitive sports, anyone can.
But what about…?
Is holding a high score really worth a gold medal? Is winning a game of StarCraft or Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone really worthy of that kind of recognition? Do the majority of gamers even care to see competitive gaming at the Olympic level?
The hallmark of any discussion of gaming in the Olympic Games are the questions. StarCraft in the Olympic Games sure sounds awesome to me, but how would it be done? Is it “athletic” enough? Which video games would be played? Who would get to play? How is the balance/rules decided for each game? Won’t the owners of the game get a bunch of free advertizing and make a ton of money? What about hacking and other forms of cheating?
There are many philosophical and logistical obstacles keeping eSports out of the international mainstream. Let’s discuss some of the biggest ones. Also, I’ll be assuming that eSports is going for the summer games for this article, although winter would work too.
How Would It Even Be Done?
The manner in which a sport is included in the Olympic Games is changing. Long and complicated story short: there are going to be 28 sports in the 2016 Summer Games. Of those 28, 25 are “safe” sports that will definitely be at the 2020 Summer Games in Japan and will persist to future games as well unless something drastic (decreased popularity, very large scandals, etc) happens. The remaining three are non-core sports. In the case of the 2020 Games, there eight more sports attempting to gain admittance as a non-core sport: baseball/softball, bowling, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, surfing, and wushu.
Esports would have to put together a bid as a non-core sport with a set list of “events” that cover each of the games and/or game modes to be played. A bid would also probably include rulesets, a description of the equipment required and its cost, a plan for how competitors will be chosen, as well as some kind of justification for why eSports merits a place in the Olympics. A simple majority is all that is required by the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, to approve the bid. How likely is that? Impossible, at least in the short term.
Japan is one of the more video game-friendly countries in the world, but the eSports scene is not as developed as in America, Europe, or Korea. And, unfortunately, it’s the IOC and not the people of Japan that need to be convinced. Furthermore, it’s already too late to try and get eSports included in 2020. The IOC won’t cast their deciding votes until 2016, just before the start of the Games in Rio de Janeiro, but the final presentations for those sports already in the running will take place on September 30th. We’re looking at 2024 or 2028 at best.
Are Video Games Physical Enough?
Day9 famously describes StarCraft in the following way, “StarCraft requires the dexterity of a pianist, the mind of a chess grandmaster, and the discipline of an Olympic trainee. We believe that our game, StarCraft, is as dynamic and exciting a spectator sport as any other.” If we use sports like archery and shooting as a standard, it is very easy to think of StarCraft, DOTA 2, or Counter Strike in the Olympic Games. The spectatorship for League of Legends especially is very convincing, having once achieved 32 million viewers for one event.
The highest level of these games require world-class dedication, strategy and dexterity as well as being physically demanding. Other popular games...not so much. For example, Hearthstone, despite it’s popularity (and fun factor), I think a digital card game would be a hard sell. In short, I think some video games would be more welcome than others.
Who Would Play?
the International e-Sport Federation, which has been around for several years now (see http://ie-sf.org/), but isn’t very prominenent, would determine who would play. International sport federations exist for every sport. They supervise play at the international level, recognize and encourage up-and-coming athletes, and choose their own method of granting admittance to Olympic competition.
For the current Olympic sports, there are multiple ways that athletes make it to the Olympic Games. Some sports require that athletes be selected for a national team, which competes in qualifiers until a final set of teams “make it” to the Olympics. Others are able to rely on a ranking system based on their performance in recent, non-Olympic, competitions. There are already events that use these same methods in the gaming world. The eSports big wigs would simply have to pick one and go with it.
Who Decides the Balance/Rules?
The International e-Sport Federation would decide how the games are played. There would have to be a discussion as to whether the Federation would simply to defer to the developer’s current rules/balance, or to adjust it to suit the intended audience (only the best players in the world). I believe it’s unlikely that game balance would be left completely in the hands of Blizzard, Valve, or any other private entity, as they have to appeal to the entire playerbase. The balance and rules within each game would also probably have to be solidified months before the games are actually played, which the developers may not want to be held to.
These alternate rules would, of course, be very similar to default ones. In the case of a game like StarCraft, that would likely consist of choosing the map pool, game speed, finally nerfing Adepts, and do something with Colossi.
This may chafe the developers of each game a little, but that’s how it works for most sports. I assume that developers would also be encouraged to add some kind of in-game consideration for players who want to play the international version of the game. A special “Official Olympic Mod” and matchmaking sounds like the natural place to start (should we ever get that far).
Facilitating the Games
Running an eSports event, especially with multiple games, is expensive. But is it that expensive? Assuming that a new building specifically to facilitate the eSports competitions does not have to be built, eSports would automatically become one of the least-expensive events to run in the entire Olympic Games.
One pricey facet of running a tournament: paying for player transportation, room, and board, would not be the responsibility of the Olympics at all. That responsibility is on the competitors themselves, although they frequently receive assistance from sponsors, their team, or even their government.
Gone also would be the cost of a prize pool. The only prize awarded by the IOC itself is the medal. Some federations will also pay a monetary reward for each medal won, depending on their place on the podium. I wouldn’t be surprised if the game developer contributed or crowd-sourced a prize of some kind as well, just to make things more exciting. But on the whole, this is another cost that would be avoided.
The largest cost would be the cost of the “production,” meaning the computers, the cameras, the screens, the network to get all the computers wired together, and then the bandwidth to broadcast it all. It would cost at least a couple hundred thousand dollars. I haven’t been able to get an exact number of any particular source for an event of this size, but this seems like a safe estimate. And, while it may sound like a lot, it really isn’t that much compared to the cost of the other games. Plus, I’m sure that would be easily covered with ticket sales and streaming subscriptions.
All in all, none of the organizational challenges seem all that hard to overcome. We just need to knuckle down and do it. But there’s still one massive elephant in the room that will need to be addressed before any progress can be made: Money.
Won’t Blizzard/Riot/Valve Make a TON of money from this?
YES. The answer to this is ABSOLUTELY YES. Having a privately-owned game in the Olympic Games would result in a huge amount of free advertising and revenue for the game and its developer. If the company is publically traded, just the announcement would result in a huge spike in share values. It would affect the entire gaming market. Careers and companies would be made or broken by securing or being passed over for a coveted slot on the eSports event list.
It’s only fair for a business to make money from their product, but no one entity owns soccer (or football, if you insist), diving, or any other Olympic sport or event. They transcend ownership, which puts eSports at odds with every other sport. It stands to reason that if eSports were to be admitted, each game would be played fully on the terms of the IOC and the Federation, outside the influence of, and without any direct benefit to, any outside league or for-profit business.
How to Take Money Out of Sports?
This brings us to the question that I cannot answer alone. How do we remove the unmatchable profitability that would surely come to the few developers who were able to get their game in the Olympics? (And curtail the corruption and cheating that would be sure to follow?)
Is it as simple as the developer agreeing to put their game into the public domain if it is selected? That could be too harsh. Maybe the studio just agrees to donate all revenue from that game, and any promotional content related to the Olympics, for a specific period of time (say, from the date of the announcement of its inclusion in the Olympic Games until the end of the Closing Ceremonies)? Maybe a non-profit Federation version of the game is created that the developer agrees to support but not profit from?
My recommendation at this time would have to be the donation of revenues route. Given the iterative nature of videogames, it wouldn’t be fair for a company to completely lose their intellectual property over one game that will probably only be in one or two Olympics at most before being replaced by a sequel or something entirely different Also, it would be important for the recipient of the donation to be an organization that is not owned or overseen by the Olympic Committee or the Federation to maintain the separation of interest. Neither the developers nor the Olympic bodies should get the money if a conflict of interest is to be avoided.
A Bright Future
The greatest of all the obstacles keeping eSports out of the world’s largest international sporting competition is, most likely, the perception that videogaming is a complete waste of time, and only braindead manboys do it. However, that perception is changing.
It’s only a matter of time before spectating competitive gaming becomes as prominent as traditional sports and, when that time comes, people will stop asking what if? and begin to ask why isn’t eSports in the Olympics?
After writing this beast, I have two major questions.
1. Summer or Winter Games? It could really go with either one. I think we should just go with whatever we can get, frankly. Shooting and archery could go into either, I guess. Maybe Winter sports really do have to be Winter-specific. Whatever.
2. Are people interested in the No-money route? I'm not sure there's ever been a long running international non-profit sporting organisation that wasn't hugely corrupted. I imagine that my ideals of trying to keep all of the money out of the event to maintain purity in competition and event selection wouldn't actually be shared by the primary stakeholders in the conversation (The federations and the game developers). It's a shame.
"An Article of Substance" is a reference to Nicolas, who, during our meetings, will listen to us pitch idiot silly ideas for 30 minutes and then ask "and who will write an article of substance?" Then it gets quiet.