The news that the International Olympic Federation (IOC) has announced details of the Olympic Esports Series 2023 was initially greeted with rapturous enthusiasm, especially by the largely uninitiated (like me). However, on further reflection and research, it appears that this most esteemed – although occasionally questionable – organisation might actually have completely misread the room.
Although this Olympic series has been created in collaboration with both international esports federations and game publishers, it seems that the content of the competition has upset many of those at the heart of esports, not least the serious competitors themselves.
Esports that are not esports
The main criticism, and it seems entirely justified, is that the events selected for competition bear little or no resemblance to the games that are actually played in the wider and, dare we say, ‘traditional’ esports environment. Unless they have been living under a rock for the past few years, even the least informed casual esports observer will know that the games that everybody plays and watches are the likes of CS:GO, League of Legends, Valorant, Dota 2, Overwatch and a few others.
These games are played by millions of enthusiasts, viewed by millions of fans both on live streams and in arenas, and generate many millions of dollars in revenue. They are the heartbeat of esports, and in failing to embrace this global popularity, it seems that the IOC has missed an opportunity to tap in to a vast and largely new global audience.
The selected Olympic games
The games selected, with the exception of the oddity that is Dance, are all loosely based on actual sports and feature archery, baseball, chess, cycling, motorsport, sailing, taekwondo and tennis. Players will compete in global online qualifiers, with the live, in-person Olympic Esports Finals 2023 in Singapore in June.
Announcing the competition, David Lappartient, Chair of the IOC Esports Liaison Group, said: “The Olympic Movement brings people together in peaceful competition. The Olympic Esports Series 2023 is a continuation of that, with the ambition of creating more spaces to play for both players and fans of elite competition.”
Whilst this all sounds quite exciting and very worthy to those who know no better, this somewhat bizarre list of barely known events means that the best games, and therefore the best players, will all be excluded. And what should have been a sensational breakthrough for competitive esports, is already appearing more than a little bit like a wet weekend.
As Matt Woods of esports marketing and talent agency, AFK, was reported as saying: “For the average esports fan, its inclusion in the Olympics should have been a triumphant moment, representing a step forward for the community, which has grown from a few hundred gamers in the early 1980s to over half a billion this year.
“Unfortunately, last week’s announcement left us feeling disappointed and, honestly, a little embarrassed.”
A vast global ecosystem
With esports now supporting an entire ecosystem and industry of leagues, teams, players, sponsors, broadcasters and viewers commentators across various disciplines, the infrastructure alongside which the IOC could successfully work is already well established. And whilst there is obvious logic in choosing a selection of games that includes representations of actual sports, leaving out every last one of the games that are actually popular with actual esports fans seems to defy logic.
The IOC’s early response to this criticism has been to remind us that the Olympic Games has always included “those sports whose competitors do not benefit from the platform of other high-profile competitions.”
In addition, and with far more credibility, they say: “It is important to us that the featured games align with the Olympic values. This includes participation inclusivity, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender split 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.”
A target that should not be missed
The justification that certain games are too violent is fair enough, whether the die-hards like it or not. And the IOC has said that it plans to add to the current line-up. Whether or not this will include more familiar esports titles such as Rocket League for example, remains to be seen. As it stands, the Olympic Esports Series is not esports at all, but a collection of sports simulation events with even less minority appeal than those like archery and taekwondo that they seek to simulate, and that is unfortunate because the audience that the IOC clearly hopes to reach is enormous. And growing.