Esports and the Olympics? – 4 ERN members give their thoughts

The Olympics and esports is one of the eternal questions that comes up with each new announcement by the IOC such as the recent 2020+5 list of recommendations. It seems clear that game such as League of Legends or CSGO are unlikely to be considered as events anytime soon while esports representing traditional sports such as FIFA are under consideration. Everyone has opinions and ideas, arguments and positions. So Esports and the Olympics? We asked four ERN member their views

Do we even want to be in the Olympics? – Amanda Cote, Assistant Professor of Media Studies/Game Studies at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in the US.

With COVID-19 delaying the 2020 Summer Olympics and esports filling the gap when many traditional sports shut down, we’ll likely see renewed calls for esports to be an Olympic event. But should this be the goal? As sports journalists Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson (2020) lay out in their excellent book “Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back”, mega-events like the Olympics have huge costs for athletes and the countries and communities that host them. Growing recognition of these issues has led numerous potential host cities to withdraw bids for these events in recent years. Overseeing bodies like the International Olympics Committee also face claims of corruption and abuse.

Esports, as a relatively new institution, has a chance to do things differently, setting its own goals and schedules rather than attaching itself to problematic institutions. In some preliminary research my team is doing on collegiate esports, for instance, many participants are pleased to avoid the oversight of the US’s National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), which has limited the extent to which college athletes can benefit from their skills and which has its own long history of scandal. Because the NCAA has declined to oversee esports, college players can run Twitch streams, accept sponsors, and get paid for their gameplay skills.

This is not to say that organizations like the Olympics and the NCAA have no value. The Olympics, as Luther and Davidson recognize, raise the profile of smaller sports, international competition, and female athletes in a way currently unmatched by other athletics institutions. But as esports grows, perhaps we can focus on building a pipeline and competitive framework that works to achieve these benefits while avoiding the many costs that come from mega-events and their overseeing bodies.

Unlikely Olympians – David Calås, PhD student at Linnaeus University in Sweden, investigating the tensions between culture and entrepreneurship.

The first modern Olympic Games unfolded in Athens, 1896. The event followed a long political campaign to revive the Ancient Greek tradition that is inseparable from the heroic deeds and epic legends of Greek mythology surrounding the Olympics (Young, 1996). Today, the Olympics manifest as local festivities and global spectacle through a series of ceremonies and competitions every other year. The world watches as athletes pursue the greatest triumph. However, an Olympic victory is not only an athletic achievement but a ticket to fame:

“To the ancients, an Olympic victory was imagined as a visit from the winged goddess Nike, who swooped down from Olympus to briefly bless the mortal athlete with a divine crown of sacred olive. To us moderns, Olympic victory is more likely to be associated with Nike, the multinational megacompany, which swoops down from Wall Street to briefly bless the athlete with a fat paycheck and temporary status as a corporate shill.” (Reid, 2006, p. 205)

Teams and athletes in traditional sports have indeed become subject to extensive commercialisation. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) employs a policy that strictly prohibits political commentary and restricts all advertising connected to athletes and the games. Essentially, brands not tied to the athletes’ sportswear are not displayed.

Without suggesting that brand-neutrality is ideal for esports, I believe it is worthwhile to ask whether this arrangement would be realistic and to consider what could be attained from it. That is, if all brands and commercial symbols are stripped away from esports events, what are we left with?

One of many arguments in the debate on traditional versus electronic sports revolves around the fact that nobody owns the (immaterial) rights to traditional sports, while corporations and developers of esports titles control their system. Consequently, developers of established eSports titles would solidify their competitive advantages and gain additional power if their games would be absorbed by international sports organisations. However, the institutional barriers between the structure of the esports industry and the policy currently employed by the IOC ensures that esports professionals are unlikely to become ‘eOlympians’ anytime soon.

So Many Questions and Arguments by David Hedlund, Chairperson of the Division of Sport Management and Associate Professor at St. John’s University in the US.

In the article “Inclusion of electronic sports in the Olympic Games for the right (or wrong) reasons,” published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics in 2020, Dr. Simon Pack and I identified numerous arguments both in support and against the policy proposal of including esports in the Olympic Games as an officially recognized sport. The first important point is the spirited debate which has occurred around whether esports is a sport.  In most respects, esports engender all the qualities and characteristics of sports (e.g., having rules and competition, utilizing specialized skills, containing physical activity), however, many people still debate whether gross motor movements (e.g., running, jumping) are required or if fine motor skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination) are sufficient to satisfy the physical activity criteria. Beyond this debate, there are at many frequently discussed topics and questions such as:

  1. The compatibility of esports with the Olympics; Are esports in-line with the principles of Olympism (e.g., a balanced body, will and mind)? Are the goals of violent esports games (e.g., FPS games) contrary to those of the Olympics? Do esports and gaming promote unhealthy activities (e.g., sedentary movement, gaming addiction)? Do esports facilitate negative behaviours (e.g., sexism, misogyny and the potential for violent behaviour)?
  2. The relevance of esports to global viewers : Would the inclusion of esports at the Olympics generate interest and viewership, especially in younger people?
  3. Esports competitors: Who would be allowed to compete in Olympic esports competitions?
  4. The commercialism of esports; Who owns the games being played (e.g., Intellectual property rights of game developers and publishers)? What would be done with money made directly as a result of the monetization of the esports games at or for the Olympics?
  5. The process of adding sports to the Olympic program: What (single) group oversees or governs international esports?
  6. Long-term planning for esports: Because esports games can rise and fall quickly, how will organizers know which games will still exist 5-10 years in the future?

Esports should learn from the Olympics – Tobias Scholz is the founder and chair of the Esports Research Network and will keep practicing Overwatch just in case he has to represent Austria at a future Olympics

There is an undeniable allure of being part of the Olympics, the pride of representing the home country and live up to the honourable Olympic values. The discussion about esports being part of the Olympics is as old as modern esports; however, the context has changed over time. In the first decade of 2000, esports was just a niché phenomenon seeking legitimacy and professional guidance, today, esports is as diverse as sports. What is esports is a debatable and challenging question as to the question of sports. In the end, esports is an umbrella term for various esports disciplines. Esports is Counterstrike, League of Legends or even Mythic raiding in World of Warcraft. So, can esports be part of the Olympics? No, the same is for sports. Consequently, only a portion of esports could be part of the Olympics?

The discourse about the Olympics is also a process of self-discovery for esports. Esports doesn’t need the Olympics in the sense that it is essential for its growth. However, it may be a useful proxy for the inner workings. The Olympics are struggling to attract the youth and are struggling with the sustainability question in terms of economic, social and ecological benefits for the venue cities. Furthermore, from a governance perspective, the Olympics are a behemoth and require time to decide; that is nothing wrong in any sense. But four years in esports is a time span in which the whole ecosystem might have shifted vastly. Four years ago, nobody talked about Battle Royale. The concept of governance that the Olympics demand from esports does not fit for esports. Creating “the one” governing body in esports is impossible and would lead to a stifling structure, that purges the innovational drive in esports. Esports is a case study for the digitized society, and it becomes abundantly clear that governance is one of the most pressing topics that are put on trial. Creating an adequate and fitting governance structure in esports should learn from the Olympics, but not subdue to the regime of the Olympics. We observed that when  esports was a driving force behind the success of Twitch.tv when they realized television might not be the saviour of esports (Scholz, 2020).

Learn from the past, but not (blindly) adapt to the past.

References

Luther, J., & Davidson, K. (2020). Loving Sports when They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan. University of Texas Press.

Pack, S. M., & Hedlund, D. P. (2020). Inclusion of electronic sport in the Olympic Games for the right (or wrong) reasons. International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics, 12(3), 485-495. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/19406940.2020.1801796

Reid, H. L. (2006). Olympic sport and its lessons for peace. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 33(2), 205-214.

Tobias M. Scholz (2020) Deciphering the World of eSports, International Journal on Media Management, 22:1, 1-12, DOI: 10.1080/14241277.2020.1757808

Young, D. C. (1996). The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

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