Esports pros will rub shoulders with the world’s finest athletes next summer when the Intel World Open takes place in Tokyo on the eve of the Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee is a co-sponsor of the event, which features Street Fighter V and Rocket League tournaments. It will take place at the Zepp DiverCity venue in Tokyo on July 22-24, and the Olympics will then begin just a few miles away on July 24.

“We are excited Intel is bringing the Intel World Open esports tournament to Japan in the lead up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” said Kit McConnell, sports director for the IOC. “As we explore the engagement between esports and the Olympic Movement, we are looking forward to learning from this event and continuing to engage with the passionate esports community from around the world.”

This is the closest the Olympics has ever come to including esports within its list of events. ESL and Intel hosted IEM Pyeongchang around the time of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, but this takes it one step further due to the IOC involvement.

A pathway to fame

It represents a great opportunity for the players to earn greater levels of fame and fortune. There is a $250,000 prize pool up for grabs at each tournament, and the publicity that the Intel World Open gains is sure to be huge.

There will be open qualifiers in early 2020, with a live qualifying event in Katowice, Poland, in June. Expect ferocious competition from the finest Rocket League and Street Fighter V players in the business as they battle for a coveted place at the event.

In the past, the IOC has distanced itself from esports, declaring that a number of the more popular games on the competitive scene are “not compatible with the Olympic values” due to the violence involved, and the fact that the competitive gaming industry is commercially driven. It has also said that talk of esports turning into Olympic medal events is “premature”.


Obstacles abound

It would also be difficult to organise, as esports is a broad term, covering a number of different games, leagues, competitions and franchises. There would be issues with securing the rights to some games, while fragmented governance of the esports scene could prove to be too great an obstacle.

IOC president Thomas Bach appeared to end any notion of esports becoming a part of the Olympics in 2017. “We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people,” he said. “This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions, and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line.”

Yet it seems as though the IOC is slowly coming around to the idea that it needs esports in order to preserve its future health. The average age of viewers of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was 53, up from 45 at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Stats show a 30% drop in viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 from the 2012 Games in London to the 2016 Games in Rio.

The battle to win new viewers

The IOC has lost the millennial generation and it stands little chance of attracting younger viewers if it does not take drastic action. It is now endorsing an event that takes place on the eve of the next Olympic Games, and if successful it is likely to try to incorporate esports in future.

It is interesting to note that the biggest esports – League of Legends, CS:GO and Dota 2 – are all absent. They all feature battles and violence, but Street Fighter V is not exactly all about holding hands and going for a picnic.

Both Rocket League and Street Fighter have dedicated communities of passionate fans, but they pale in comparison to the popularity of LoL, CS:GO, Dota 2, Overwatch, Fortnite and PUBG. If the IOC is really serious about including esports to boost its ailing popularity among younger viewers, it will need to change its stance regarding first-person shooters, multiplayer online battle arena and battle royale titles, as they account for the lion’s share of the fan base.

We are the future

Whether the leading lights from games like LoL and Dota 2 will have any interest in competing in the Olympics is another matter entirely. Some people within the competitive gaming sector argue that the IOC needs esports far more than esports needs the Olympics.

Rahul Sood, founder of esports news and betting platform Unikrn, laid out this argument in a hard-hitting editorial. “The 2018 Winter Olympics was the least-watched in history,” he wrote. “If anybody needs anybody, they need us. I’m tired of seeing claims that esports should be drooling over the chance to be included. The reason the IOC is seriously considering us is because we are the future, and they want the viewership.”

Star gamers are desperate to win The International, the LoL World Championship and the CS:GO Majors, rather than gold at the Olympics. Tournament organisers may not take kindly to the Olympics disrupting what is already a packed schedule in the competitive gaming scene, in which there is no such thing as on off-season. If you check out Unikrn, you will see how busy the calendar is, and developers like Valve and Riot Games may not welcome the disruption that the Olympics would bring.

Esports at the Olympics is inevitable

If anything, the IOC will have to work hard to persuade the LoL and CS:GO community to embrace the Olympics, rather than vice versa. They may have more luck with games like Rocket League and Street Fighter V, but that would involve missing out on the largest chunk of the esports fan base.

Sood believes esports are an inevitability at the Olympics, and so does celebrity streamer Ninja. He gave an interview this month saying it is only a matter of time before it happens. When asked who would succeed, he claimed that South Korea and Japan would flourish, while Brazil would dominate Counter-Strike.

Esports teams generally feature players of different nationalities, and it could be interesting to see how they fare if split by country. Ninja believes Brazil would win gold at CS:GO, but the Danes would surely have something to say about that. A couple of years ago, you would have said South Korea would be invincible at LoL, but there is now a serious case to be made for China. Dota 2 would be wide open.

It is a tantalising possibility and that could ultimately prove too compelling for the esports community to ignore. When can we expect to see esports in the Olympics? It is easy to imagine the 2024 Games feature competitive gaming, but whether or not the big esports will take part is another matter entirely.


featured image: Pixabay