Video games in the Olympics? E-sports industry will have to get past some hurdles

Michael Udall
Michael Udall, center, celebrates his team’s championship victory in the Heroes of the Dorm video competition. He says getting a medal at the Olympics would be the ultimate achievement.
(Blizzard Entertainment)

Michael Udall earned three years’ worth of tuition and a hefty medal when his college video game team won a national tournament in April.

That haul marks the first of what the Arizona State junior hopes are many accomplishments in a storied e-sports career. But Udall covets one achievement not yet attainable by any professional gamer: An Olympic gold medal.

“Being an Olympic gold medal holder carries more weight and prestige than anything else,” he said.

Many in competitive gaming agree that acknowledgement by the International Olympic Committee and then acceptance into the Olympics would validate their belief  — and convince naysayers —  that video games are a sport. They regard the Olympics as the premier cross-border athletic spectacle, one whose history of breeding patriotism and global camaraderie will never be matched. And e-sports, like soon-to-be Olympic sports skateboarding and rock climbing, ensure the Games stay relevant.

The Olympics “have a higher purpose, inspiring and motivating the youth of the world to be committed to excellence, patience and perseverance,” said Bobby Kotick, chief executive of Santa Monica gamemaking titan Activision Blizzard Inc. “There’s no good reason why e-sports competition shouldn’t be included.”

But as a South Korean organization lobbies for inclusion, other gamemakers and observers say not so fast. The e-sports industry has enough to settle internally.

“It’s an interesting fantasy to talk about, but boy, rule sets need to be established, more games need to prove sustainable and a broader base of consumers needs to show up,” said Ophir Lupu, head of video games at talent agency UTA. “It’s way early days.”

There’s also major challenges. Choosing titles for competition could be complicated since they can fall out of favor in less than four years, diminishing the frenzy that comes with record-breaking performances. Many countries could object to the virtual bloodshed commonplace in the most popular games. Gamemakers may refuse to let Olympics organizers use their intellectual property. It could disrupt existing e-sports competition, potentially forcing Olympians to be amateurs. And too few countries may be capable of fielding high-caliber, gender-balanced teams.  

The IOC has problems, too, including doping, cord-cutting and controversies over site selection. Too many “paradigm-shifting debates” at the IOC supersede e-sports for the new activity to become a priority, said Skip Lane, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who studies sports and culture.

Advocates, analysts and academics say the issues with e-sports are resolvable; it just may be in decades, not years. Even doubters about the need for IOC approval expect a professional video game player someday to bring home the ultimate gold.

Chatter about the possibility exploded this spring when the Seoul-based International E-Sports Federation announced it would apply to the IOC this month for games played on electronic devices to be considered a sport. Recognition could come as early as December. The IOC declined to comment on an in-process application, and observers said approval on a sport’s first try is rare.

Alex Lim, a sports marketing veteran who is the 8-year-old federation’s secretary-general, said endorsement from the world’s best-known athletics governing body would open doors. Governments that fund sports could start providing a stable living for e-sports players. Schools could be more inclined to grant gamers the same privileges as other student-athletes.

“The most important thing is access to public structures that can benefit players,” Lim said, adding fame and revenue were secondary.

The federation, funded by investors and sponsors such as wireless giant SK Telecom and Chinese joint venture Alibaba Sports Group, is getting national e-sports competitions going in 47 countries, including Brazil, China, Egypt and Italy.

Heads are turning, Lim said. International sports officials increasingly view video games as a potential catalyst for driving more interest in at least the Youth Olympics, a regular starting spot for younger sports.

Three Activision Blizzard executives said they don’t have specific plans to push e-sports’ case with officials. Given the rising popularity of people watching online videos of others play games and other factors, the argument is strong on its own, Kotick said.

Gamemaker support is essential because they need to permit use of their copyrighted work in competition. It would be the first time the IOC would face that hurdle, said UC Riverside professor and Olympics expert Tom Scanlon.

Game publishers, players and sponsors would benefit from the Olympics exposure.

“The huge marketing and hoopla — I don’t see why they would shy away from it,” said Manny Anekal, who founded e-sports consulting firm the Next Level. 

But the Olympics aren’t important to all. Riot Games, the developer of the most popular e-sport game, “League of Legends,” is one of them.

The Los Angeles company isn’t anti-Olympics, said its ESports Director Whalen Rozelle. The Olympics’ success in humanizing athletes and fostering spirited rivalries inspire the company’s own annual international competition, which features teams worth more than $1 million and players with six-figure salaries. But numbers like those reduce the need for outside validation, Rozelle said.

Riot already feeds off the sentiments the Olympics inspire, including a sense of national pride and international cooperation, he said. And it doesn’t necessarily help with fostering fans of its wholly controlled league. The company also hasn’t seen an uptick in Olympics-related demands from its 67 million monthly users, so it hasn’t thought about licensing to the IOC. 

“Are we chasing for cool, somewhat novel mainstream experiences or are we trying to develop foundational experiences and build a sport?” Rozelle said. The Olympics “could naturally happen, but it’s not worth forcing.”

On Tuesday, the games in Rio de Janeiro featured a small, IOC-approved e-sports trial match with eight players from different countries battling in the game “Super Smash Bros.”

Chester King, the Brit who funded the event, wants his nonprofit eGames operating independently of the Olympics, but occurring in the same place right after. He envisions competitions in 20 games and a focus on national pride over prize money, compared with most video game tournaments.

“We’re creating something different,” he said.

Despite the lack of prize money, winner Elliot Carroza-Oyarce of Canada said earning a medal was “a really amazing experience.”

The conversation over what’s best extends to e-sports financiers, producing a new set of rifts. At El Segundo health bar maker Quest Nutrition, which sponsors a gaming team, e-sports marketing leader Yoni Ginsberg supports new international competitions coordinated across multiple video games. He’s not a fan of attaching “the new phenomenon” to the “old-school” Olympics.

His boss, Chief Marketing Officer Nick Robinson, has a sharper take. With diverse teams and global leagues from the get-go, e-sports breaks down the geographic barriers common in traditional sports. Why allow the Olympics or anything else to bring them into existence, he said.

But because the allure of the Olympics tops all else for many, alternative competitions such as the eGames might struggle to achieve popularity unless the IOC stalls on integrating e-sports.

Udall, 20 of Mesa, Ariz., competed in track, basketball and football until injuries shifted him to video games. This year, he joined the Gale Force pro “Heroes of the Storm” team and led Arizona State to victory in Blizzard Entertainment’s Heroes of the Dorm competition.

Getting his parents off the hook for $15,000 in tuition proved video games aren’t a waste. But still on the to-do list are: Making history books, representing the United States, gaining universally recognized credibility and showing he’s at the top of his craft.

“That’s what the Olympics is,” Udall said. “I want it now. It’s not just any championship podium, it’s standing on there wearing my USA gear. I’m such a fan of that being an option.” 

Twitter: @peard33

Special correspondent Vincent Bevins in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.