Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s appearance as Super Mario in the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games delighted audiences around the world. It also hinted at the exciting possibility that eSports – or video games, as they’re conventionally known – may become part of the programme at Tokyo 2020.
In fact, fantasy games have already become an Olympic reality: Rio 2016 was the first games where an eSport competition actually took place – though you wouldn’t have found it on the official programme.
The eGames showcase in British House, Rio was organised by Chester King, a businessman who recently established the British eSports Association, and the International eGames Group. This showcase competition featured gamers from eight countries – including the world number one EVO champion, Elliot “Ally” Carroza-Oyarce – who faced off in Super Smash Bros for an (unofficial) gold medal.
It can be all too easy for sceptics to dismiss eSports; after all, they appear to lack the physical intensity of “proper sports”, and most of the games have a fantastical setting. But the gaming community has attracted the attention of the International Olympic Committee (which notably included skateboarding at the Tokyo 2020 games) as it re-thinks how to connect with younger audiences. And they’re not the only ones.
In 2013, the US approved athlete visas for eSports players. And earlier this year, West Ham United became the first soccer club in the UK to sign an eSport player – to represent the team at eSports tournaments, playing the popular computer game FIFA.
Meanwhile, the International eSport Federation edges ever closer to Olympic recognition. Even the oldest Olympic sponsor, Coca-Cola, has signed up as a global sponsor of eSports. The company now takes a leadership role in eSports by hosting a weekly YouTube show featuring the latest news from eSports events. This also signals a change in how sponsors operate around sports events, where television broadcasters are out, and product companies are in.
While the scene is set for eSport to find its way into the Olympics, it’s part of a much bigger picture. It is not even clear whether the eSport community wants to be a part of the Olympic Games, as Chester King has outlined:
Personally, I feel there would be major problems with eSports taking place during an Olympic Games. Firstly, which gaming title would you choose? There are so many. And which platform would you choose – PC, console or mobile? The vision of The eGames is to have representation from every country playing multi-title and multi-platform so logistically this could not happen at the same time as an Olympic Games as you would need all the indoor arenas just for gaming.
King sees the value of competitive video gaming extending far beyond an appearance at the Olympics. He is also keen to establish a difference between the professional eSports leagues (where you play for a team) and the Olympic ethos, which brings the best players in the world into an environment where there is no prize money; simply prestige and national pride.
When I interviewed him at Rio 2016, King – who is on something of a crusade to promote eSports – said : “Playing eSports, in moderation and part of a balanced life, has incredible benefits including life and cyber skills, but most importantly it helps with positive psychologically and your happiness.”
Gaming for social good
Whether or not you think they succeed, there’s no doubt that the modern Olympic Games seek to establish an ethos of social responsibility. Likewise, there’s something very compelling about King’s interest in developing gaming for social good: specifically, to get young people interested in game development and digital innovation.
The eSports world could be an excellent vehicle for such development. It could turn an entire generation of people who are lost to sports on to a different kind of physical activity. Indeed, the direction of travel is for computer gaming to become a more full-body experience. Virtual reality simulators and mobile health technologies are changing how we interact with games, as the running app Zombies, Run shows. Although gaming seems like a rather static activity now, it is fast becoming a physically and cognitively demanding activity.
There is an opportunity for eSport to drive a new social movement: eSports arenas could be cathedrals of digital innovation – not just spaces of competition and practice. And eSport athletes can become game developer role models for future generations, whose discipline and dexterity can inspire young people to stretch their digital skills even further.
Yet the world of eSports is already fragmenting, with the professional/amateur split widening, and many more competitions being developed by individual organisations, such as the recently launched World eSport Association. There’s a real risk that, unless this growth can be unified, gaming will lose its wider social mandate. This is why its alignment with the Olympic programme could be useful.
It is worth remembering that, compared with other Olympic events, eSports are still incredibly early on in their development. But already, eSports are fast becoming a major player in the sports economy.
With a new economic model underpinning it – which eschews television in favour of live streaming matches on Twitch – eSports’ approach resonates with the younger, more digitally-savvy generations. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s launch of the Olympic Channel and focus on livestream viewing figures rather than television viewing figures, demonstrates just how important this shift is.
In fact, whether or not eSports finally make it into the Olympic Games is not actually the most important outcome of their rise to global prominence. Rather, ensuring that they develop in a way that spawns new role models for young people and which nurtures this new, active sub-culture is the more crucial matter. Really, this is the most powerful reason to align eSport athletes with the virtues of Olympians, and such concerns are also what led to the revival of the modern Olympic Games in the first place.
With Tokyo hosting the next games, perhaps we can expect to see a version of Pokemon Go out there, encouraging spectators to be more physically active. This might even fit in better with the Olympic Games. But for now, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog are the official games sponsors – so we can expect to see much more of them four years from now.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.