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Game On or Game Over? Debating the Inclusion of Esports in the Olympics

August 2, 2023

Esports has gained immense popularity worldwide, with millions of fans tuning in to watch their favorite teams and players compete in games such as League of Legends, Overwatch 2, and Fortnite. Following the inaugural Olympic Esports Week in June, there is a growing debate about whether esports – and which esports – should be included in the Olympic Games. While some argue that esports is a legitimate sport that deserves a place in the Olympics, others believe that it is not a sport in the traditional sense and doesn’t belong in the historic and prestigious Olympic Games.

The Consumer Lifestyle and Sports team has a long history with the Olympic Games – including campaigns with iconic brands such as Target, Burton, US Ski and Snowboard, Disney, GT Bikes, and legendary gold medalists like Shaun White, David Wise, Sage Kotsenburg, Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall. The team also has extensive experience launching upstart sports leagues and digital adaptations of sports for clients such as Sense Arena and the Fan Controlled Football League. Each format boasts passionate fan bases and team dynamics, driving a sense of community and competition. Despite the differences, some core elements unite both formats. The sense of belonging to a team and the passionate support from fans can be equally fervent in esports and traditional sports. Successful leagues across both domains have tapped into this sense of community to build loyal followings and drive engagement. Additionally, incorporating elements of interactivity and fan involvement, as seen in the Fan Controlled Football League, can be a winning strategy for both esports and live sports to deepen fan engagement and foster brand loyalty. To ensure success, understanding your audience is crucial, the preferences, habits, and expectations of gaming enthusiasts and traditional sports fans differ significantly. Tailoring content, marketing, and engagement strategies to each group will be essential.

In June, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) organized the Olympic Esports Series, marking their tentative entry into the esports realm. The series, featuring both amateur and professional players, took place in Singapore after months of qualification. However, there was a notable discrepancy between the games chosen for the event and the most popular esports titles. Instead of widely watched games like League of Legends, Valorant or Fortnite, the selection consisted of simulations and analogues of real-world sports and activities, such as Virtual Regatta, Tic Tac Bow, and Virtual Taekwondo. Gamers were confronted by some familiar titles such as Gran Turismo and Just Dance, but the majority of games included in Olympic Esports Week left many gamers puzzled. Perhaps gamers would have been more accepting if this was called “Olympic Virtual Sports Week” instead of using “esports”.

The IOC felt it was important to choose titles aligned with Olympic values and noted that the goal of the series was to promote the development of virtual and simulated sports games, stating: “This includes participation inclusivity, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender split of players base and avoiding any personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission which is to unite the world in peaceful competition.”

While the IOC’s official statement aligned with the organization’s values, it failed to strike a chord with the vast community of gamers who form the core fan base. Consequently, it left numerous individuals questioning the compatibility of esports with the Olympic Games. Advocates contend that esports should be considered a legitimate sport, demanding an equivalent level of skill, strategy, training, dedication, and discipline as their traditional athletic counterparts. Conversely, those opposed argue that esports lack the physicality and athleticism typically associated with conventional Olympic sports, missing the vitality that defines the Games.

The IOC’s gradual foray into esports suggests a cautious approach. As the IOC tests the waters of competitive gaming, the success of this venture remains uncertain, particularly considering the limited fanbase for the chosen games. Esports and real sports adapted to a digital format offer exciting opportunities for brands and leagues, but they require tailored strategies to thrive in their respective domains.  Ultimately, whether esports will find a place in the historic and prestigious Olympic Games hinges on further exploration and ongoing discussions within the gaming and sporting communities.

TAGS: Sports Marketing, Consumer & Lifestyle

POSTED BY: Jay Cariero

Jay Cariero