Last night’s opening ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics made the standard show of international pride and unity. However, a special event a couple of days ago showed division among some athletes as to who belongs at the games.
That event was the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) esports event, the StarCraft II Intel Extreme Masters XII. It took place in Pyeongchang, which is, of course, home to the Winter Olympics for the next few weeks.
The Olympic connection
In the planning stages last summer, Intel Corp aimed to organize the event as a tie-in to the Winter Olympics. And three months ago, the IOC took the unusual, but not unprecedented step of recognizing competitive gaming (or esports) as a sport.
This is a sign that esports, which has events that can pack the world’s biggest stadiums and attract millions of global viewers each year, could vie for inclusion in the Olympics. The IOC may well be keeping an open mind on that matter. But some athletes competing in Pyeongchang over the next few weeks feel such a move would be the wrong one.
Alpine skier Ted Ligety decried such a move against the backdrop of the StarCraft II event.
“They are two totally different worlds,” the American two-time gold medalist told Reuters. “Physical sports belong in the Olympics. I don’t think esports belong in the Olympics.”
The American skiing ace, who will be competing once again this year, agreed esports were popular and likely here for the long term. His point of contention came in citing a big difference between sports such skiing, where competitors face the risk of real danger and life-threatening injuries, compared to esports.
“The mental side of esports can be tough, I’m guessing, for those guys,” Ligety said, “but the Olympics is where you have to do some sort of a physical exertion.”
Former IOC Chief Of Marketing Michael Payne echoed those sentiments in Reuters’ story. He agreed esports should not replace participation in real sporting events, though he did admit they were a “great platform for engaging the youth.”
Payne argued that “the Olympics has always been about physical action, not just mental, and it is why chess and other intellect games have never been accepted.”
The counter-argument from esports lobbyists
For an opposing voice, Reuters interviewed Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri — a French national who represented Algeria in the recent Intel Exteme Masters XII event in Pyeongchang. As you might expect, he holds a very different take on why esports gamers could become Olympians in the future.
“If athletes saw how we actually compete, how we practice, how much effort we put into our daily routines to get better, I think they could only respect the efforts we put into it,” Satouri told Reuters.
What’s the real sticking point?
At the end of the day, what constitutes a sport may not be the most pressing question at hand. The IOC may well have an eye on admitting esports chiefly due to its growing popularity and massive potential market value.
Money makes for an important question especially given the costs of hosting the Olympics. Indeed, a recent Oxford study suggests hosting the Olympics tends to cost the host city and nation billions. A Summer Olympics now costs an average of $5.2 billion and a Winter $3.1 billion. Plus, these figures are sports-related costs only.
The last Winter Olympics in Sochi set an ignominious record as the most expensive Olympics. It ran a total bill of $21.9 billion.
Attracting an entirely new demographic of players, many of whom may not be particular enamored with traditional Olympic games events, would allow the IOC to tap into a lucrative market. That could equal new (and very welcome) income and sponsorships.
Prize money problem?
There is also the issue of the prizes on offer for esports players vs. today’s Olympians. This may well be a bone of contention.
For example, Scarlett won the Intel Extreme Masters XII in Pyeongchang. The Canada-based StarCraft II player pocketed $50,000 for her win.
In contrast, the United States Olympic Committee pays Team USA athletes set sums for gold, silver and bronze medals. These amount to $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze.
Could Olympians feel aggrieved that esports players take home more than double those figures for winning one tournament (and a modest prize pool at that)?
At this point, let’s pause to acknowledge something important. Scarlett’s win was the first ever by a female player in any major esports event. This momentous occasion for women in gaming deserved to be the main focus of the tournament. Instead, the esports vs. sports debate took the limelight. Scarlett clarified her opinion on the matter for Reuters.
“I think it’s a good thing to have diversity, so that it gets more people to tune into the Olympics in general, ” said Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn.
Ultimately, this issue isn’t going away. The IOC has already confirmed Intel is preparing esports events to run alongside the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, as well as at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.