Esports in the Olympics. Or why "Esports" will never be in the Olympics.
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Welcome back to Sports Tech Feed! Following the IOC’s announcement that it will include Fortnite as part of their inaugural Olympic Esports Series, we break down why the change and what they’re hoping to achieve with their esports strategy. We also look at the state of the esports, gaming, and streaming industries via our in-depth market research report.
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What is the Olympic Esports Series and why has it annoyed Esports fans so much?
Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Fortnite will be included in the game titles for their inaugural Olympic Esports Series 2023, taking the total number of sports to 10.
Per the IOC press release:
The Olympic Esports Series 2023 is a global virtual and simulated sports competition, created by the IOC, and in collaboration with International Federations (IFs) and game publishers.
The best players will take part in live, in-person finals at the Olympic Esports Finals in Singapore from 22–25 June 2023 as part of the Olympic Esports Week.
The Olympic Esports Series builds upon the “Olympic Virtual Series” (OVS) introduced at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. The OVS became the first-ever Olympic-licensed event for physical and non-physical virtual sports, and according to the IOC, featured nearly 250,000 participants from more than two million entries.
What (e)sports are being included?
The selected Sports, International Federations, and Game Publishers are:
Archery - World Archery Federation, Tic Tac Bow
Baseball - World Baseball Softball Confederation, WBSC eBASEBALL: POWER PROS
Chess - International Chess Federation, Chess.com
Cycling - Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), Zwift
Dance - World DanceSport Federation, Just Dance
Motor Sport - Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Gran Turismo
Sailing - World Sailing, Virtual Regatta
Taekwondo - World Taekwondo, Virtual Taekwondo
Tennis - International Tennis Federation (ITF), Tennis Clash
Sport Shooting - International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), Fortnite
So what’s the big deal?
When the IOC first announced the creation of an Olympic Esports Series, the Esports community was less than impressed (to put it mildly). The exclusion of all major esports titles such as Dota2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), and League of Legends (LoL), and therefore the most high-profile pro players and streamers, from the IOC-sanctioned series completely removed any chance of it being seen as a legitimate competition.
Fortnite International Sport Shooting.
The new inclusion of the wildly popular Epic Games title Fortnite appears to be an attempt to win back the graces of these disgruntled esports fans. But unfortunately, the way it’s been included as “sport shooting” resulted in the opposite effect. Per the IOC:
The event will feature a special ISSF Island created in Fortnite, which will be designed to reflect sport shooting competition. Players will be tested on their target aiming accuracy, just as sport shooters would in competition.
What is Fortnite?
To the uninitiated, Fortnite’s core game mode (and the one played in the Fortnite World Cup), is a Battle Royale where up to 100 players fight against each other in player-versus-player combat to be the last player or team left alive. Kill and avoid being killed. A horribly simplistic but useful explanation is to think of the Hunger Games meets Ready Player One.
As an aside, if you want to dive deeper into the world of Fortnite you should read Matthew Ball’s thesis on it as an early window into the potential of the Metaverse(s).
So why has the IOC included Fortnite without it being Fortnite as players know and love?
Headshots and finishing moves are not in the Olympic Spirit.
The violent nature of many of the most popular esports game titles is the intractable issue with their inclusion in anything connected with the Olympic brand.
Per David Lappartient, Chair of the IOC Esports Liaison Group:
“The Olympic Movement brings people together in peaceful competition. The Olympic Esports Series 2023 is a continuation of that, with the ambition of creating more spaces to play for both players and fans of elite competition.”
To the IOC, a focus on “peaceful competition” and “animated blood and gore” probably aren’t synonymous.
Not owning IP. Not in control.
Another issue faced by the IOC is one of the biggest issues faced by all professional Esports leagues and teams: they don’t own the intellectual property on which their product sits.
The game titles played by esports teams are the IP of the game publishers that create them. This is a significant distinction from traditional sports where, although we have governing International Federations and bodies, no one owns the idea or concept of the game, the tools used to play it, or the field on which it is played.
The following caveat is included at the end of the IOC’s press release:
This event is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or otherwise associated with, Epic Games, Inc. The information players provide in connection with this event is being provided to the event organiser and not to Epic Games, Inc.
IOC is renowned for incredibly strict controls over its own brand and how it’s used by partners. So it is a bit of a leap for them to be using an external platform they’re not partnered with.
On the other side, major game title publishers not engaging with IOC indicates what they see as the value (or lack thereof) in their official involvement.
This also supports what many within the esports community assert that the IOC needs Esports more than Esports needs the IOC. With the tanking stock price of esports teams, most notably FaZe Clan, this might be a little bit too much hubris on either side.
How do you define an athlete? And does it matter?
Pop quiz time: Who is to be considered an “athlete”?
A) Wrestlers in incredible physical shape but performing an entirely scripted event (and therefore not “competing”);
B) Esports pros that compete in a mentally, but primarily not physically, taxing game;
D) Does it matter?
The answer to D is that for many Olympic Athletes, and the Governing Bodies that represent them, it really, really does. So the IOC needs to tread carefully when integrating anything outside of traditional sports which form their core product and constituency.
But the IOC’s remit is to continue to grow the impact (or value depending on your particular perspective) of the Olympic movement and to do that they need to engage with younger audiences.
Where are those younger audiences? Gaming and Esports.
Citius. Altius. Fortius. Keyboardus?
The IOC is in a catch twenty-two. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Their core product highlights extraordinary human achievements in physical sports. But Faster-Higher-Stronger doesn’t exactly immediately conjure images of someone sitting in front of a computer.
Notably, cycling and taekwondo are the only two out of the 10 sports selected for the Esports Series which require players to compete on hardware that mimics the physical effort of the sports in their normal settings.
We could maybe add Motor Sport to the list based on the story of Jann Mardenborough who showed skills developed via racing simulators can be applicable to the real thing. His story has recently received a silver screen adaptation but is the exception rather than the rule.
Conceivably as VR / AR and haptic feedback tech develops further we could see more sports replicated in a digital setting, without needing to take away the requirement for physical effort. But for now, that divide exists.
So who’s got it right? (F1, again).
Formula 1 holds a fantastic example of how traditional sports can meaningfully integrate virtual sports and “esports” into their core product.
We spoke to Dr. Julian Tan (Head of Digital Business Initiatives & Esports) about how F1 was using its esports assets at the height of the global pandemic to engage both esports and traditional fans alike, whilst also making good on sponsorship deals through brand exposure in the gaming engine.
Fans of any sport, including esports, can smell inauthenticity a mile off. As Julian explained, esports was an element in their overall digital and fan engagement strategy, not tacked on at the end as an afterthought or “cool” thing to have.
Generous interpretation: IOC dropped the ball but at least they’re trying.
Despite all the issues at play, IOC Esports and Virtual Sports head honcho Vincent Pereira seems to be earnest in attempts to integrate the esports community into the Olympic fold. As he commented in response to a LinkedIn post that went pretty aggressively after their attempts:
Fortnite is an amazing addition and just showing our will and how we can create bridges between the two worlds.
We cannot satisfy everyone but we are moving forward with humility and great collaborations with publishers, teams, players and federations to support the growth and power of new technologies and gaming within the Olympic Movement ;) [winky face is verbatim]
We’ll try to have Vincent on the podcast in the future to dive deeper into their vision.
What we’re reading: STWS Esports & Gaming Market Report 2022
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"Formula 1 holds a fantastic example of how traditional sports can meaningfully integrate virtual sports and “esports” into their core product." 👍