On March 1, the International Olympic Committee announced the first details of the Olympic Esports Series 2023, the next step in the venerable sporting body’s tentative move into the esports arena. (It previously hosted an Olympic Virtual Series in tandem with the Tokyo 2020 games.) Beginning with qualification this month and culminating in live finals in Singapore in June, and open to both amateur and professional players, the Esports Series seems like a moderately serious bid by the Olympic movement to engage with competitive video gaming — as underlined by its shift in branding toward using the community’s favored term, “esports.”
There is just one problem, however: The choice of games is... odd.
You will not find any of the most popular esports represented here. No League of Legends, no Counter-Strike, no Fortnite, Overwatch, Street Fighter, or Rocket League. None of the esports that people actually watch.
Instead, the nine initially confirmed games are all, to a greater or lesser degree, simulations of real-world sports, games, and activities. Only a couple of them are instantly recognizable as video game brands: Gran Turismo and Just Dance. (Hang on... Just Dance?!) Also represented are the preeminent chess website, Chess.com, and the indoor cycling trainer Zwift. The list is rounded out by obscure simulators: Virtual Regatta (sailing), Virtual Taekwondo (take a guess), Tennis Clash (it’s a mobile game!), Konami’s WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros (that trips off the tongue), and archery game Tic Tac Bow (another mobile game). What is going on here?
Perusing the list, I wondered why the IOC was choosing not to meet esports fans where they are, which is watching the most popular games in the world. It’s true that the heavily promoted, big-money world of pro esports leagues is anathema to the ideals of the Olympic movement — but that didn’t stop the IOC from embracing boxing, say, at the amateur end.
I guessed at two possible answers for the odd list. One, that the IOC would not want to endorse violent games, even the broad, fantasy violence of something like League. And two, that it was keeping a focus on virtual analogues of real-world sports. But this still didn’t explain the presence of chess or motorsports — two pursuits that would never be included in the Olympics IRL — or the absence of legitimately big esports with a real-world basis, like FIFA. So I asked for clarification.
The IOC came back to me with a lengthy statement that more or less confirmed my guesses. Yes, the primary goal of the initiative is to promote the development of “virtual and simulated sports games.” And indeed, violence was a no-no that would have ruled out most popular esports — along with, interestingly, the gender split among players, and “technical barriers to entry” (which I read as games that can only be played competitively on high-end PCs, rather than mobiles or consoles). In the IOC’s words:
When considering these proposals, it is important to us that the featured games in the Olympic Esports Series align with the Olympic Values. This includes participation inclusivity, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender split of player base and avoiding any personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission which is to unite the world in peaceful competition.
In the context of the IOC’s comments, even the inclusion of Just Dance can be explained. The game’s broad demographic reach and ease of use — you don’t even need to be dextrous with a controller — must have been appealing from an inclusivity point of view. Meanwhile, the focus on console and mobile games, and the selection of Gran Turismo over, say, iRacing, make sense when you consider the requirement for a low technical barrier to entry.
Another wrinkle is the IOC’s decision to partner with international sports federations in selecting the games to work with — so, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile suggested Gran Turismo to represent motorsport, the World Archery Federation suggested Tic Tac Bow, and so on. The goal isn’t necessarily to select the most famous games — quite the opposite. As the IOC says:
The Olympic Games has always offered a diverse programme, including those sports whose competitors do not benefit from the platform of other high profile competitions. In order to build a similarly diverse programme for the Olympic Esports Series 2023, we have partnered with International Federations (IFs), who in turn propose game developer partnerships. Although not currently sports on the Olympic programme, both chess and motorsports are recognised International Federations, so were invited to submit proposals to be part of the competition.
If nothing else, the involvement of the sports federations explains why FIFA games aren’t representing soccer, given the breakdown of the relationship between football’s governing body and the games’ publisher, Electronic Arts.
The IOC says the lineup isn’t complete and it may yet add new games. “We have had interesting and encouraging conversations with wider [international federations] and game publishers, and expect additional titles to be added to the Olympic Esports Series line up in the coming weeks,” it says. It also points to a video docuseries it is running that features some top FIFA players, among other esports names.
As strange and out-of-touch as the Olympic Esports Series’ playlist may look to the average fan of competitive video games, the IOC has a cogent rationale for the choices and partnerships it has made. It is right that Olympic esports should look very different — and indeed, be a haven — from the grift and brazen commerce that surround the professional leagues. But that leaves a big gap to be bridged between the Olympic esport ideal and the popular imagination.
The inclusion of the likes of Gran Turismo and Chess.com is a step in the right direction. If the IOC could somehow circumvent FIFA and bring EA Sports FC on board — or allow nonviolent but fantastical sports like Rocket League to be included — that would make a huge difference to making its dream of a digital Olympic movement a reality.
In the meantime, how about a spot of Nintendo Switch Sports bowling? I fancy my chances.