Should esports be in the Olympics?

We talk with experts who think it might be possible one day.

In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin stood in front of a gathering of international sporting officials and proposed to change the world.

Born into a French aristocratic family, Coubertin enjoyed the fruits of a high-class education. But instead of a career in politics or the military, he spent his life dedicated to studying the benefits of sports.

Coubertin was convinced physical education and school sports could change people for the better, telling participants at his meeting to discuss the creation of the Olympics that "there are not two parts to a man — body and soul: there are three — body, mind and character."

He even associated British imperial strength with early sports education.

"Time is the only thing holding it back."

So, in 1894, Coubertin stood in France and proposed the world re-adopt the Olympic games of the ancient Greeks. Since then, the Olympics have gone on to change the world. Major events seared into the history of modern memory occurred during Olympic celebrations, whether it be Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting for civil rights in 1968, or the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich. The Olympics have either acted as the catalyst for social change or have heralded the same.

For many sports, the Olympics has also been a legitimizer — a way for those sports to gain respectful recognition and take their rightful place alongside Olympian contests. Even marginalized sports such as softball, table tennis and trampolining have all taken part.

While Coubertin aimed to focus on ancient sports, since his time, the Olympics has grown to represent all types of athletic and mental abilities beyond what the Greeks practiced.

Now, more than one hundred years after Coubertin’s movement began, esports groups are hoping to bring the Olympics well and truly into the electronic age. While advocates admit there is still plenty of work to be done, they also say that with nearly 20 years of professional history, esports has earned its place in the Olympic family.

"Esports is an untapped audience for the Olympics," says Jay Puryear, director of brand development and esports at Treyarch.

"Time is the only thing holding it back," he says.


esports sparks an Olympic flame

In February, the South Korea-based International esports Federation requested information from the International Olympic Committee — the Olympics’ main governing body — on how to apply for inclusion. The IeSF received a response in April, and the application process will begin in December.

This application comes after opposition against the idea esports should be legitimized. ESPN head John Skipper said in 2014 that esports are "competitions," not sports. One ESPN commentator Colin Cowherd vowed to quit if ESPN ever covered esports.

Tim Warwood, a former snowboarding champion turned commentator, also told the BBC in 2014 that esports should stay out of the Winter X games.

This attitude is what the IeSF is arguing against, says the organization’s secretary-general, Alex Lim.

"What [the] IeSF is trying to obtain from being part of sports society is not simply being in [the] Olympics but to be shared with the legacy developed within sports society through past decades," he says.

"What makes it a sport as opposed to a different kind of game? How much physicality should it have to be a contest?"

"As esports industry and its own culture is expanding, we, IeSF, as the international union of 44 member countries’ national federations, feel responsibilities to create esports’ own legacy, which can benefit all related parties especially the key stakeholder, the players."

But the narrow interpretation of "sport" shouldn’t be taken as a slight against video games in particular, according to Dr. Mark Dyreson, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State University. This is a debate that extends back to Coubertin's first move to reinstate the games.

"It’s a big question — what makes it a sport as opposed to a different kind of game? How much physicality should it have to be a contest? Chess was considered to be a sport in some literature, and Sports Illustrated used to cover chess up until the '70s."

The debate about whether esports should be included in the Olympics needs to be considered in context, says Dyreson. Originally, Coubertin wanted the Olympics to focus on amateur athletes. That is, those who weren’t being paid significant amounts of money to compete.

As Dyreson argues, the Olympics, from the very beginning, toyed with the notion that certain sports filled criteria for inclusion even without any connection to the ancient Greeks. There was an underlying notion of classism attached to these sports, says Dyreson. They were designed and appropriated among the "upper classes" and those vying for social leadership. Men of ambition, and men only, were meant to take part.

This meant no football, baseball or cricket, which by the end of the 19th century had already established strong professional associations.

Yet by that time, the Olympics had already started including sports that were not connected to the ancient Greeks in any way, shape or form. Dyreson argues the decathlon was a complete invention meant to emulate the type of training a military officer would experience.

"One of the more interesting ones is the marathon. Classical Greeks were not interested in running long distances — that was what peasants did, or what messengers did," he says.


Compromised competition

As the Olympics grew in stature, other sports were added that didn’t necessarily have a significant athletic component — such as archery and equestrian sports.

"Shooting sports and archery are the least taxing, physically ... and I know the folks in archery and marksmanship would be angry at me for saying that," says Dyreson.

Dyreson brings up another point, that esports may not receive the moniker of "sport" as readily as some other athletic activities, but its recognition in social culture continues to grow. esports competitors are officially classed as "athletes" in the United States, and in Russia, the Ministry of Sport officially recognizes esports as a sport discipline.

Norwegian schools now offer esports classes as part of school sport curriculum. International competitions pay out millions in prize money to competitors, and the industry has even begun implementing anti-doping regulations — one of the criteria the International Olympic Committee requires for admission.

The physicality factor isn’t an issue for Lim or the IeSF, which says physicality is not the only factor that defines sports — and the debate needs to be approached more "philosophically."

"The time involved to really compete at the highest level requires a sacrifice that is routinely associated with high-performance athletes."

"If gross motor skill and dynamic is required to legitimate a sport, there will be some sports which may be erased even from the list of Olympic sports," he says.

"Basically, the sociocultural approach of sports philosophy defines sports as systemized 'play,' and definitely for the young people living in 2016, those communities have been systemized games and made it a sport from the concept of simple 'play' as representing human beings' instinct for competitiveness."

Additionally, Lim says, a materialistic approach defines a sport as a systemized activity that "applies and represents the demanded life skill of the society." Agricultural societies that placed emphasis on physical activity led to physical sports.

Now, Lim says, the reality is quite different.

The Olympic charter itself is vague about what is and isn’t a sport. The IOC did not agree to an interview for this piece, but did say in a statement that a sport needs to be "recognized" by the IOC in order to become included. It does this by having that sport’s international federation conform with the Olympic Charter and implement the World Anti-Doping Code. (The Electronic Sports League has introduced such anti-doping measures.)

The IOC has considered including competitions such as chess and other card games before. It dubs these "mind games," and has traditionally rejected their inclusion.

But the industry says this may be a mistake in the case of esports. Jay Puryear says that, not only should the Olympics include esports, it should recognize esports go beyond the mind and must include fine motor skill control — control that doesn’t have to be utilised the same way in a game of bridge or chess, both of which continue to vie for Olympic inclusion.

"If you look at it from an athlete point of view, the average player in the Call of Duty World League dedicates hours upon hours honing their skills to make sure that they are in the right place at the right time on a map and can make that split-second decision," he says.

"The time involved to really compete at the highest level requires a sacrifice that is routinely associated with high-performance athletes, regardless of sport," he says.

Expanding this to include team sports, says Puryear, incorporates roles and strategies such as the analysis of playbacks, the roles on the team, and in-game communication.

"These are all things that are seen at the highest level of any sport," says Puryear.

However, this raises yet another question of why sports with a much more strenuous physical component, such as NFL, should not be included after lobbying for several years. The IOC rejected the NFL’s application for inclusion in 2012.

NFL Vice President of International Chris Parsons told FOX Sports in 2012 that IOC recognition "would help significantly" toward increasing growth.

"We’ve already seen sports included with no connection to the ancient world, including volleyball."

But Chris Kluwe, former NFL kicker for the Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings and the Oakland Raiders, says there are other issues stopping the NFL from being included — challenges that don’t preclude esports from taking part.

"You look at what [esports competitors] are being asked to do in League of Legends … you need significant physical dexterity to perform the appropriate actions per second, and then also reaction time."

The problem with NFL in the Olympics, Kluwe says, is that the barrier to entry is "fairly high."

"You need a coaching system, multiple coaches, you need a background apparatus to make it work," he says.

"Computers have become so ubiquitous, anyone can jump in and play those games."

Not only does thus fulfill the idea that Olympics should be designed for amateur athletes, but esports also fulfills one of Coubertin's original hopes for the games — that they would capture the spirit of young people.

"We’ve already seen sports included with no connection to the ancient world, including volleyball," says Dyreson. "That’s been wonderful in terms of ratings, and in other extreme sports competitions like the X Games, electronic gaming has come in as a part of broader youth culture."

"Coubertin might be turning in his grave, but there is historical logic that is unfolding here," Dyreson says.

Part of the motivation in seeking Olympic support may be gaming’s history of marginalization by the mainstream, inclusion proponents say. The negative connotations surrounding games as a basement hobby have affected the industry for years — gaining Olympic acceptance could reverse that.

"In that sense, you could compare it to table tennis, which used to be a recreation," says Dyreson. "Once you get the approval of the IOC, it’s hard to argue you’re marginalized anymore."


The ultimate decision

So, should esports be in the Olympics?

According to Dyreson, esports already fulfills the criteria for athleticism applied to other sports accepted by the IOC.

This is a question only the IOC can decide, but Lim says it is telling how many monikers of a traditional sport the esports community has gained over time. Lim says within his own experience, "the mood is turning to be positive."

"While I was in Switzerland, Lausanne, for [the] SportAccord Convention 2016, I could feel a very different mood than past years, as a lot of key sports parties were contacting us, and even from panel discussions where I sit as a panelist, the audiences were quite agreeing on embracing esports."

"Also, the partnership between IeSF and IAAF, the biggest and oldest international federation among traditional sports, quite reflects such movement from international sports societies."

"If we’re meant to be familiarizing people with the world of computers — what other mechanism is there but games?"

And while ESPN’s Skipper made disparaging comments in 2014, the network has embraced more competitive gaming. The organization has introduced a dedicated esports section on its website, a testament to the millions of views professional esports matches regularly receive.

Dyreson also points out another key argument — that given the Olympics’ ongoing need for popularity, ratings and chatter, adopting esports could go a long way in injecting new life into the games. Millions of people around the world already watch and compete in esports. Bringing them into the Olympics structure could bring a surge in ratings.

"They certainly make compelling TV," he says. "What initially seems an absurd notion is not as absurd when you look deeply into it."

Dyreson comes back to this point: The resurgence of the Olympic Games in the 1800s was, in some ways, a façade, an imitation. It was not a carbon copy of the ancient Greeks’, was never meant to be, and the creators’ "knowledge of the classics was twisted for their own purposes."

So, while esports may not be a traditional sport in the sense of track and field or swimming, Dyreson says there is an argument to be made that, had the Greeks possessed computers, they would have taken part in esports.

"The Olympic movement is not static," he says. "It changes over time. But it was always important to nurture competitions in which middle and upper class workers were trained to be leaders."

"You could make a good case on that ground that if we’re meant to be familiarizing people with the world of computers — what other mechanism is there but games?" Babykayak

Photos: Shutterstock