With the Tokyo Olympic Games pushed to 2021 due to COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been following the chatter in the esports world about the possibility of being included in the Games in the future. As recently as late 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its stance on esports that didn’t exactly make things look imminent, however:
“With regard to other electronic games, the Summit concluded that, at this stage, the sports movement should focus on players and gamers rather than on specific games. This focus on individuals should promote the participation in sport and its benefits as well as healthy lifestyle at all levels, including a health management model for elite esports competitors including both physical and mental health.”
The IOC is a staunch advocate of the health and wellness of Olympians, and one of the major stumbling blocks for the esports industry that’s prevented it from widespread acceptance is the perception that gamers are not athletes, athletic, or doing much else besides staring at a screen. It’s also expressed disinterest in violent games and ones that aren’t connected to traditional sports, as it wants to provide a connection to the events already in the Games and give young viewers at home something to aspire to globally.
But with COVID-19 bringing esports to the forefront due to the absence of traditional sports (and therefore the lack of televised events competing for eyes), a lot of those concerns are being assuaged. NASCAR’s iRacing series, ESPN’s NBA 2K League, and the Virtual Kentucky Derby are just a few examples of traditional sports replicated by esports that drew record viewership numbers, proving that the appetite is there for these games. And that’s only a small portion of the wider esports audience, which Business Insider projects to be roughly 646 million by 2023, which would be 42% growth from its 2019 audience.
That audience number is key because the Olympics face a critical problem with reaching a younger demographic. For example, a very popular Summer Games event, women’s tennis, has seen its home viewer average age decline in the last decade…to 55 years old. In contrast, the average esports viewer is 26, according to TechCrunch. The IOC tried a few things to get young people to watch, but hasn’t cracked the code:
- The IOC allowed streaming of the Games online…but capped it to 30 minutes if the viewer didn’t have a cable log-in, which many millennials and younger viewers don’t have
- It banned the press from creating GIFs of any footage of the games…which didn’t get followed because fans went ahead and did it anyway.
- It also introduced new sports such as sport climbing, karate, skateboard, and surfing…which all have smaller and older bases than esports
As far as athletic ability goes, esports requires that and more with even a cursory look at the data. Badminton and table tennis may require more lower-body movement than esports, but the level of dexterity with CNN did some great research on mental acuity needed, and the best way to sum up the skills in the industry is that Starcraft II pros make 500 actions per minute in the game (more than 8 per second), which is easily more than many Olympic sports, especially over the hour-long durations of a single esports match. And if you’re talking about the aspiration element, it’s pretty clear that physical attributes play a huge factor in becoming an Olympic athlete in a traditional sport, but a kid who trains at gaming can have a much more level playing field to becoming a pro in their sport.
So, where does that leave esports in relation to the Games? One novel solution, which would be a big opportunity for brands, suggested in recent reports by President of the International Esports Federation (IESF) Vlad Marinescu was to create a “pure ‘Electronic Games’” working in association with the IOC. This would give esports the opportunity to monetize far better than it currently does according to reports, but also give the IOC cover if it doesn’t want to immediately incorporate esports into its main slate. Brands would have an internationally-televised set of shows that hits the massive esports audience in key demographics, allowing for a whole new way to target the highly coveted younger audience.