Esports on Olympics – no joke

I have to admit that when I wrote my modest proposal I was very much focused on the workings of the IOF and invoking the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s original work, including the wording of his disclaimer. I have to admit, that in this process I did not do thorough research on esports, as it looked like more of an illustration that unexpected leftfield contenders may also show up as rivals for inclusion in the Olympics.

I received a few comments that one should not be serious about the prospects of esports; that the quote from the Paris organisers about being open to esports was from August; it was made before they got officially appointed; and in any case Bach, the President of the IOC, voiced reservations even in April about whether esports can be considered seriously as a sport.

So I looked a bit deeper, and I was stunned about the developments over the past months. Both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA made major steps embracing esports.

The direction of the Olympic movement appears to be pretty much 180 degrees to the one that would favour our beloved traditional Orienteering, whether it is done on foot, on bike or on skis.

 

The Olympic Summit

The most important development is the 28 October 2017 Communique of the Olympic Summit, an unofficial, but highly influential body called by President Bach. This is a bit of secretive body. It was not even revealed who participated on this meeting according to insidethegames.biz, a portal dedicated to the Olympics and other major games.

But we know the participants of the 2016 Summit, and its a convincing lineup:

  • IOC: President, Vice-Presidents, Board Members representing IFs and Athletes
  • International Federations: Presidents of FIFA, FIG, FINA, IAAF, FIS, IBSF
  • Recognised organisations: Presidents of ANOC, AIOWF, ASOIF
  • National Olympic Committees: Presidents of the Chinese, Russian, US NOCs.

On the 2017 Summit esports was one of the only 4 agenda items. Obviously, just to get on the agenda of this Summit is a major recognition. Interesting to note, that according to insidethegames.biz, one of the confirmed participants was US Olympic Committee chairman Larry Probst, the chairman of video game publisher Electronic Arts, whose products include the hugely successful FIFA game. It seems that esports have a rather well placed advocate in the Olympic movement.

The relevant part of the Summit Communique is as follows:

The development of “eSports”

The Summit discussed the rapid development of what are called “eSports”, and the current involvement of various Olympic Movement stakeholders. The Summit agreed that:

  • “eSports” are showing strong growth, especially within the youth demographic across different countries, and can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic Movement.
  • Competitive “eSports” could be considered as a sporting activity, and the players involved prepare and train with an intensity which may be comparable to athletes in traditional sports.
  • In order to be recognised by the IOC as a sport, the content of “eSports” must not infringe on the Olympic values.
  • A further requirement for recognition by the IOC must be the existence of an organisation guaranteeing compliance with the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement (anti-doping, betting, manipulation, etc.).

The Summit asked the IOC together with GAISF in a dialogue with the gaming industry and players to explore this area further and to come back to the Olympic Movement stakeholders in due course.

(underlines by me)

Sounds like pretty damn close to Olympic recognition of esports. Lack of IOC recognition was the main barrier so far to inclusion in the Games. This is confirmed by insidethegames.biz report.

In essence, the Summit says that “After all, you would be a great member of our club, but you have to accept our rules”.  Does not sound very harsh, does it?

FIFA 2018

FIFA and EA sports announced a new global eWorld Cup culminating in a multiweek final in August 2018. See press announcement here and here, and the FIFA website.

As reported, from November 2017 to July 2018, there will be a series of qualifying tournaments where players can compete for their spot in the tournament. There also will be official league-qualifying tournaments for existing teams and pro players to win their spot in  the top 128 players of the game (half for PS4 and half for Xbox One) to head to the FIFA 18 Global Series Playoffs. From there, it’s on to the ultimate stop on the Global Series Tour, the FIFA eWorld Cup Grand Final.

So even FIFA, the governing body of the most popular sport in the World, is embracing esports because of its youth appeal and TV impact.

The numbers

The above decisions are understandable if you look at the numbers. According to Newzoo, a specialised market intelligence firm the 2017 expectations looked like this in February:

  • In 2017, the Esports Economy grow to $696 million, a year-on-year growth of 41.3%.
  • Brands will contribute $517 million in 2017 and brand investment will double by 2020.
  • The global esports audience will reach 385 million in 2017, with 191 million Enthusiasts.
  • North America is the largest esports market, with revenues of $257 million in 2017.

Shall we bother to compare the numbers of esports to orienteering? Shall we compare what esports could add to the Olympic coffers to that what orienteering could?

I trust no reader over 18 believes that Olympic decisions of this kind are driven by the love of sport, unless they are well rewarded for holding that opinion.

Let’s face it: orienteering cannot add much to the Olympics in the areas important for the IOC: TV and Youth appeal. Its potential contribution does not even show up on the screen, if we compare it to other contenders like esports, climbing, karate, baseball and many others.

In return, orienteering has a different philosophy than all other olympic sports. You have to do it to enjoy it. Orienteering would require a separate venue and very different requirements for TV. Urban events would also present a security nightmare for the organisers.

Who would choose orienteering for the Olympics considering the extra headache that brings little benefit? What would be the arguments to choose orienteering over the more popular and more commercially oriented sports lined up for inclusion?

We have a great sport with devoted participants, but it is a niche sport. Classical orienteering simply does not fit into the Olympic mass market framework for the foreseeable future. It makes little point to waste resources on this direction with the current approach.

Do I believe that Virtual-O has a real chance to get into the Olympics? No, I do not. (sorry, Peter!) But still it seems that e-orienteering is still closer to mainstream markets for new sports than the classical version of running with a map in hand.

It seems that it is time to make a decision. Relatively minor tweaks, like changing forests to concrete jungles just weaken the original concept, but do not make orienteering attractive for the Olympic mainstream.

Either we stick with something that is based on outdoors running with a map – but we have to acknowledge that it is a niche product and just does not sell to mainstream Olympic audiences; or focus on the mass market and radically redesign orienteering around Olympic mass market demand – but with the understanding that it will retain only elements of what we know today as orienteering, just like as Virtual-O.

Personally, I am committed to our roots. Grass roots, tree roots, and all other roots we may come across in real forests. My preference is squarely with classical orienteering let it be on foot, bike or skis, but a mass market version of orienteering like Virtual-O may well have its place in the family. It is just painful to see the waste of money, energy and volunteers’ time trying to sell classical orienteering to the mainstream market not interested in this product; just trying to push a round peg into a square hole.