KUALA LUMPUR – In ancient Greece, the Olympics provided an opportunity for warriors to prove their lethal war-fighting skills in nonlethal competition. Two thousand years later, couch-bound video game warriors may soon have a similar opportunity. At the end of October, the International Olympic Committee announced that multiplayer video games played in front of spectators — an activity better known as esports — “could be considered a sporting activity.” With that matter settled, the IOC will begin a process that should bring video games to the Olympics as soon as 2024.
While the idea of handing out medals for pushing buttons may sound ludicrous to many, it’s an overdue development. TV ratings for the Olympics and other traditional sporting events are in decline, whereas competitive video gaming is growing fast, especially among young people across the developing world, especially in Asia. In recent years esports tournaments have sold out major sporting venues, including Madison Square Garden for two straight nights in 2016. If the IOC is to have any hope of remaining relevant in a world where leisure is migrating from playing fields to phone and video screens — and importantly, attracting more viewers from Asia, which outside of China and Japan has traditionally lagged in medal counts — it needs to find a way to integrate gaming into its other offerings.
Competitive video gaming has its roots in the early 1990s and the emergence of networked PCs and games that allowed teams to play together. Esports first took off in South Korea, following the government’s investment in internet infrastructure that — among other things — allowed for better gaming. Interest grew so fast that South Korea’s Ministry of Culture established the Korean Esports Association in 2000. Multiplayer fantasy adventure games like “Warcraft” in which players choose a character and do battle together became massive international hits. Wealthy suburbanites in the U.S. played them on their home PCs; so, too, did young members of China’s emerging middle class, who flocked to tens of thousands of internet cafes to play on rented computers with teams of friends.
The business of gaming grew with them. Newzoo, a gaming and sports consultancy, estimates that 2.2 billion gamers will generate $108.9 billion in revenue for the global video gaming industry in 2017. That’s nearly three times more than the global box office haul in 2016. And half of that revenue is generated in Asia, where gaming has become a crucial component of the tech industry. For example, Tencent Holdings, Ltd., Asia’s second-most valuable company, derives a significant percentage of its growth and revenues from gaming.
The money isn’t just in selling the games and accessories. Gamers like to watch other gamers play and they’re willing to pay or watch advertising in exchange for the chance to do so. By Newzoo’s accounting, there are 385 million esports fans worldwide. Some watch events live — in 2016, there were 424 esports tournaments worldwide with prize purses of over $5,000 and one with a purse of over $5 million — while many more stream top matches to their phones, PCs and tablets. Twitch, the leading streaming platform for gaming, is regularly ranked among the world’s top 50 most-trafficked sites and recently attracted an audience exceeding 1 million for a “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” match. Most Olympic events don’t reach those kinds of audiences during the Games, much less in the long four years between them (canoe slalom, anyone?).
Of course, the quest to make esports an Olympic event faces several barriers. First, audiences within and outside of the IOC will need to be educated on the level of training and skill necessary to succeed at a high level in the sport. Next, IOC President Thomas Bach will need to get over his stated aversion to violent games. Fantasy role-playing games are the core of esports, and eliminating them would be tantamount to not having esports at all. Surely an Olympic movement that embraces gun sports can handle virtual dragon slaying.
Finally, the esports industry will need to form an international organization akin to FIFA that can guarantee compliance with IOC regulations. That won’t be easy. Tournaments are typically run or licensed by game publishers who hold tight to the intellectual property in their games and compete fiercely with one another. But those concerns should be overridden by the opportunities that mainstreaming esports would bring to an activity still viewed as unserious in much of the world.
The biggest opportunity remains the IOC’s. Young people in Asia already play and watch esports on their phones. If the IOC wants to get their attention and give them something Olympic with which they can actually identify, there’s no faster way than streaming Olympic-level gaming to them. It’s a different vision of Olympic glory than the one the IOC embraced over its last 100 years. But it could ensure that a new generation of sports fans can aspire to win a gold medal.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”