Violence Isn't Esports' Only Hurdle to Joining the Olympics

As the esports industry continues to grow, experts weigh in on whether the sport can join the Olympics in the near future

The multimillion-dollar competitive online gaming industry known as esports has captured the attention of gamers, companies and audiences around the world, and some see the Olympics as a logical next step — where better to showcase the world's greatest video game athletes?

The International Olympic Committee has shown increasing interest. Days before the Olympic Winter Games last month, the computer chip-making company Intel hosted the first Olympic-affiliated esports competition, a "Starcraft II" tournament.

At last year's Olympic summit, the IOC agreed that competitive esports could be considered a sporting activity and that they could be a vehicle for the Olympic movement, which is based on the values of helping to build a better and more peaceful world and which prohibits betting on sport, manipulation of sports competitions and corrupt conduct.

But the IOC also noted that esports would need to make some changes to align with those values. Its president, Thomas Bach, has spoken out against violent video games in the past. 

"We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence and peace among people. This doesn't match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line," Bach said in an interview with The South China Morning Post before the summit.

President Donald Trump has also decried violence in video games, going as far as holding a summit on the topic this month in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Esports are growing, and fast. Millions of people watch live-streamed games on the online platform Twitch and the sport is projected to bring in $906 million this year, according to esports marketing analysis company Newzoo. They have been increasingly seen as a way to market the Olympics to a younger audience.

But if they are to reach the sporting world's biggest stage, violence won't be as big of a hurdle as creating a governing body, which the sport currently lacks, two experts told NBC. There are plenty of games which don't feature overt violence and could conceivably be featured at the Olympics, but without some organization that creates order and can work with the IOC, it's unlikely to make much progress.

"I think it needs to be a committee of experts from various cross-sections, whether its technology, professional sports or traditional IOC folk," said Kevin Mitchell, an Emerson College-affiliated esports professor.

But creating an organization could be tough because, where sports can be played by anyone, each game is published by a developer that sells the game and distributes it on platforms like Playstations, XBoxes and computers, Mitchell said.

"IOC standards require you not to profit from these sports, but the publishers would be profiting because it's their ecosystem. Every publisher has specific rules related to their game," he said.

One organization is already advocating for esports' inclusion in the Olympics: The International esports Federation. According to its website, the IeSF's mission is to help grow esports globally by supporting international esports competitions around the world. 

But Mitchell believes that a new organization would have to be created to make any headway.

"The IeSF could work but it doesn't have any real authority to implement real standards or policies," Mitchell said. "I think it will have to be a new organization that has representation from several top countries, publishers and player/team representation per title."

T. Bettina Cornwell, a marketing and sports management professor at the University of Oregon, noted that if a new esports organization is approved, it will need to decide what genres are acceptable with world culture to have a shot at being in the Olympics. It might choose games that avoid realistic violence, she said.

"Many of the popular first-person shooter games like 'Counter-Strike' may not seem to be in keeping with Olympic values," Cornwell said in an email.

Other popular games, like "League of Legends" and "Overwatch," are also violent, but Cornwell and Mitchell said they are different from "Counter-Strike," and possibly more palatable to the IOC, because they involve fantasy rather than simulation of real-life violence.

"I think there's enough of an offering of 'fantasy-oriented' games to quell that concern," Mitchell said.

The experts noted that violent sports like boxing, wrestling and shooting are allowed in the Olympics, so they don't interfere with the guiding principles of the Olympic movement.

More broadly, Cornwell said that video games "still suffer from a perception, much like that faced by auto racing, that orients toward participation sports that do not involve mechanization."

If esports were to overcome these obstacles, there would be an opportunity for both for the industry and the Olympics to benefit, Mitchell said.

"At first, esports was just a marketing channel for all these gaming publishers, but now that it's become a viable sport, they are taking it seriously," he said. "They're looking at the revenue being generated from a lot of these companies like Riot Games and Blizzard and it's something that's very hard to ignore."

The IOC decided at its summit last year to keep talking with the gaming industry and players to further explore esports as a possible event at the Olympics. It has been ruled out for the 2022 Games in Beijing but the option remains open for the 2024 Games in Paris.

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