Daniel Etchells ©ITG

It has been claimed that a new chapter will open for the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games (AIMAG) when esports makes its debut as a demonstration sport here at Ashgabat 2017.

While that may be the case, one could possibly argue it goes far beyond that. Perhaps it marks a new chapter for sport as we know it.

Considered by many to be the fastest-growing sport in the world, esports at Ashgabat 2017 features a slew of individuals and teams who organisers argue have "honed their strategising, decision-making and hand-eye coordination to such an elite form as to be considered athletes on par with the more 'traditional' sporting heroes" of the Games.

Make of that what you will.

For me, the statement is a prime example of trying to justify esports as a sport through references to attributes that in the majority of cases come completely naturally to any athlete at the top of their respective sport. Their respective real sport.

A total of 11 nations will compete in esports at Ashgabat 2017 with Afghanistan, China, Iran, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Laos, Mongolia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and host nation Turkmenistan all fielding competitors.

Action is due to get underway tomorrow and runs through to Wednesday (September 27), which is the final day of Ashgabat 2017.

It will be made up of competitions in some of the most popular and challenging games currently contested in the world, including Defence of the Ancients 2, a multiplayer online battle arena video game.

Strategy card game Hearthstone, StarCraft II - a real-time strategy game - and The King of Fighters XIV are also on the programme.

E-sports is considered by many as the fastest-growing sport in the world ©Ashgabat 2017
E-sports is considered by many as the fastest-growing sport in the world ©Ashgabat 2017

In-game IDs such as "Teehee", "xEunji", and "Pingfanzhilu" - representing The Philippines' John Linuel Abanto, Laos' Nanthanakone Vongxay, and China's Liu Shuda respectively - are unlikely to be household names among "traditional" sports fans.

But to the millions of esports followers around the world, the trio of top players are, according to Ashgabat 2017, as "respected and idolised as any major league athlete".

I cannot say I am convinced.

Last week, Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah warned that the growth in popularity of esports cannot be ignored and needs to be accommodated to help keep the world's youth engaged.

The OCA and Alisports - a division of International Olympic Committee (IOC) TOP Sponsor Alibaba - announced a strategic partnership in April to organise and promote the Ashgabat 2017 esports demonstration event, together with Sina Corporation and Yunfeng Capital in Shanghai.

Under the terms of the deal, a demonstration event is also scheduled to take place at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesian cities Jakarta and Palembang.

This is with the view to esports becoming a full medal event at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou in China.

Two years later, Paris will play host to the Olympic Games and what of the likelihood of esports featuring at the Games in some capacity?

Sheikh Ahmad insisted the immediate priority is for the International e-Sports Federation (IESF) to achieve IOC recognition.

His view has been reiterated by Kenneth Fok, who targeted IOC recognition following his election on Tuesday (September 19) as the President of the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF).

Kenneth Fok targeted International Olympic Committee recognition for esports following his election as the President of the sport's Asian governing body ©OCA
Kenneth Fok targeted International Olympic Committee recognition for esports following his election as the President of the sport's Asian governing body ©OCA

Fok assumed the position as the new head of the AESF during the continental organisation's General Assembly at the Hotel "Sport" here in Turkmenistan’s capital.

The 38-year-old, who replaced the AESF's first and only previous President, Natalya Sipovich of Kazakhstan, is not getting ahead of himself though.

Despite the popularity esports is enjoying, Fok said the organisational landscape was uneven.

In some nations, a number of esport associations are organising competitions in particular sectors.

Other countries still have no e-sport associations at all.

"We need national teams, and we need NOCs (National Olympic Committees) to recognise the national esports associations if we want to enter the Olympic family," Fok said.

Amid the debate about whether esports should be classed as a sport or not, Fok stated he will not hide behind what he described as the "white elephant".

"Of course, there is a debate on whether esports is good," he said.

"I mean this is the thing we have to address face on."

As a relatively new sport, most doctors and medical professionals working with esports athletes are still studying the potential health problems related to it.

In a recent article, online news site Rappler points out some of the more common health concerns and injuries that come with being an esport athlete.

Among them is carpal tunnel syndrome - a medical condition due to compression of the median nerve as it travels through the wrist at the carpal tunnel - and wrist injuries due to repetitive motion.

Mental fatigue and early burnout and poor nutrition and lack of exercise are also identified, while one of the more extreme risks listed is that of incurring a collapsed lung due to poor posture and an inactive lifestyle.

OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah has warned that the growth in popularity of esports cannot be ignored ©Minjae Kim/Facebook
OCA President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah has warned that the growth in popularity of esports cannot be ignored ©Minjae Kim/Facebook

When giving a press conference last week, Fok said the question on the AESF’s lips is "how do we promote esports as helping them to participate in sport in a healthy and positive manner?".

If the health concerns and injuries cited by Rappler are to be believed (it is difficult to see how they cannot be in most cases), it would appear the AESF has a big job on its hands.

Despite the arguments against esports, it is widely believed that if the IESF does achieve the IOC recognition it craves, things could develop very quickly.

It may seem premature to be talking about esports’ potential to feature at Paris 2024 at this stage, but having already secured its place at a leading continental event, in the form of the Asian Games in 2022, the only way is up surely.

With participation numbers pretty much endless, IOC recognition for the IESF could be a real game changer for sport as a whole.

The worry is that this could come at the expense of a considerable proportion of the world’s youth's health, both in the present and the future.

As a youngster, I enjoyed playing "actual" football just as much as I enjoyed playing my friends on Pro Evolution Soccer in the days of the PlayStation 2 - all gathered round one, yes one, single screen - and FIFA online on the PlayStation 3.

I, like many others, fear the balance could tip even more towards the latter past-time if the expected growth of esports materialises.