Michael Pavitt

Some of the logic is questionable, but the International Olympic Committee have made the right call when cooling their flirtation with esports.

Cards on the table, I do not think esports should be considered a sport and believe giving it the same platform as traditional sports would be misguided. I wrote after the Olympic Summit last year that the Olympic Movement needs to learn from esports, rather than make it a sport.

To an extent, I think this year’s Olympic Summit declaration has achieved this. The call for International Federations to continue to explore collaborations with the esports industry makes sense - although the declaration came with a few caveats regarding the difference between esports and egames. I am still not entirely sure that the IOC have learnt about why the esports industry is developing at such a rapid rate and how they can learn lessons to apply to the Olympic Games and International Federations.

The communique issued yesterday came as no surprise, having seen IOC President Thomas Bach field questions regarding esports over the last couple of months.

Much of what the German has said about esports recently has made sense.

Speaking at the Smart Cities and Sport Summit in October, Bach noted the challenge for the Olympic Movement in finding an "esports community" whom they could partner with. He also highlighted the difficulty there would be in adding events to an Olympic programme in advance, with the popularity of "esports/egames" not necessarily assured.

"We were told at the Esports Forum that what we saw would have disappeared in five, maximum 10 years," he said. "Because then virtual reality and augmented reality will take over. This means if we took something like this in the Olympic programme, and it then becomes VR and AR, they might say 'this is what my grandfather was playing'”.

Minus the grandfather gag, the Olympic Summit declaration largely repeated Bach’s concerns over this particular aspect.

IOC President Thomas Bach has previously spoken with caution over esports ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach has previously spoken with caution over esports ©Getty Images

The IOC President, in my view, has often seemed a reluctant champion of increasing ties between the Olympic Movement and esports. 

I tend to think his insistence on there being a red line over violent content has been something of a red herring, considering the number of combat sports on the Olympic programme.

There are a few other oddities of the Olympic Summit statement.

For instance, there is the assertion that while they have agreed competitive gaming "entails physical activity which can be compared to that required in more traditional sports", they have noted this is not necessarily be the case for leisure electronic gaming. Given that only a certain number of people are going to reach the top level, surely the remainder are going to be considered less active. 

Despite this, the concerns cited over violence and the separation esports and egaming, has shown Bach’s caution towards esports.

This caution has been reinforced by Bach’s repeated assertions that discussions over esports potential inclusion at the Games would be "one for my successor". 

Many had thought that a contender to succeed Bach would be Patrick Baumann, prior to his unexpected death in October. As noted yesterday, the President of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) and the IOC member had appeared one of the most enthusiastic officials when it came to esports.

From a distance, the Esports Forum earlier this year seemed to be a GAISF and Baumann event, rather than an IOC and Bach one.

The acknowledgement in the declaration that the "sports movement is in competition with the esports/egames industry for the leisure time of young people" seems the basis for future collaboration.

Patrick Baumann had seemed keener on the prospect of esports ©IOC
Patrick Baumann had seemed keener on the prospect of esports ©IOC

The IOC appear to have deduced that they need to be involved in some way, but that way is not including esports on the Olympic programme.

It would come as no surprise, however, if there is greater collaboration between the IOC and esports surrounding the Olympics, with a potentially less formal relationship being developed. IOC TOP sponsors Intel held an esports competition prior to this year's Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and it would seem a fairly good bet that this is a model the IOC would be keen to repeat and potentially expand upon.

Similar efforts would clearly link themselves to the Olympic Games, could potentially be arranged at shorter notice and appease some of the traditionalists who are sceptical about esports potential inclusion as a medal event.

When the Olympic Summit statement spoke of "accelerated cooperation" with sports simulation games, surely this is what they meant. Development of events, similar to the existing FIFA eWorld Cup, also looks likely.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the statement was the Summit’s encouragement for International Federations to ensure they "gain or retain appropriate control over the electronic/virtual versions of their sports".

While many, myself included, will have rolled their eyes at the statement that the esports industry is "commercially driven, while on the other hand the sports movement is values-based", the statement highlights the Olympic Movement’s need to have control.

Take for instance, the IOC’s recent assertions about their "European Sports Model" coming under attack from commercial enterprises, with FINA's dispute with the International Swimming League a clear example.

The Olympic Summit approved accelerated cooperation with simulation sports ©Getty Images
The Olympic Summit approved accelerated cooperation with simulation sports ©Getty Images

One wonders whether their comments about the esports, rather than denigrating the industry, were an extension of their fears in this respect.

Control is is something they have with International Federations - see the hoops set out for the governing bodies of boxing and weightlifting to jump through to keep their place on the Olympic programme. 

However, it is something they would not have with esports, where they would have to deal with publishers of games, rather than having an International Federation.

The Olympic Summit declaration, quite clearly, will not end discussions over the Olympic Movement's relationship with esports.

Future inclusion at the Games should still not be ruled out, but at this stage it seems a considerable way in the distance.

The "accelerated collaboration" touted with simulation games looks set to provide the intrigue for now, as the IOC looks to tap into the industry, yet not fully immerse itself.