Nancy Gillen

Tucked away at the back of the Arena City shopping centre here is the Dinamo Minsk Fan House, a social space normally reserved for supporters of the Belarusian capital’s ice hockey team.

Today the venue was used to host an event included on the Minsk 2019 European Games cultural programme. It was not an exhibition on Belarusian culture or Soviet-era sporting relics, however, which seem to make up the majority of the programme. Instead, eight esports players were battling it out on FIFA 19, the popular football simulation video game.

Several matches were taking place at once when I arrived, but one had been selected to be broadcast on the vast TV screen dominating the room. There were even two commentators at the side of the room, sitting behind a desk adorned with the Minsk 2019 branding, while remarking on the virtual action unfolding in front of them.

This is esports' latest foray into the sporting world, having made an appearance at the Asian Games last August. There it was a demonstration sport with medals up for grabs, although these were not counted in the official tally.

It was only a side event here, much like it will be at the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympics. At the most recent International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission for the Games, Organising Committee President Tony Estanguet confirmed that esports would feature alongside sporting action. Sailing, rowing and cycling are set to be involved and it was hinted that more sports are interested. For Estanguet, esports is a way of increasing public engagement and offering spectators a unique experience.

A FIFA 19 tournament was hosted at Dinamo Minsk Fan House as part of the Minsk 2019 European Games cultural programme ©ITG
A FIFA 19 tournament was hosted at Dinamo Minsk Fan House as part of the Minsk 2019 European Games cultural programme ©ITG

That is presuming, of course, that esports can pull in a crowd while the world’s best athletes are competing in the same vicinity. It certainly seemed like it could not do so when some of Europe’s finest were around, anyway.

Attendance at the Fan House today was sparse. A member of the Belarusian Esports Federation, the organisers of the event, admitted to me that the majority of the 40-odd people in the room were friends and family. Compare this to the 12,000 people who flocked to Minsk Arena, situated just across the road, to watch acrobatic and rhythmic gymnastics.

Admittedly it is unfair to compare the attendance at the Fan House to that at official sporting venues, especially due to the excellent promotion of the European Games across the city. The esports event was advertised however, and had even been reported by BelTA, Belarus’s official state news agency.

As such, this suggests that maybe there is a lack of interest in esports when it is held side by side with an actual sporting event. There is no doubt that esports is extremely popular. Last year, Newzoo produced a global esports market report, claiming that there were 215 million occasional esports viewers and 165 million enthusiasts around the world. This produced a total audience size of 380 million. They also predicted that in 2021, this audience would grow to 557 million.

The event even featured two commentators, who did their best to ramp up the atmosphere ©ITG
The event even featured two commentators, who did their best to ramp up the atmosphere ©ITG

Esports events are incredibly successful in their own right and fans have constant access to glamorous and exhilarating tournaments. Today’s event was tepid in comparison, with a small prize fund of $2,000 (£1,570/ €1,755) split between the four best players.

This is because esports is not the main attraction at a sporting event and never will be. The spotlight will always be on the official sports taking place, especially at an Olympic or Paralympic Games.

This does beg the question as to whether esports fans will even bother with a competition that will probably be relegated to a backroom while Olympic athletes take centre stage. The excitement of an esports event will likely be repressed by IOC regulations as well. The IOC are not impressed with esports involving violence, for instance, with such games sure to be discarded at any event associated with the organisation.

Esports will not appear on the Olympic programme any time soon, that is certain. Instead it will continue to be a side event, as it was at the European Games here. Whether this kind of format will attract the desired level of fans and spectators is yet to be seen. Today’s event suggests that it will not.