Michael Pavitt

"I think it is not fair that a community so vast, so rich, dynamic in culture and friendship, cannot be given the same level of respect afforded to any other human walking down the street," International Esports Federation (IESF) President Vlad Marinescu says at the conclusion of the World Championship Finals in Eilat.

The week-long event in Israel had begun with Marinescu drawing comparisons between esports and traditional sports, with the American urging players to use their profile to encourage others to live healthy lifestyles and seek friendship with people from other cultures.

"Their objective is to be good role models and educators," Marinescu says. "They are working really hard to be at the top level, they have a good message and that message can be amplified a lot better than other sports.

"They have a huge following around the world thanks to technology, thanks to Twitch and streaming, influencers around the world. The ability of an esports athlete to live a happy and healthy life, to consume certain products from a sponsorship side is greatly multiplied compared to traditional sport athletes who cannot get their message across.

"How can you not give an esports athlete the same respect as you give a traditional sport athlete. Do they have less passion? Are they less human? Do they give less dedication? It is a human question.

"To be an esports athlete at this level, it is a lot of energy, passion, dedication, hard work and resilience to be the best. You are talking about four to five hours of training every day, plus gym, plus nutrition, plus psychology. Anything you would expect of any other athlete."

The IESF is keen to stress that the governing body is working to deliver rounded individuals, attempting to push back against the traditional narrative around esports players. While seeking to deliver fun and competitive events for players, the organisation believes it has a responsibility to provide support to the players as well.

The World Championship is seen as one way of supporting players, with the event seen as offering a structure for players to move up the ladder from the lower levels to open up opportunities for contracts within the professional ranks.

IESF secretary general Boban Totovski points to the professional esports tours, run by game publishers, which he says typically feature a small number of contracted players who play each event. This is viewed as prohibitive to players from smaller markets.

IESF President Vlad Marinescu has called for greater recognition for esports players ©IESF
IESF President Vlad Marinescu has called for greater recognition for esports players ©IESF

The World Championship is seen as offering a route in, with an example used of players from the top tours being stunned when an Iranian player emerged and swept aside competition at a recent edition of the event.

Equally the IESF notes that like traditional sport, the number of players who reach and reap the rewards of the top level are limited. Even professional careers are short, with a limited number of players over the age of 30, due to the reactions required. Some suggest the cut-off age is younger than that.

The IESF expects to unveil a series of initiatives in the future to assist players to transition, as the governing body develops further.

"The professional side and what we are doing is different," Totovski says. "I think less than five per cent make it, so what about the other 95 per cent. We do not throw them to the wolves, we take them in, embrace them, they play, compete and learn through the IESF and grow.

"I think over 90 per cent of the gamers end up working in gaming or IT. It gives them skills, knowledge, experience.

"Esports help your problem-solving skills and you think a lot about strategy. These are skills than really helps people get work."

Totovski suggests this is also a reason for Governments to take esports increasingly seriously, with the official saying he has spent the past 16 years attempting to highlight the importance of recognising esports akin to traditional sports.

Recognition would open up Government funding opportunities for National Federations, which is viewed as potentially boosting the ability to enhance education and deliver work opportunities for players.

Regulating the industry has also been viewed as key to protecting players, with one National Federation suggesting this could help to tackle issues such as racism and other online abuse. Ensuring a structure is in place would help to provide opportunities to address behaviour and ensure social values are enforced.

The IESF says it wants to provide opportunities for players and support their future plans ©IESF
The IESF says it wants to provide opportunities for players and support their future plans ©IESF

"It needs to be regulated and it needs to be responsible," Totovski says when discussing recognition of esports. "You can make sure those [who] are professionals are supported by the Government. This would ensure you do not force them to play for 12, 16 hours per day.

"For instance, Team Sweden have five hours practice, one-hour physical activity, psychology and education. Copy, paste this around the world.

"There is an ecosystem that is not being monitored at all. Our point is to be there to help. We have knowledge, we have the Governments and a way to help them be their extended arm in way."

The role as a development body and regulator is one of the reasons the IESF believes an International Federation is required, in response to suggestions the industry can cope without one.

The IESF believes however that it does not require two, with the establishment of the Global Esports Federation (GEF) in 2019 viewed by Totovski as confusing the ecosystem and the Governments.

"I do not see the benefit as the only thing it does is it disrupts the market," Totovski says. "Now when we have a member and the GEF has a member in that country, they both go to the Governments and they say: 'Wait there are two international bodies, I am not recognising you, go fix your backyard first and come back to me.'"

Marinescu offered a stronger critique of the GEF, with the American questioning what the rival organisation is bringing to the table, who it is representing and what its vision is for the future.

"For me, that has not been clear," he says.

Despite this, Totovski says the IESF wants to sit down with the GEF in the near future. The Macedonian official admits it is impossible for the two organisations not to communicate.

It is a similar story with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The question of Olympic recognition has repeatedly been raised. The IESF says it has a respect for the IOC’s role and growing shift in attitude towards esports, but there is caution from esports players about whether they want to be part of the Olympic Movement.

"We are not sure if we should be esports at the Olympics and vice-versa," Totovski says. "Esports is community-driven and that is its biggest power. We are not sure the community wants it.

"I think 60 to 70 per cent are not [in favour] as what they are seeing is the IOC as the big bad father, who is going to tell them to go to bed at seven. You cannot help make the community understand better than through the IESF, because we are building trust in the community, slowly."

The IESF has sought to underline a distinction between esports and virtual sporting events ©IESF
The IESF has sought to underline a distinction between esports and virtual sporting events ©IESF

The IOC has softened its approach to esports in recent years with the organisation recently expressing a desire to "encourage the development of virtual sports and further engage with video gaming communities."

It is suggested that the IOC could use the "growing popularity of virtual sport" as a means for growing the Olympic Movement and its relationship with young people. The Olympic Virtual Series was seen as a move from the IOC to dip its toes into the water, although the IESF stresses a distinction between virtual sport and esports.

Totovski immediately agreeing that the IOC has misunderstood the esports community to date.

"Yes. I am sure, I am positive," Totovski says. "Olympic Virtual Series is a project that had certain viewership, we don’t know it but not so big. That is not esports, that is maybe digital sport or virtual sport.

"This is the biggest problem, the definition of esports. Everybody has their own definition.

"Some are saying cycling is esports, but if you on a bicycle physically, you are a cyclist using digital equipment to perform your own sport. When a gamer plays, they use a digital controller to play a game on the computer.

"The approach is different. This is what helps determine if it is esports or digital sport, virtual probably too when virtual reality is out."

The IESF can see the merit of closer ties with the Olympic Movement as it seeks to achieve many of its goals, such as recognition from Governments and supporting players.

This is reflected by efforts to be recognised by the potentially doomed Global Association of International Sports Federations, as well as the pursuit of involvement at Continental Games.

"Everybody needs the IOC, because the IOC has all the knowledge, experience and funding," Totovski says. "The IOC has a lot of people who can help us, legally, with development and recognition.

"I think about 45 NOCs [National Olympic Committees] recognise the federations in their countries. If we want the others to do it, it takes only one letter from the IOC.

"Those people will immediately get Government funding, recognition from the government. They would be respected as a proper organisation and go to a sponsor, and they will have trust in you.

"It is a big machine and a slow-moving process."