Will an e-sports athlete one day grin at us from a Wheaties box, brandishing the Olympic gold medal in StarCraft-ing? A key step came last month, when the Olympic world’s most traditional and influential sports organization—the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)—gave e-sports a thumbs-up via a new cross-promotional deal with the South Korea-based International e-Sports Federation (IeSF).
The deal “will definitely enhance the status of IeSF within the international sports society” and its effort to have “e-Sports…recognized as official sports,” IeSF President Byung Hun Jun said in a press release.
Largely driven by e-sports-mad Koreans, the quest to get gaming into the Games has inched along for years through the byzantine maze of Olympics-affiliated sports councils and agencies. The goals are pretty simple: get e-sports recognized as a sport by some prestigious international body, then convince the International Olympic Committee to include them in the Games. But that means navigating the complicated rules and court politics of organizations known as conservative and elitist. From such groups, even symbolic winks and nods are a big deal to e-sports advocates.
Previous Olympic e-sports baby-steps have gotten press attention from time to time. Some were laughably token, like IeSF’s 2013 signing onto the World Anti-Doping Agency. (Don’t worry, gamers can still swig their Mountain Dew for now.) Some were semi-incestuous, like the government-backed Korea e-Sports Association getting the government-backed Korean Olympic Committee to recognize e-sports as a potential Olympic sport earlier this year.
The IAAF deal is also mostly symbolic PR puffery, but it takes e-sports beyond Olympic winks-and-nods into group-hug territory. Working through the IAAF’s “Athletics for a Better World” public service program, the deal involves IAAF offering fitness and training guides to gamers, and offering up some Olympic gold-medalists to participate in e-sports demos, possibly on Twitch. IAAF tells Paste there are no details or timeframes yet, but that’s all beside the symbolic point.
First off, look at where the deal was announced: in Sochi, Russia—host of the most recent Winter Olympics—during the annual convention of SportAccord, a mothership organization of both Olympic and non-Olympic sports associations. IeSF would dearly love the prestige of being in SportAccord and has a membership application pending.
Next, look at who the deal is with. The IAAF reps track-and-field and running sports, known collectively as “athletics”—the meat-and-potatoes of the Olympics. Those are the kind of no-frills physical sports that make many people look at e-sports joystick jockeys and say, “Yeah, that’s not a sport.” So it’s a huge deal to have an IAAF official blithely referring to e-sports as a “sport” in the press release announcing the deal.
“E-sports is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and we’re delighted to become the first governing body to partner with the IeSF,” said Nick Davies, IAAF’s deputy general secretary and communications director, in that release.
IAAF spokesman Chris Turner, in comments to Paste, took the athletics/e-sports equivalency further in describing the IeSF deal and how the sports could help each other.
“Representatives from both sports are put under immense pressure to consistently perform at the highest level on an international stage,” Turner said in an email. “More than anything, e-sports demands fitness of the mind in order for players to cope with lengthy practice sessions. As the [organization for the] number one Olympic sport, the IAAF believes that fitness of the mind is a quality that any top athlete can relate to, but we also recognize the importance of physical fitness to enhance a competitor’s mental strength.”
The positives for both sides are clear: IAAF gets access to a hip, young audience, and IeSF gets a taste of Olympic respectability. Ultimately, that could mean all-important sponsorship money for both parties and nationalist pride for IeSF-affiliated teams. That’s the e-sports-in-the-Olympics argument in a nutshell.
But this lovefest aside, the IAAF does not officially define a sport or decide which ones go into the Olympics. The big questions remain open: Will any authority accepts e-sports as real sports? Should they be in the Olympics? Should they want to be?
E-sports supporters note that gaming takes at least as much physical skill as, say, Olympic target-shooting. Detractors have their doubts about that, as well as how commercially produced videogames can be standardized as sports.
A lot of indisputable sports don’t make it into, or get kicked out of, the Games for ulterior reasons. Baseball, for example, is hoping to claw its way back in for the 2020 Olympics. On the other hand, e-sports seem to be doing better than some old-school tabletop games that are fighting for an Olympics berth. Chess is the biggest contender, with a recent half-joking proposal to use pieces made of ice to qualify for the Winter Olympics.
Especially since last year’s Sochi Games, the Olympics themselves have lost some luster and drawn increasing protests for corruption, waste of public funds and human-rights abuses. There’s still plenty of Olympic glamor to attract an ambitious new sport, but there also have been attempts to create alternative e-sports-centric games. The World Cyber Games was the biggest such effort, complete with gold medals and naturally based in Korea, but it went out of business last year.
To make it into the Olympics, IeSF needs the sports version of political clout. It’s the largest e-sports association yet, comprised of national organizations from 43 countries, including Russia, China and Canada. However, some other historic Olympic heavy hitters are missing from its list—the U.K., France, Germany and especially the United States.
The relative lack of interest in Olympic e-sports in the USA is strange, and not just because the makers of some of the genre’s top games are based in California. The U.S. Olympic Committee actually has a direct connection to videogames in the form of its chairman, Larry Probst, who is also board chairman at game company Electronic Arts. In December, the USOC met at EA’s headquarters to hear pitches from potential U.S. host cities for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Questioned by Paste shortly afterward about Olympics and e-sports, EA said that game company business is kept strictly separate from the USOC, which in turn did not respond at all.
Even if the USOC got on the e-sports bandwagon, however, that might not help much, since it has a historically tense relationship with the IOC. Internal politics are a minefield the IeSF must pick its way through to reach any Olympic status. In fact, at the very same Sochi meeting where the IAAF deal was announced, SportAccord’s president caused a furor by criticizing the IOC as a secretive monopoly. The IOC’s executive committee canceled an appearance, and the IAAF dropped out of SportAccord in protest. The IOC later suspended its recognition and funding of SportAccord.
If e-sports are going for the Olympic gold, IeSF has to engage in this metagaming. Gaining the IOC’s blessing for Olympics e-sports is a far-distant boss battle. Right now, the IeSF is just trying to show the right moves to convince the world that e-sports is a real player. Getting the IAAF’s props is a start. Let the games begin.
John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist who contributes regularly to Creative Loafing Atlanta and covers the U.S. 2024 Summer Olympics bid for Boston media.