Thomas Bach, 64 years old, Olympic gold in fencing in Montreal 1976, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), sat last July on the stage of the auditorium of the IOC museum in Lausanne with Jacob Lyon, aka Jake, of 21, video game professional Overwatch. They got together to talk about their things: Bach, of the games; Jake, from elite videogame competitions (eSports), and both, of what could be between those two worlds. Bach had presented the meeting as a "clash of cultures", and yet there they were, forging an understanding that aims for video games to be included in the Olympic program of the Los Angeles Games 2028.
After Lausanne, the IOC included the eSports on the agenda of four high-level appointments until the end of 2018, including that of the IOC executive committee on December 1 in Tokyo. A convinced approach, but with caution.
During the talk with Jake, Bach was friendly, but suspicious, especially with violent games (a "red line") and with the procedure. The IOC wants to pace and not feel overwhelmed. But there were reasons for them to sit together. Several were seen in the video presented by the forum: 165 million "enthusiasts" of eSports in 2018, 15.2% more than in 2017; global audience of 380 million; 52 million euros in tickets for events; 100 million in prizes. The eSports live the effervescence of an explosion, while the Games seek baits for young audiences: in Tokyo 2020 will be the first Olympic champions in skateboarding, climbing, surfing and 3×3 basketball.
In 2018, the IOC tried at least five times on its approach to eSports
The ball that ended up sitting together with Bach and Jake was shot in September 2017 by the chairman of the Paris 2024 candidacy, Tony Estanguet: "We can not say that they have nothing to do with the Olympic Games. There is time to study it. I do not want to say no from the beginning, "he said.
Now, with the Games already awarded to the French capital, an official source of the organizing committee explains another side of the interest: "Paris has invested a lot in the last four years to become the European capital of eSports. The candidacy worked with the city to see how they could collaborate in this, "he says. The Olympic program consists of 28 fixed sports to which each one is added. In Tokyo, five, up to 33. The one in Paris has not yet been closed, and in its preparation the IOC always takes into account the interests of the headquarters; because in Tokyo the karate opens and baseball returns.
The case of video games has unique peculiarities. Actually, eSports are several: you play at League of Legends, to Overwatch, to Counter Strike, to FIFA or to PES. The games are owned by the companies that created them, designed their rules and organized the tournaments. The existence of an international federation is meaningless, except as an essential procedure for Olympic recognition. Although it fits badly with the logic of eSports, an embryonic one has been created that represents some countries and has shown interest in Olympic recognition.
What is sport?
Another problem is even earlier: can eSports be considered a sport? Chess went through this scrutiny almost twenty years ago, as the journalist Leontxo García recalls: "Samaranch [entonces presidente del COI] He called me to Lausanne when the international chess federation had asked to join the IOC. He told me that he had asked the file what definition of sport they had. But they did not have any. " That day Samaranch had on his desk a report from the University of Leuven with medical evidence of physical exhaustion in chess. "In a normal person, the brain consumes 20% of the energy. In a professional, more, "says Garcia. At its next assembly, the IOC unanimously welcomed chess.
Jake provides another comparison: "Archery is in the Games, and I do not see a radical physical difference between shooting skills and those involved in eSports. I would love to see the competition to which I have dedicated my life recognized in the Games. " For the moment they will be, with medals, at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou (China).
Paris 2024 will organize an eSports event in the city around the Olympic Games
The IOC assumed in October 2017 that "they could be considered a sporting activity". His director of Sports, Kit McConnell, no longer sees the border so clear: "Many athletes are also in eSports. We do not see it as separate worlds. At the elite level, we recognize that the characteristics of eSports players reflect characteristics of Olympic athletes: concentration, reaction, team spirit, "he says. Your preparation also looks similar: professionals train eight hours a day and have physical trainers, nutritionists, physiotherapists.
However, his arrival at the Games will not be as fast as that imagined by Paris 2024. "We are not creating a route to include eSports in the Olympic program", warns McConnell; "At the end of the year, a working group will be created to see how we can collaborate."
The Paris candidacy has already assumed that there is no time to cover the bureaucratic path that eSports would include in its program, but it is looking for an accommodation. "We have an open mind. We can imagine the eSports in a fan zone, as an exhibition, in a competition organized by Paris in parallel with the Games. Or before, or after. But we clearly see that they have an option for the Games of 2028, "says a Parisian official spokesman.
"The eSports will be fine with or without the Games," says one player
In the videogame community there are also those who distrust the Olympic approach. As Ian Smith, commissioner of integrity of the ESIC, an anti-corruption body accepted by the entire industry. "The eSports do not need the Games, whose audiences are aging, the opposite of those of the eSports. In 2028, the eSports audience will be miles ahead in the most important metric: young man with time, "he says.
Jake agrees: "The eSports will be fine with or without the Olympic Games. But the experience of the IOC with action sports [BMX, skateboarding] He probably tells them that they do not want these sports to pass from them and to install themselves in their own competitive space, "he says.
At several moments of the July talk at the IOC museum, Jake, fraternizer, put the focus on competitive passion, how that connected both worlds, and remembered the connection he had felt with players from faraway places competing against them. Bach smiled pleased and, with ambiguous tone, repeated: "Welcome to the Olympic world".