Every two years, the world’s best athletes gather to compete in either the summer or winter Olympic games. Countless sports are represented and athletes of all ages and nationalities are welcome to compete.
So, how is it that a multi-billion dollar industry is nowhere to be found? While the popularity of esports is rising at an unprecedented level, professional gamers are nowhere to be found at the Olympics.
Some argue that this needs to change. In fact, the growing popularity of esports could be the exact thing that the Olympics need to regain some of their previous luster and draw in young viewers. Still, many challenges lie in the way.
COVID-19 is Opening Eyes
Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the international competition has only been canceled four times. The first three cancellations were due to World War I and II. The fourth happened this year when the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed until next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the coronavirus wiped out any chance of hosting the games this year, it has sparked even more interest in esports. With nothing else to do besides staying home and practicing social distancing, countless people have started watching esports competitions. Since there are no traditional sports being aired, major networks like ESPN and Fox are showing live video game tournaments.
Meanwhile, Twitch grew by more than 50 percent by April—around the time the virus reached its original peak. It is responsible for more than 1.645 billion hours watched per month.
League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) Commissioner Christopher Greeley said, “This is a time where our fans need something to watch, need something to entertain them, need something to distract them from the things that are going on around them, even if it’s just for a short time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is proving that esports isn’t just a trend for nerdy gamers. Rather, it is a massive industry that is only starting to tap into its potential.
A Marketing Perspective
Times are changing for the Olympics. What was once a can’t-miss series of televised sports now fades in popularity every four years. Viewership in the United States continues to decline with every iteration of the games.
Those who are sticking around to watch aren’t getting any younger. Only one professional sport has seen the average age of its viewership come down in the past decade—women’s tennis. Even so, the average age of home spectators for the sport is 55 years old. It goes without saying that other sports have even older spectators.
Comparatively, esports tend to have an average viewership of around 26 years old. That isn’t a surprising statistic. However, it is a valuable one.
For marketers, the ability to serve ads to a much younger audience is worth more than gold. If the Olympics added esports, its average viewing age would drop, thus making it once again the pinnacle of televised entertainment.
Violence is an IOC Issue
Since their inception, the Olympic games have symbolized unity, respect, and peace through sports. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ensures that the games stay true to those traditions.
Thinking about many of today’s leading esports, it’s obvious that there is a major problem. The most successful esports games—titles like “Fortnite,” “CS: GO,” and “League of Legends”—all feature a combat or violence component. The IOC isn’t fond of including this type of game to its roster of events.
That’s an understandable concern. After all, the rest of the events in the games are appropriate for viewers of any age. They also don’t feature controversial things like pitting a team of special forces soldiers against a team of terrorists.
As an alternative, the IOC wants to focus on games that are related to actual sports. Think titles like “NBA 2K” and “Madden.”
In its 2019 8th Olympic Summit notes, the IOC said, “With regard to electronic games simulating sports, the Summit sees great potential for cooperation and incorporating them into the sports movement.”
While that sounds good in theory, sports games aren’t exactly topping the esports charts. That could change if they were integrated into the Olympics, but it isn’t likely.
Before esports could possibly make an Olympic debut, there are a lot of details that need to be worked out. For one, what games would be included? It’s easy to throw around the umbrella term “esports” while forgetting that there are countless titles being played at a professional level.
The IOC would need to be very specific about which games would be played at the Olympics. Moreover, the rules for how to include a new title will need to be outlined with utter clarity. Since developers release new games every year, it could be that no two Olympics would host the same esports competitions.
Meanwhile, since the intellectual property of each individual game belongs to its developer, the IOC wouldn’t have much control over how esports events fit into the greater competition. That’s a rather nitpicky issue, but it would need to be worked out.
Who Needs Who?
Ultimately, the question boils down to who needs who more. For the world of esports, things are looking bright. Revenue, viewership, and prize pools have never looked better. In addition, as more young adults are raised in a culture where video games are the norm, the world’s player pool is getting even more talented.
Sadly, the Olympics aren’t in a stellar position. With falling ratings, a lack of interest from young people, and a feeling of being stagnant, there’s a lot to lose. On the surface, that makes it seem like the games have much more to gain by adopting esports than vice versa.
However, both parties have something to offer. One of the biggest problems with esports right now is that they aren’t being monetized well. Even major competitions often fail to make the most of their massive viewership. By contrast, the Olympics do an excellent job of making money from every viewer. Being integrated into the games could help the esports industry figure out how to best monetize itself before it hits its peak popularity.
While there’s no clear indication that esports will be added to the Olympics anytime soon, there is hope. Prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics being canceled, Intel planned to host a massive esports tournament called the Intel World Open as a lead-up to the games. It would have featured a prize pool of $500,000 for players competing in “Rocket League” and “Street Fighter V.”
The event, which has the blessing of the IOC, will now take place in 2021 with the Tokyo Games. Although esports still aren’t technically part of the Olympics, it’s a step in the right direction.