June 2023 will mark an historic event in the history of eSport. The inaugural Olympics eSports Week is an official IoC event that will take place in Singapore. Qualifiers are already underway for what are expected to be the biggest events. But therein lies the great controversy.
The IoC has announced nine titles that will be contested. But the major US and global eSport games like DOTA 2, CS:GO and League of Legends, titles that fill arenas for major eSport events where top players compete for seven-figure sums, are nowhere to be seen. Even poker, a game that has exploded in online popularity and has long been mooted as an Olympic possibility, is missing.
Instead, the IOC has selected games that loosely reflect real sports – or in one case, dancing. It’s a little like the Summer Olympics deciding to focus on pickleball and backgammon, and leaving out the 100 meters and the long jump. eSports pros and fans are left feeling confused and disappointed –what on earth is going on?
Alignment with Olympic values
The IOC has faced some tough questions since announcing the line up. Why would it select a cross section of obscure mobile games, some of which have sub-two star ratings on the app stores?
An IOC representative explained that the games were selected “align with the Olympic Values”in terms of participation inclusivity, gender split and non-violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission “to unite the world in peaceful competition.”
That at least partially explains why most of the “traditional” eSports that feature guns, terrorists and kill counts are off the menu. It also suggests that by focusing on sport-themed games, the real aim here is to attract Olympics fans who might have an interest in gaming as opposed to serious eSports fans who might have an interest in the Olympics.
Poker – a special case where the debate continues
That does and doesn’t explain why poker has once again missed out. The classic card game that has achieved sport-like status through the World Series of Poker doesn’t run contrary to Olympic principles. But it is not a game that’s based on a physical sport, either.
One thing is certain, with about 120 million online poker players in the world, 60 million of whom are in the US, calls for poker’s inclusion will only get louder. The big stumbling block has always been deciding what are the rules of poker to be adopted. The invention of match poker, in which teams are faced with the same hands under the same conditions, eliminates the luck aspect that had previously caused so much anxiety to the IOC and makes the game purely skill based.
If the IOC accepts that, which seems increasingly probable, then there is a real chance of poker appearing on the main Summer Olympics agenda. The eSport Olympics, meanwhile, clearly has an agenda of its own, and it is not necessarily a bad one.
Shaping the future of eSport
The disappointment being felt among the eSports community that the eSports Olympics will not include Overwatch, League of Legends, CS:GO and the rest is understandable. But now we can see that their inclusion would have compromised core Olympic values, so on reflection, it is equally understandable.
There is a certain logic to the games that have been selected, or at least some of them, and the fact that they are all mobile games is absolutely key. It is another reflection of those core values, specifically in terms of inclusivity.
Mobile gaming is a global phenomenon. It is one that is accessible to more people than ever, particularly in developing nations thanks to the availability of affordable handsets and improved mobile coverage. Those eSport titles we mentioned might be huge in the eSport heartlands of USA, Japan, South Korea and so on, but in broad swathes of the world, PCs and game consoles are luxuries that are possessed by the affluent minority.
Choosing universally available mobile games is absolutely the right decision from an inclusivity perspective, and will only serve to broaden eSport’s popularity, and at the same time its nature. The potential market size means there is plenty of room for both types of eSport to coexist.
As for the poker fans – well, there’s always Los Angeles 2028. The poker capital of the USA might be just the place for match poker to make its Olympic debut!