The 2024 Olympics in Paris have sparked some surprising conversation: Should video games be added to the Olympics, a typically-brawny event that celebrates the world's best athletes?
Back in August, a member of the Paris bid committee said he would speak to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about including esports, competitive video games, as an Olympic medal sport. He, like many people right now, sees the numbers at which young people are flocking to esports and wonders if there are bridges to be built between that growing audience and the Olympic Games.
This followed the news that esports will be a medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in China (an event recognized by the IOC). And as Quartz notes, medals have been awarded for video games at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games for a decade already.
I know what you're thinking, because I've heard it before: "Video games are not a sport." I disagree with you. (Heck, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban disagrees, too.)
We don't need to start fighting with each other quite yet, though. The IOC president has already expressed skepticism about including esports in the Olympics, and there are legitimate problems that should be addressed before video games can really shine on this global, mainstream stage.
But esports deserve to be a part of the Olympic conversation, and I think it's only a matter of time before they are accepted.
What is a sport, anyway?
Most definitions of the term focus on two things: competition and physical exertion. That makes including football and hockey easy, but other cases cause a lot of arguments.
Is dancing a sport, for example? There is little doubt that it is physically demanding (well, unless you're me, in which case "dancing" just means swaying back and forth a bit), but it's not always seen as competitive, outside of, you know, dance competitions.
On the other end of the spectrum, how much "physical exertion" is required to qualify as a sport? Golf is generally agreed to be a sport, but you don't exactly need to be a body builder to play it. Motorsports, similarly, require quick thinking and mental dexterity, but we're not exactly impressed with what the bodies of drivers are doing.
Shooting is an Olympic sport. It requires plenty of skill, yes, but is it physically demanding enough?
Maybe we should talk about equestrian sports, where I would argue that the horses are doing more of the work than the human riders are.
Fishing, curling, cheerleading, bowling, archery, chess, sailing ... We can have (and have had) arguments about so many so-called sports.
Many of today's most popular esports are team-based competitions that are mentally exhausting, require lightning-quick reflexes and demand good communication. The top esports players in the world have fitness regimens and work with nutritionists to make sure they stay in peak form before a competition.
You know, like Olympians.
According to Olympic.org, "The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." Nothing in that statement should exclude competitive video games from consideration. The world of esports is one with few borders, meaning that games like League of Legends and Starcraft II already bring global players together on a regular basis, which is a goal the Olympic games strive to accomplish.
Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, raised a legitimate (but not entirely accurate) concern about the inclusion of video games in the Olympics during an interview with the South China Morning Post.
"We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people," Bach said. "This doesn't match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line."
Bach is wrong to lump all video games together in that bucket, of course. Many of the world's most popular games contain no violence, explosions or killing. Rocket League, for example, is an extremely popular video game (both in and out of esports circles) that is basically supercharged soccer with cars.
His statement also seems to contradict the inclusion of many "violent" sports that are already part of the Olympics, such as boxing and shooting. A fighting game like Street Fighter V, in which players knock one another out but never kill each other, should theoretically be eligible for the Olympics if we treat all games with equal standards.
There are other hurdles that esports likely need to overcome before they're ready for the Olympics, though.
One potential problem is access. Not every country in the world is fortunate enough to have a fast and reliable connection to the internet. While Olympic esports games would almost certainly be played locally over a non-internet connection, international players could be at a disadvantage when attempting to train.
Then there's a controversial one: names. Most esports players are more known for their handles -- names like Dendi, Hungrybox and Rapha -- than their real names. I believe esports players will need to use their full names to help legitimize the sport, though many value using an alias.
Esports also don't have a single governing body that can work with an organization like the IOC. Some of this is due to the nature of their games' existence: Competitive video games are created and owned by different developers/publishers. The IOC might be able to talk to video game company Riot Games about League of Legends, but they would have to have a different conversation with developer Psyonix about Rocket League.
Bach acknowledged this, saying, "These discussions are going on. It will still take some time because this industry is now shaping itself. It's a successful industry, but it is not yet really established in an organisational way. ... You have to have somebody who is guaranteeing you that these athletes doing video sports games are not doped, that they are following technical rules, that they are respecting each other."
But these issues can and should be solved. There is no evidence that the growth of esports is slowing down, while Olympic Games viewership is reportedly declining. It would benefit everybody involved to join forces. Then, those of you who only ever watch the Cowboys can understand how exciting high-level video game competitions can be.